Employing the Right Leadership Style

Leadership, in general, involves guiding others. It makes sense to adopt different leadership styles in different situations, however, in order to be effective and produce the desired results.

Great companies have great leaders, not just at the top of the organization, but at all levels. Whereas top-level leaders normally establish the company’s vision and set strategic direction, the rest of the leaders must drive the activities that will allow the company to achieve that vision. 

In my February 2016 column (“Some Key Principles of Effective Leadership”), I offered a number of definitions of leadership. The one that resonates with me the most is “guiding others to a desired result.” The key word is “guide,” as it describes an ability to act in a way that influences the thinking, then the behavior, and finally the performance of others. The desired results can vary from company to company, or even from department to department within the same company, but they will always be determined in advance, supported by the leader and communicated to the leader’s employees.

In that same column, I referenced Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey’s “Situational Leadership” model, in which the researchers advocate the need to vary leadership style based on the skills and commitment of the employees. I believe this to be such an important aspect of a leader’s ability to guide others that I am making it the focus of this month’s column. 

To summarize, the Situational Leadership model describes four leadership styles that should be applied in given situations: “directing,” “coaching,” “supporting” and “delegating.” 

Directing style of leadership is very hands-on, with the leader describing in detail how to complete each task and then monitoring performance closely to assure desired results are achieved. Although some might consider this micromanaging, there are certain situations in which this is the best way to lead. For example, say you have just hired an employee with little or no experience. Using a directing leadership style will help the employee understand what needs to be done and how to do it. It will also increase the likelihood that the employee will complete tasks successfully early on, and it is a preferred alternative to the often-used approach of letting a new employee “sink or swim.”

Coaching style is less hands-on and is the next step in the leadership style progression. It should be applied with employees who have demonstrated an ability to perform under the directing style of leadership. It is important that a leader invests the time and effort needed to allow an employee to be “coached,” because leaders simply do not have the time to “direct” all employees. Under the coaching style, the leader continues to define the tasks to be done, but seeks out ideas and suggestions from the employee as communication starts to be more open. A coaching style of leadership offers more challenges to employees, with the expectation that they will assume more ownership of their tasks, and increase their skills and knowledge.

Supporting style passes more control over how to complete a task to the employee and even allows more leeway in decision-making once certain standards of performance have been achieved. Not every employee will achieve this level of performance, and those may require a coaching style of leadership for some time. Still, a worker who requires “coaching” is much preferred to an employee who requires ongoing “directing.” The supporting style strives to increase an employee’s skills further through the issuing of even more challenges and soliciting of greater input from that employee. Employees who are being “supported” have gained significant skills and have demonstrated sufficient commitment to be considered for elevation to the final leader/employee relationship level.

Delegating style of leadership is one that every leader finds ideal, because at this point, employees have acquired the requisite skills to take control of all tasks. The delegating style is the opposite of the directing style, as it is almost completely hands-off. It is an ideal way for leaders to guide high-functioning employees who need little hand-holding. In fact, it is not unusual for leaders who are delegating to apply a call-me-if-you-need-me approach to dealing with these employees.

Of course, even employees to whom tasks are delegated need to know that the leader is interested in what they are doing, so leaders must take the time to offer encouragement and recognition to these employees in order to keep them motivated. Adopting a delegating style of leadership frees up a leader to concentrate on more macro activities instead of micro activities, thereby allowing that leader to be more effective in the long run.

By adopting the right leadership style, one that best suits the situation with your particular employees, work gets done while employee knowledge and skills increase, making it that much easier for you to guide employees to the desired outcome.