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How to Find the Leadership Style That Works for You

Anna Staff Management 03 Nov 2017


First-time managers have a lot on their plate. Even after that anxiety-inducing first day, the learning curve can often seem impossibly steep. 

Amongst all the introductions, paperwork and meetings, it's unlikely you'll find the time to even think about your leadership style, let alone make the effort to define it and apply it consistently.

But the sooner you can find a leadership style that works for you, the better.

In today's post, we look at the different approaches to leadership, and how to decide which to adopt. 

What works for you?

Your choice of leadership style should be determined by these three factors:

  1. Your personality.
  2. Your skills.
  3. The current situation.

You'll soon find that the third of these variables will be the biggest determinant of your management style - and the biggest determinant of your success.

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As you start your new role, you'll subconsciously establish your own leadership style. But if you don't spend the time to actively define it, you may struggle to achieve the results you want.

If you're not sure where to start, take your pick from established leadership styles.

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Autocratic or Commanding

This leadership style is exactly as it sounds - a top-down approach where the manager dictates what employees do, and how they do it.

All decisions are taken by the manager, with employees given little to no opportunity to make suggestions or act independently.

Autocratic managers run a military operation, aiming to achieve results without unnecessary distractions or dissent.

Advantages: In the short term, autocratic management gets results. It works best when there's a deadline looming, or when a team is inexperienced and in need of close supervision.

Disadvantages: If your team are highly skilled and experienced, they'll object to being told what to do. They'll lose motivation and won't stay engaged. You'll struggle with high levels of staff turnover. In the long term, the lack of opportunities for feedback will prevent you from understanding and improving inefficient processes.

Laissez-faire

This leadership style is at the other end of the spectrum to autocratic leadership: leaders let employees make most decisions themselves.

Team members are barely supervised, with the manager only stepping in to resolve disputes and provide direction when absolutely necessary.

Advantages: Laissez-faire leadership gives employees the chance to be creative and concentrate on their own projects, without needing to constantly seek the approval of their manager. Skilled, self-motivated individuals excel in this environment, which can foster high levels of engagement.

Disadvantages: Inexperienced workers may struggle to get results. Some employees may find the complete lack of structure demotivating and therefore unproductive. Projects and processes may also swerve away from what the company and the brand requires.

Democratic or Participative

Democratic leadership is the style seen most often in today's offices. It falls somewhere in the middle of laissez-faire and autocratic leadership.

Under this style, employees at all levels of the team have a say in most decisions, but the final decision is made by the manager. Managers involve everyone in the process, aiming to reach a consensus, or at least a mutual understanding of the reasons behind the decision.

Communication is open and frequent, with all employees encouraged to chip-in with suggestions and feedback.

Advantages: Giving junior employees a voice is fantastic for their engagement and motivation - and they'll be more invested in the outcome of any decisions you make together. By seeking ideas from a bigger group, you're more likely to find creative solutions to your problems.

Disadvantages: Democratic leadership isn't effective when you need to make decisions quickly. It's also reliant on everyone in the decision-making process having the know-how to back-up their opinions, which is rare. Finally, these 'democratic' discussions are often dominated by more extroverted employees. Introverted or quieter employees may struggle to get their argument across.

To recap: laissez-faire, autocratic and democratic leadership styles are chiefly defined by their approaches to communication and decision-making.

The next set of leadership styles we'll look at are related to those we've already covered, but are very different in terms of their focus, values, and implementation.

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Pacesetting

Pacesetting leaders expect the highest level of performance from the members of their team. They hold all employees (including themselves) to the same high standard, and use lofty goals as a means of motivation.

Pacesetting leaders delegate tasks to their team, but quickly take over if an employee's work isn't up to scratch. Communication is usually only one-way: from the top-down. There's rarely the chance for employees to make suggestions to their boss.

Advantages: A pacesetting leader helps fulfil the potential of a highly skilled team. This leadership style helps you reach demanding targets and get the most out of your team in a short period of team.

