Using the Right Leadership Style for the Situation

(Add image of Winston Churchill, Gandhi and MTK trying to blend together in a mosaic)

From Mahatma Gandhi to Winston Churchill to Martin Luther King, there are as many leadership styles as there are leaders. Fortunately, business people and psychologists have developed useful and simple ways to describe the main styles of leadership, and these can help aspiring leaders understand which styles they should use.

So, whether you manage a team at work, captain a sports team, or lead a major corporation, which approach is best?

Consciously, or subconsciously, you’ll probably use some of the leadership styles in this article at some point. Understanding these styles and their impact can help you develop your own, personal leadership style and help you become a more effective leader.

With this in mind, there are many different frameworks that have shaped our current understanding of leadership and many of these have their place, just as long as they’re used appropriately. This article looks at some of the most common frameworks and then looks at popular styles of leadership.

Leadership Theories

Researchers have developed a number of leadership theories over the years. These fall into four main groups:

1. Trait Theories – What type of person makes a good leader?

Trait theories argue that leaders share a number of common personality traits and characteristics, and that leadership emerges from these traits. Early trait theories promoted the idea that leadership is an innate, instinctive quality that you either have or don’t have. Thankfully, we’ve moved on from this approach and we’re learning more about what we can do as individuals to develop leadership qualities within ourselves and others.

What’s more, traits are external behaviors that emerge from things going on within the leader’s mind and it’s these internal beliefs and processes that are important for effective leadership.

Trait theory does, however, help us identify some qualities that are helpful when leading others and, together, these emerge as a generalized leadership style. Examples include empathy, assertiveness, good decision-making and likability. In our article Building Tomorrow’s Leaders, we discuss a series of attributes that are important for all types of leaders to develop. However, none of these traits, nor any combination of them, will guarantee success as a leader. You need more than that.

2. Behavioral theories – What does a good leader do?

Behavioral theories focus on how leaders behave. Do they dictate what needs to be done and expect cooperation? Or do they involve the team in decisions to encourage acceptance and support?

In the 1930s, Kurt Lewin developed a leadership framework based on a leader’s decision-making behavior. Lewin argued that there are three types of leaders:

  1. Autocratic leaders make decisions without consulting their teams. This is considered appropriate when decisions genuinely need to be taken quickly, when there’s no need for input and when team agreement isn’t necessary for a successful outcome
  2. Democratic leaders allow the team to provide input before making a decision, although the degree of input can vary from leader to leader. This type of style is important when team agreement matters, but it can be quite difficult to manage when there are lots of different perspectives and ideas
  3. Laissez-faire leaders don’t interfere. They allow people within the team to make many of the decisions. This works well when the team is highly capable and motivated, and when it doesn’t need close monitoring or supervision. However, this style can arise because the leader is lazy or distracted, and here, this approach can fail

Similar to Lewin’s model, the Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid helps you decide how best to lead, depending on your concern for people versus your concern for production. The model describes five different leadership styles: impoverished, country club, team leader, produce or perish or middle of the road. The descriptions of these will help you understand your own leadership habits and adapt them to meet your team’s needs.

Clearly, then, how leaders behave impacts on their effectiveness. Researchers have realized, though, that many of these leadership behaviors are appropriate at different times. So, the best leaders are those who can use many different behavioral styles and use the right style for each situation.

3. Contingency theories – How does the situation influence good leadership?

The realization that there isn’t one correct type of leader led to theories that the best leadership style is contingent on or depends on, the situation. These theories try to predict which leadership style is best in which circumstance.

When a decision is needed fast, which style is preferred? When the leader needs the full support of the team, is there a better way to lead? Should a leader be more people oriented or task oriented? These are all examples of questions that contingency leadership theories try to address.

A popular contingency-based framework is the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory, which links leadership style with the maturity of individual members of the leader’s team.

4. Power and influence theories – What is the source of the leader’s power?

Power and influence theories of leadership take an entirely different approach. They’re based on the different ways in which leaders use power and influence to get things done, and the leadership styles that emerge as a result. Perhaps the most well-known of these theories is French and Raven’s Five Forms of Power. This model distinguishes between using your position to exert power, and using your personal attributes to be powerful.

French and Raven identified three types of positional power – legitimate, reward, and coercive – and two sources of personal power – expert and referent (your personal appeal and charm). The model suggests that using personal power is the better alternative and, because Expert Power (the power that comes with being a real expert in the job) is the most legitimate of these that you should actively work on building this. Similarly, leading by example is another highly effective way to establish and sustain a positive influence with your team.

Another valid leadership style that’s supported by power and influence theories is Transactional Leadership. This approach assumes that work is done only because it is rewarded, and for no other reason, and it therefore focuses on designing tasks and reward structures. While it may not be the most appealing leadership strategy in terms of building relationships and developing a long-term motivating work environment, it does work, and it’s used in most organizations on a daily basis to get things done.

Other news