7 Distinct Leadership Styles

In 2003, as a relatively new manager, I was heading a small division of a medical device company. Above our office, in an apartment building in Andheri (Mumbai), was the office of a famous eye care device company. One day during a smoke break, between the small space beneath the staircase, the GM of the eye-care company asked me a question that would change my perspective on leadership completely. He asked me,

“So, what’s your leadership style?”

I had never even considered this question before, leading teams based on instinct. In my mind, I was more inclined towards being a ‘people-oriented’ leader, allowing for enhanced elbow space to the people under my care. But his question that day, got me reflecting on my leadership abilities. I realised how leading intuitively, simply based on my preferences, had cost me many times. I realised that I needed to broaden my horizon and learn about the different leadership styles. That would allow me to flex my style based on the context, for better outcomes. 

And now, many years later, with the benefit of experience, here are 7 important leadership styles (I wish I knew back then) every new leader should be aware of, and also put in effect when needed –

1. Autocratic Leadership

We all have heard the following fun rules –
Rule #1 The boss is always right.
Rule #2 When the boss is wrong, then, refer to the rule number 1.

Pretty self-explain story, Autocratic leadership is ‘boss-centric’ in nature. This means that the leader exercises complete control in everything. It is an extremely directive style with communication mostly flowing ‘top-down.’  Not very long ago, when the corporate world was extremely hierarchical, leaders possessing an autocratic style were a preferred lot. They were seen as ‘beacons of light’, giving direction, and driving people.

However, as most organisations moved to a more ‘matrix-based’ structures, things changed. The ability of the leadership team to soak and work with different perspectives emerged as a key requirement. This resulted in the decline of the autocratic leaders, and their leadership style. This wave also coincided with the advent of the millennials in the work force. These budding new team members were not afraid to question and challenge their seniors and managers.   

But, if this style is now obsolete, why discuss about it, in the first place? Two reasons:

  1. There are times when quick decisions need to be made; or the leader must take a judgement call in absence of a consensus. Tapping into this style at such times has clear benefits.
  2. For leaders, who are overly democratic (which is the exact opposite and one We’ll be discussing next), they need to develop this skill to balance the the risk of teams slipping into chaos and dysfunction.

2. Democratic Leadership

Also referred to as ‘participative leadership’, it is the form of leadership which enables all team members to participate in problem solving and decision making.  The mindset of such leadership is that the leader is not the sole decision maker. He may have all the answers, but believes that discussing various perspectives from the team members can lead to better quality decisions.

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However ideal this may sound, it’s easier said than done. To leverage this style, leaders need to be extremely self-confident. Otherwise, every discussion runs the risk of turning into an ego-war. Also, to enable such a ‘participative leadership’ style, the leader needs to build a strong sense of trust within the team. To do so, he must be willing to show his vulnerable side, along with his strengths. Because, only when this happens that team-members open themselves up and trust starts building.

3. Laissez-faire leadership

The French word ‘laissez-faire’ literally translates to ‘allow to do.’ This leadership style can also called the ‘delegate-ive leadership.’ Such a leader follows a hands-off approach and allows team-members complete autonomy. Such leadership style encourages employee empowerment, and the team morale could be high knowing that the boss trusts the team so much. 

Laissez-faire is useful when the team members have expertise in a particular field and are capable of problem solving/ effective decision making in that field, on their own. The potential downside is that the entity would seem less of a team and more a group of individual contributors. When they are not actively led by a leader, people behave differently. While some employees take extreme ownership and deliver their best, there could be others who may slip, either due to a laid-back approach, or struggle to get the deadlines right.  

4. Situation-based contextual leadership

Here, I would like to re-iterate that no single style is good or bad by itself. Rather, they must be understood, practiced, and used as and when the situation or context, demands it. Having discussed a number of leadership styles, practice of a ‘situation based contextual leadership’ can help bring everything together nicely. This skill allows style-flexing as a leader, using different leadership styles in different contexts. Online Simulations like i-Lead  can also prove to be useful. They let you practice and test your leadership skills in a safe, simulated environment.

Contextual leadership takes into account the skill and morale of team-members and helps leaders adapt their style to mutual-faceted situations, based on the interplay of these two variables. 

5. Coaching style leadership

At one time in my career, I was taking too much pride in being a problem-solver. We had an open-door policy, and anyone could just walk-in, any time into my cabin with whatsoever problem one had. Soon I realized that people started coming to me with issues, without giving them even a second thought. Thinking and problem solving is a difficult job and it can be more convenient to simply delegate it upwards. 

And sure enough, soon I was found myself too busy handling their issues, with no time for my own deliverables. Also, my behaviour was enabling my team members to take the easy route. They were not challenging themselves enough and soon, started slipping.  I, and my team, would have benefitted greatly if only had I practiced coaching leadership style, at that time. Coach-like leadership (also called Coaching Leadership Style) is relatively new. Based on the practice of efficient guiding by the leader of his team, it greatly benefits teams across situations. Here the leader helps the employee find the right answers on her own, by probing and asking the right questions. 

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Good questions can make your team think and arrive at their own solutions, to any given problem. The GROW model is commonly used to help leaders frame right questions. If you are interested to read more on this, I would also recommend reading the work of Michael Bungay Stainer (The Coaching Habit/ 7 Coaching Questions.) 

6. Servant leadership

While a lot has been written about servant leadership, in a nutshell, it is leading unselfishly through humility and insight by focusing on the support and growth of others. A servant leader is focused on empowering and uplifting those who work for him. He puts the need of the employees first and helps developing them so that they can perform to their potential. 

Servant leadership is about creating a nurturing environment where team-members feel like they are heard, appreciated, and respected. To make that happen, the leader must be a good listener with an empathetic heart.

It is not just going soft on people, but a comprehensive leadership style which helps deliver growth through growing people, building community, and modelling the way through deep awareness of self and that of the team-members. 

During this long pandemic, quite a few leaders whom I know, displayed behaviours of a good servant leader.  Hope they continue to leverage this in the longer term as well.

7. Tipping point leadership

Tipping point leadership is more an approach rather than a leadership style. You may not find much being written on this approach. I picked this up from the book “Blue Ocean Strategy”. Personally, I think this is very useful as it gives a direction when things are stagnating, resources are scarce, and time is limited.

Rather than putting effort and energy on all areas that demand attention, the leader dis-proportionately employs her time and resources on few key critical influence factors. 

A few recommended steps for implementing this style of leadership are:

  1. Show the reality: The leader needs to make people understand that things are bad and need change. 
  2. Identify few critical hot spots (high impact, resource starved factors)
  3. Move resources from cold spots to these hot spots.
  4. Identify few big influencers in the team and leverage their influence on countering naysayers.
  5. Plan things right up to the last person.

Conclusion

In summary, I found it the hard way that leading by intuition is not always the best approach. You will come across a lot of challenges in terms of situations and people, where you would need to go out of your preferred leadership style. You will need to keep accessing your toolkit with what you have learnt. 

Which of these leadership styles do you most relate to? Which do you find most difficult to relate to? Do join the conversation.

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