Sometimes it can be difficult to decide which leadership style you should adopt with your team. There really is no one-size fits all leadership style which will be appropriate all the time.
This is why it’s so important to be able to adapt our style to suit the circumstance. What works well for one team member or situation might not work well for another.
In this article, I’ll outline 3 basic leadership styles that you can use, as well as the best situations to use them in.
I’ll look at the benefits and drawbacks of each, and hopefully you can use this to decide what will work best in your work situation. The good news is, you can mix and match these styles to achieve the outcome you need.
Why Can’t We Just Use One Leadership Style?
As with many things in life, there is usually not just one way to approach a situation. If there was, it would be easy!
In leadership, we need to deal with team members who all have unique personalities, strengths and weaknesses. Our people can be experienced campaigners, total newbies or anything in between. Some of our people will be highly skilled, while others will be starting from scratch.
And then, we need to cater for different circumstances that arise. Urgent issues will occur that need quick action. Then there will be times when we can plan, be more methodical and take our time.
It’s this mix of circumstances and people factors that mean we need to be able to adapt our leadership style from time to time. This will enable us to hopefully get the best out of our people and have them feeling good about following us at the same time.
Now, let’s look at three different leadership styles and when they might be appropriate.
The Directive Leadership Style
The first style to cover is Directive Leadership.
In summary, this style is all about telling people what to do. You direct traffic, you assign tasks, you tell people what to do, how and when to do it.
Sometimes I’ll refer to this leadership style as “old-school” leadership, but it still has its place today.
Leadership used to be about being directive or autocratic all the time. You couldn’t criticise the boss, because you’d be fired or get in trouble. You simply followed orders.
Now things have changed and more inclusive, collaborative leadership styles are generally favoured in many businesses.
When to Use Directive Leadership
The reason directive leadership is still useful is that it’s quick and simple. You just tell people what to do and they go and do it.
No long conversations, no back and forth, just assignment followed by action. This makes directive leadership useful in time-critical situations, when there is an urgent issue to be solved.
Perhaps a customer is screaming down the phone because your product isn’t doing what it should. Or maybe your entire building has lost power and you need to get it back on. It could be that the person who was going to run your big workshop has called in sick, and you need to work out how to cope without them.
Directive leadership is also very useful when there are constraints limiting what you can do in a given situation. For example, you may need to do things a certain way to comply with important legislation. In these situations, there isn’t as much room for discussion.
Directive leadership can also be helpful when your team members are unskilled. If they don’t know how to do a job, but you do, then you can show and tell them how it’s done. Providing autonomy is great, but not when somebody doesn’t know what they are doing!
In all these cases, directive leadership certainly has its advantages.
Drawbacks of Directive Leadership
The main issue with directive leadership is that when you’re telling people what to do, you’re not giving them a choice, or asking for their input.
This can frustrate and demotivate people who want to have their voices heard, who want to be part of coming up with the solution.
If you lead a very experienced team, they’re likely to be unhappy at being told what to do, because you aren’t respecting what they bring to the table.
Of course, you are the boss.
So in theory, you can tell people to do whatever you want (within reason). But you may see some collateral damage from this approach, when people start to see you as a dictator who thinks they know best.
Another problem with directive leadership is that it assumes that you know the right way to do things. You may push forward with actions that could be sub-optimal. Without stopping and asking for input, you might head down the wrong path.
The Inclusive Leadership Style
Inclusive leadership is all about involving people in your decision making and planning. In other words, you’re including people in what you’re doing.
Rather than barking orders, you’re asking for input.
Inclusive leadership can be really useful in several situations:
- When your team is very experienced: If you have a heap of knowledge and experience in your team, it makes sense to take advantage of it. They can provide their input to improve the outcome.
- When you’re not sure exactly what to do: You don’t have all the answers. It can be useful to test your thinking with your people and see what they think.
- When you’re working on creative tasks: If you’re trying to come up with creative ideas, diversity of opinion can create a better range of options to choose from.
- When you want people to take ownership: Involving your people is a great way to help them become invested and take ownership of the work of the team. It’s easier for people to get on board when they contributed to the idea in the first place.
As you might guess, inclusive leadership can be very useful for building motivation in a team. People can have their voices heard and feel like they are an integral part of the team.
Learn More: Seeing Resistance to Change In Your Team? Do This.
Drawbacks of the Inclusive Leadership Style
Inclusive leadership sounds great, but it’s not always appropriate.
If your team is inexperienced or unskilled, sometimes getting their input is not going to be useful in coming up with a solution. Sure, it may motivate them as they feel more involved, but you may not be able to use anything they contribute.
And what if you’re in an emergency situation? It’s probably not ideal to stop and ask people what they’d like to do, because time is of the essence. Collaboration and inclusion takes longer.
The final drawback of the inclusive leadership style is that it can sometimes reduce the perception of the authority of your leadership role.
In other words, if you keep asking for input about everything, your people might start to think that you are lacking confidence, are incapable, or that they deserve to have a say in everything.
Over time, being too inclusive can have people questioning everything you do and providing input, even if it’s not appropriate.
How Inclusive and Directive Leadership Can Work Together
We’ve talked about how directive leadership can be useful in urgent situations. There may be no time to waste, so you need to take action immediately.
However, because of the potential problems with directive leadership, it can be good to do some planning to create a better outcome.
This is where the inclusive and directive leadership styles can work well together.
For example, let’s say that you have a power outage. You’ll run around shouting orders and getting people to fix the various problems that arise. Now, what would that look like if you had come up with a contingency plan to deal with the power outage, before it happened?
All you would need to do would be to direct people to follow the plan. You could create the plan much earlier, in a relaxed environment, taking input from the team to come up with the best course of action.
In other words, you’re using inclusive leadership to develop the plan, and directive leadership to execute it.
This approach can avoid the problems of directive leadership, because the team have had a chance to provide their input on the plan.
The Coaching Leadership Style
The final style to mention is what I call the Coaching Leadership Style. In the coaching leadership style, you provide the right support and assistance to help your people solve their own problems.
In other words, you don’t tell them what to do, but you provide the support and feedback needed for them to learn and develop.
You may provide advice, or prompt them with coaching questions to get them thinking about their work differently.
Or, you may arrange for them to learn new skills by buddying them up with somebody more experienced than they are.
Coaching is about guiding your people so they can reach a positive outcome by themselves. This builds confidence and helps them to develop new skills, because you’re not doing all the work for them.
When You Should Use the Coaching Leadership Style
Is the coaching approach always appropriate? As you might expect, the answer is no!
The coaching leadership style is great when:
- There is time for people to learn. When you can afford to spend time for people to grow and improve, coaching is ideal. For an emergency, it might not work so well.
- Your people are keen to improve. Team members who are motivated to improve will generally respond better to a coaching approach.
- There is no “right” answer. If somebody wants to know where the printer is, there is no point asking them “Where do you think it might be?” Sometimes, you should just tell them the answer!
As you might expect, the coaching approach is excellent to help people develop their skills and experience in a supportive setting.
However, coaching takes time and suits those people who really want to learn. Otherwise, coaching can be a frustrating experience for both the coach and the person being coached.
I find that applying these three leadership styles cover most leadership situations. The beauty is that you can mix and match them to suit the circumstances.
There is no longer any one-size-fits-all approach to leading people.
Use what works, ditch what doesn’t and adapt your style to get the best results for the situation you are facing.
For your team, it might take some trial and error to work out which style works best and when. But you’ve got a much better chance of leading a satisfied team when you can get the mix right.