Disadvantages: If either you or your team are unable to reach the high standards you demand, morale will crumble. This demanding working environment isn't sustainable in the long term, due to the stress and long working hours associated with it.

Visionary

Visionary leaders rely on a very different style of motivation to pacesetters. Instead of numbers and deadlines acting as an incentive to employees, a visionary leader provides an intangible goal to work towards - a dream, a vision, a desired endpoint that lies just out of reach.

The best visionary leaders don't just motivate, they inspire. Employees share in their vision and understand how their work contributes to it.

There's no defined communication style here: some visionary leaders may be more autocratic than others.

Advantages: This leadership style motivates employees for the long term, yet gives employees the chance to be creative and flexible in how they reach the end goal. Visionary leaders are exciting to work under, as employees feel they're a valuable part of bigger movement.

Disadvantages: If your vision is implausible, the team won't be inspired by your grand speeches - they'll think you're out of touch, or just deluded! Also, visionary leaders focus on the big picture rather than the details, so if your team can't fill in the gaps themselves, they'll struggle to be productive.

Coaching

This leadership style focuses on employee development. The leader takes the role of a coach, making it their mission to pass on their own skills to employees.

Coaching leaders genuinely want their team to develop and improve. Communication tends to be open and two-way, as employees are encouraged to ask questions and seek advice from their manager, and their peers.

Short-term failure isn't a problem, if employees learn from their mistakes. Long-term performance boosts are always prioritised over the immediate requirements of the business.

Advantages: Many employees crave the opportunity to learn more skills in a supportive environment, and coaching leaders provide just that. This leadership style is fantastic for building long-term engagement and motivation, not to mention boosting the productivity of your team.

Disadvantages: Coaching leadership styles aren't popular because business environments rarely allow the luxury of sacrificing short-term results in favour of long-term outcomes. And if your team aren't interested in tackling their weaknesses and learning new skills, all your efforts will be wasted.

Affiliative

affiliative3.pngAffiliative leadership is similar to coaching leadership: people are more important than short-term success. But instead of building skills, the focus of affiliative leadership is to build relationships.

These leaders foster positive relationships with all their team members, and encourage team members to build strong bonds with their colleagues. This approach is particularly effective during times of stress, when morale is low and employees tend to turn on each other to look for someone to blame.

Advantages: Employees are more likely to stay in their current role if they enjoy working with their colleagues and their manager. Applying this leadership style in a difficult situation means that your team will be far more loyal and engaged once you make it through to the other side.

Disadvantages: The relentless focus on positivity means that negative outcomes and poor performance are ignored. This can lead to lower productivity if you rely on this leadership style beyond the short-term.

Consistency vs. flexibility

As we've shown, there isn't a leadership style that works in every situation. While there might be a type of leadership that you're most drawn to due to your skills and personality, it's important not to stubbornly adhere to the same style at all times.

Of course, employees prefer working under managers who manage consistently, but you must be willing to adapt your approach when circumstances demand it.

For example, you may prefer a democratic approach to leadership. But if your manager sets ambitious targets for your team that you can't achieve under your current set-up, you'll have to make some quick changes in an attempt to reach your goal. There probably won't be time to go through your usual democratic decision-making process. You may need to adopt a pacesetting or even autocratic leadership style in the short term.

To maintain some degree of consistency, never flip from one style to its polar opposite - say, from a laissez-faire style to autocratic, or from affiliative to pacesetting.

It'll take time to master multiple leadership styles, but this flexibility will certainly come in handy as you manage different teams across the course of your career.

Final thoughts

Understanding your leadership style is crucial if you're to improve and develop as a manager, because different teams will require different management styles to reach their full potential. 

Developing your leadership skills is an ongoing process - and even the most exceptional leaders will never be able to master every single leadership style. But by gradually building your skillset and learning how and when to apply different leadership approaches, you'll soon make strides in the world of management!

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