Leadership

Debunking the leadership myth

‘Good’ leadership doesn’t exist: it’s all about evaluating the needs of the context.

 

Is there any such thing as an objectively ‘good leader’? Can you think of an example?

If you can, now take that example and put it into a completely different context. Does that leadership style still work?

Maybe – but maybe not. In fact, good leadership isn’t a one-size-fits-all: it depends on the demands of the situation.

For example:

  • If you’re leading a group of interns for your business, you may need to have clear boundaries and take a more ‘instructional’ style.
  • If you’re leading your leadership team, you may need to be focussed on collaboration and facilitating them sharing their expertise and insight.
  • If you’re formulating your business strategy, you need to be analytical, dispassionate and able to take advice from the experts in the areas you’re less experienced in.
  • If you’re leading yourself through a time of personal growth, you need to hold yourself accountable and be disciplined, whilst also being compassionate to your own needs and weaknesses.

“What works in one situation might be a disaster in another”

If you take a cut and dry definition of ‘good leadership’ and apply it to all of these situations, you’re likely to miss the mark.

 As with anything complex, reducing leadership to a simple formula isn’t easy, and can be unhelpful. This is because effective leadership depends on the context – what works in one situation may be a disaster in another.

There are literally hundreds of ways of breaking down leadership styles into categories: but analysing these to the nth degree is more likely to bring on paralysis than actionable insight. 

Broadly speaking, we can split leadership into three styles:

Authoritarian

  • Leader specifies deadlines, goals, methods, and tasks but tends not to get very involved with the execution of these things.
  • Leader makes decisions with very little contribution from their team.
  • Often leads to a ‘command and control’ or autocratic culture where staff become ‘switched off’ and lose a sense of self-accountability.
  • Hierarchical – power comes from above and subordinates have little autonomy.
  • Can work well when decisions need to happen quickly or timelines are tight.

Participative

  • Leader expresses their priorities and values in decision making and goal setting, but factors in opinions of their team.
  • Leader makes the final decision and often takes part in the task itself, working alongside their team.
  • Also called the ‘democratic’ style and can work well in competitive, non-crisis situations.
  • Often leads to a culture that encourages creativity while keeping control of key deliverables.

Delegative

  • Leader delegates power to subordinates and allows them to define their roles, set goals, choose their methods, and set pace of work.
  • Done well, can encourage a highly innovative and agile working culture that is able to change direction to meet a changing environment.
  • Variations of delegative leadership can be called ‘distributed leadership’, ‘servant leadership’, or ‘expert leadership’.

Situational leadership

Changing your leadership approach to suit the context sounds simple in theory, but knowing when to be assertive and authoritative and when to be supportive and enabling can be a tricky call.

The matrix below shows how each of the leadership styles might fit into certain types of situation, and when working with a certain set of people. 

Adjusting your leadership style

  • As you can see, the more stable the environment becomes, and the more experienced your subordinate is, the more you can move to delegating authority and loosening the reins. 
  • On the flip side, the more unstable the environment becomes, and the less experienced and confident your subordinate is, the more directive you may need to be.

“Above all, your leadership style should match your goals”

So, we know there’s no such thing as ‘good leadership’ that we know will work 100% of the time.

But how do we find an approach that we can use to get reliably good outcomes when we’re at the helm?

The key is being able to understand the requirements of the context, then choose a leadership style that matches your goals. These factors could include:

  • Your own tendencies and patterns as a leader
  • The expertise level and confidence of the people you’re leading
  • The difficulty or risk level of the task at hand
  • The urgency or importance of outcome
  • Exactly what you’re trying to achieve 
  • Whether this primarily a training/teaching opportunity

When you have these elements clear in your head, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about your role as the leader, and how to behave. 

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