When I first stepped into a leadership role, back in my 20’s, I was determined to adapt my style to best suit those I led. In fact, my company trained us how to do it, so I was engaged, on board and equipped to do it. When my first leadership 360 came around, I recall rubbing my hands in glee, so sure that I had nailed ‘one size does not fit all’ leadership. Well, it was a disaster. The worst results I’ve ever had in anything (including my Chemistry O-Level, which was pretty bad).
A complete leadership fail. They absolutely hated it, and felt that because I treated everyone differently, I was inconsistent, and even untrustworthy. Devastating. My adaptable leadership had killed my authenticity.
So, in my next leadership gig I took the opposite tack – this is me, take it or leave it. That didn’t work either – I could feel the friction right away. Turns out that was too authentic, and not adaptable enough.
Authentic yet adaptable
Fast forward 20 years and we are in a workplace dominated by millennial preferences, and on top of that we are in a post-pandemic world where personal values have never played a stronger role in the workplace. And this means that leaders need to get this right more than they have ever needed to.
What is the right approach?
There is no one answer to the question ‘how to manage’. If there was, leadership experts from me to Marshall Goldsmith would be out of work! But surely, I hear you ask, there is a rule of thumb, or a general principle that you can follow that IS a one size fits all?
If I was to call out one specific thing that ‘fits all’, it’s judgment. Leaders who have great judgment can be both their authentic selves AND adapt to those around them, all without any dissonance because they’ve judged it right. They’re being authentic yet adaptable.
But how do you do that?
Style and Substance
Psychologist Kurt Lewin branded four leadership styles from 1939 – autocratic, democratic, laissez faire and transformational. In my opinion, these are the most compelling leadership styles that you can adopt as the circumstance demands.
Kurt Lewin was known as one of the modern pioneers of social, organisational, and applied psychology. (Image is taken from Practical Psychology)
Autocratic leaders often have attractive qualities such as decisiveness, self-confidence, and a steadfast eye on the prize – but used in the wrong situation, that can come across as micro-managing and disempowering.
Democratic leaders enjoy having others participate in the decision-making process, which is both creative and morale-boosting. They tend to be strong communicators and are easily approachable.
However, when this is overused, the leader can slow down or dumb down the decisions that are made, and can be seen as overly consultative.
Choose Your Leadership Style
The Most Effective Leadership Styles
Laissez Faire leaders are great delegators, running faster-paced functions and empowering their teams. But if your team is not skilled or not clear on purpose, then this style will overwhelm them and result in paralysis or costly mistakes.
Transformational leadership is based on absolute clarity to vision and goals, and two-way communication to ensure the commitment remains high. However, it can also result in burnout as this relentless future-focus can be unrealistic.
So, we have to use our judgment when determining what style to use – deliberately – in what situation, and underneath that style, we have to be true to ourselves – to our own values and boundaries.
That’s where the Substance comes in. You need to know your values and boundaries as a person and as a leader – and many leaders don’t know this, they’ve never been helped to explore it.
This means getting to understand your personal values and your intrinsic value - what you stand for, what you’re good for, and what you don’t put up with. It means having boundaries for others to respect, and that means having a healthy dose of self-respect. Many leaders that I work with are unsupported when it comes to doing the deeper, internal work that is required to really understand and be confident about who you are as a leader, and to get clear on why others should trust you, follow you and listen to you.
Adapting my style before I had a handle on my substance was the mistake I made twenty years ago, and in today’s workplace, that mistake would have been even more costly.
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