And the Best Leadership Style Is…

In our 22 years of teaching leadership, we have been asked many times, “What’s the best style of leadership?” We rarely tackle this question head on, preferring to defer the question to the participants in our programs. Over the years, we have heard participants argue for or against the merits of many different styles of leadership: Theory X and Theory Y; authoritarian; participative; situational, visionary, democratic, affiliative, pacesetting, commanding, servant leadership and laissez-faire, etc. to name a few. As participants shared their views as to what was the best type of leadership, we confidently said, “You might be right… in that situation.”

Leadership will never be an exacting science. There is no one size fits all when it comes to the right or best style of leadership. The truth is that there are many different right styles of leadership – each appropriate in a given situation.

Command and control leadership basically assumes that people need to be told what to do, and if you don’t tell them exactly how to do it, you’ll be disappointed in the results. Over the years, command and control, sometimes referred to as military management, has fallen further and further out of favor, for many reasons.

Succinctly, the whole world and, in particular, the workforce has changed. The youngest workers entering our workforce today have grown up in an egalitarian world. They were equals in their families. Their thoughts and opinions were sought. They were heard, valued and respected. In schools, they viewed their teachers as educational partners, not authority figures. They expected to fully participate in determining what they wanted to learn, and how and when they wanted to learn it.

In short, they are used to being full participants in the decision making process in most aspects of their lives. Entering into the workforce and being told what to do by a command and control leader doesn’t work for them. When baby boomers tell this generation that they must bide their time and pay their corporate dues, the usual response, (even if not verbalized) is, “I don’t think so.” In fact, their response to this type of leadership, in addition to the usual grumbling, work slow down, and dreaming up ways to work around the commander in chief, might even be to strategically plan to quietly sabotage corporate progress. It’s never been easier for workers to express their dissatisfaction via the social networks, especially those like Glassdoor, The Fit, Facebook and Twitter. Suddenly, they’ve launched a viral revolution! Just who is in control in this situation?

We find the best leaders use a variety of leadership styles to effectively motivate their team to produce results. Like chameleons, they can quickly change their style, depending on the situation at hand. This approach is often referred to as situational leadership.

For example, a strong leader may, from time to time, appropriately take a command and control approach. When safety is an issue, or a team or company is in crisis mode, this leader may be directive, quickly and specifically calling out actions that will be taken immediately. Once the crisis has been resolved, the same leader may use a participatory style of leadership, getting people together to analyze the root cause of the crisis, then, brainstorming actions to avert a similar situation in the future. This same leader, while capable of being in command, may also take a servant, or humble approach to leadership, looking for opportunities to mentor, coach and help team members grow, gain confidence and continue to progress in their careers.

So what’s the best style of leadership? To be successful, forget the taglines and buzzwords and focus on what your team needs from you, right now, in order to ensure both their collective success as a team, and the individual success of each team member. Sometimes the right style might be directive, sometimes visionary and inspirational, and other times, hands on, mentoring a floundering team member. Step back and size up the situation. What approach will best motivate your team members to work hard and align their efforts behind you and your organization’s success?

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