If you stick to one leadership style, you’ll never get the most out of your organisation.
By Tim McEwan, Managing Director, SH Leadership and Roderic Yapp, Leadership Consultant
When coaching leaders, one question comes up more often than any other. If you’re a business leader, you’ve probably wanted to know the answer to this question too at some point in your career.
That question is: What is the best way to lead?
The answer is not cut and dried, because there is no set formula for what makes a good leader. This is as true in the military – where your authors both began their careers and received intensive leadership training – as it is in business.
In many ways, asking the question is the most important step on the road to becoming a more effective leader. This is because very often, business executives reach positions of influence due to their abilities in a particular field or technical skillset. They come into a position of leadership without knowing how to lead and have to learn an entirely new set of skills on the job.
Many people tend to react to this in one of two ways. They stick to what they know: the habits, practices, and processes that have got them to where they are. Or they find a single, specific leadership style and apply it come what may.
Unfortunately, neither of these approaches are optimal. Indeed, they can be a real hindrance to effective leadership over time. Asking what is the best way to lead, by contrast, shows an awareness that there might be more to being a good leader.
Sticking with what you know
Consider the person who decides to stick with what they know. Say a salesperson who has achieved stellar performance then becomes a head of sales in their organisation. They know how to build rapport with prospective customers, how to communicate via email or on the phone, and they know their firm’s customer relationship management (CRM) software like that back of their hand.
These are all great attributes for achieving high sales targets. But they don’t necessarily help to lead a sales team. Or to liaise effectively with other departments in the business, such as Marketing, Finance, and Operations. A problem arises with the CRM, and this kind of leader risks diving into the detail and trying to solve it themselves, rather than setting targets and delegating the details to others.
Say their team is struggling to hit targets. This kind of leader, lacking the ability to motivate or upskill others, might be more tempted to jump on the phones themselves and start to make calls to make up the shortfall. This is not effective leadership.
Using the same leadership style, regardless of the situation
Now consider the busy executive who reads a few leadership books or goes on a course and learns how to be more assertive. They get to know this style very well, use it with some success early in their career, and then carry on being assertive from that point onwards.
That leader applies an assertive approach to leading a large change programme in an organisation. The deadlines are tight; the regulator is breathing down the neck of the organisation. This programme has to be delivered – all other priorities fall by the wayside.
In this context, an assertive and bold leadership style will get the job done. But say that leader is rewarded for their success by being promoted to another business unit that is lacking motivation. Employees are leaving, the atmosphere is tense, and targets are not being met.
In this environment, assertiveness is likely to demotivate unengaged employees even more. More of them leave. Hitting targets becomes impossible because the business loses its most skilled and experienced staff. Those that remain become even less productive, and it becomes ever harder to recruit top talent.
By not having another leadership style to draw upon, that leader has made the situation far worse.
The case for balanced leadership
It is a common assumption amongst leaders that there is a single, specific leadership style that is optimal for all circumstances. The reason for this is clear. Nearly all of the vast numbers of leadership books published focus on one aspect of leadership.
It might be courageous leadership, or empathetic leadership. It might be how to be a more creative leader, or a more engaging one. It could be any of one of literally hundreds of different approaches. Everything, in any given situation, is boiled down to relate to that key skill.
The problem with this approach is that it is too limiting. It may well have worked for a particular leader in a specific situation, or at a particular firm with a highly specific business culture. A big change programme often calls for tough leadership, whereas a broken organisation lacking direction will benefit from a more engaging leadership style.
The honest answer to the question of the best way to lead is that there is no single “best” way. The approach that works best in any given situation depends on a multitude of factors. The real art of leadership therefore comes from being able to diagnose the circumstances around you and select the approach that best fits the situation. It also comes from an awareness of the multiple different approaches to leadership that can work, and then from the ability to add these approaches to your leadership toolbox so they are available to you when you need them.
How to become a more balanced leader
Most people will, by and large, be comfortable with their style of leading, whether they tend to be more at the command-and-control end of things, or prefer a more empathetic, team-orientated approach. That’s fine and perfectly natural. However, the key to effective leadership is balance.
Balance is a crucial component, if not the crucial component, in successful leadership. In today’s fast-paced world, it is very easy to get into a situation of reacting to circumstances as they come along, one after another. However, that is not always the best strategy for either the short or the long term. Balanced leadership allows for a fluid reaction, but a more considered one too.
To achieve balance you also need to develop the skills to adjust to a different tack as and when required. This is why we have written our new book The Balanced Leader.
It is to give you a very different view of leadership than what you’ll typically get elsewhere. To draw upon our extensive leadership experience from our military careers, as well as our combined 24-plus years of leadership coaching experience in the business world.
In this book we have focused on many different leadership approaches. To help you visualise them, we’ve shown them on a series of spectrums, which demonstrate that the requirements of leadership change according to circumstances. Part Two of the book teaches the fundamental foundations you need to add these skills to your own leadership toolbox. Practise these skills often and you will be able to shift your leadership up or down a gear, with ease, as and when required.
If balance is the key to successful leadership, then flexibility is the key to achieving balance. We believe balanced leadership represents the future. Now is the time to prepare for that future.