Over the past century, there have been countless studies, theories, models and research projects that have tried to determine the best leadership style. From the pioneers in our industry to the latest bestselling authors, the quest has remained the same: to find the most effective approach — the one that will maximize productivity, enhance engagement and drive the retention of key talent.
After all of this investigation, the best and brightest in our industry have consistently arrived at the following, irrefutable conclusion: There is no best leadership style. It depends on the situation and the individual(s) being influenced.
So, if there is not a best approach, how many are there?
We started with two: If you aligned with the research of Frederick Winslow Taylor and the scientific management philosophy, you favored an autocratic or directive approach, in which the leader determines what needs to happen, how people will do it and when they need to do it. If you aligned with the research of Elton Mayo and the human relations theory, you favored a democratic or collaborative approach, in which the leader asks questions designed to tap into the informal structure of the groups completing the work, listens, and recognizes and reinforces that input and insight.
Not long after those approaches provided leaders with mutually exclusive paths, exhaustive studies at Ohio State and Michigan Universities identified a third primary approach: laissez-faire, in which the leader stays in the background, monitors progress, and provides limited structure or reinforcement. Since that point in time, researchers have identified many additional labels intended to further define what leadership is and how leaders should approach their opportunities to influence.
There is one thing we can all agree on: The role of the leader continues to present unique and ever-emerging challenges. Here is an up-to-date guide on four common leadership styles, including a description of the setting that provides that approach with the highest probability of success:
1. Telling Leadership Style
A telling leadership style most closely resembles the autocratic approach, but it is important to remember the age-old adage: that telling does not mean yelling. Periodically, leaders need to provide specific direction and instruction in combination with close supervision. With this leadership style, the leader provides a detailed accounting of what the follower needs to accomplish and how he or she should proceed. The objective is to “create movement.”
A telling leadership style has a high probability of success when someone is new to a task and is either insecure or unmotivated to perform. Below are some additional key performance indicators of when a telling leadership style is appropriate:
- The employee is not performing a task to an acceptable level.
- The employee is intimidated by a task.
- The employee is unclear about directions.
- The employee is procrastinating.
- There is an unfinished task.
- The employee is questioning the task.
- The employee is avoiding the task.
- The employee is exhibiting defensiveness or discomfort.
An inappropriate use of a telling leadership style is with someone who may not have the experience or skill required to perform the task but who is enthusiastic and confident to learn. Using a telling leadership style in this instance would adversely impact the employee’s enthusiasm for learning. Instead, the leader should acknowledge and reinforce his or her motivation and commitment.
2. Selling Leadership Style
A selling leadership style is a combination of traditional autocratic and democratic leadership. While the leader is still responsible for making decisions regarding task completion, with this leadership style, there is a significant amount of two-way communication and discussion between the leader and follower. The objective of this approach is to create buy-in.
A selling leadership style has a high probability of success when someone lacks task-specific experience or skill but is both motivated, confident and receptive to input and instruction. Below are some key performance indicators of when a selling leadership style is appropriate:
- The employee is anxious or excited.
- The employee is interested and responsive.
- The employee demonstrates moderate ability.
- The employee is receptive to input.
- The employee is attentive.
- The employee is enthusiastic.
- The employee is confident in his or her ability but lacks relevant experience with the task at hand.
It is the leader’s job to embrace the employee’s confidence and reinforce it, while providing specific instruction on how to complete the task successfully.
3. Participating Leadership Style
A participating leadership style most closely resembles the democratic approach. Here, the leader helps determine next steps with the follower by actively listening and asking questions to help him or her come to the answer. The leader encourages the follower to take some calculated risks and tries to enhance his or her confidence and/or level of commitment for completing the task.
A participating leadership style has a high probability of success with individuals who are completing a task to an acceptable standard but are either insecure or unmotivated about doing so. The objective of this approach is to create alignment. Below are some additional key performance indicators of when a participating leadership style is appropriate:
- It’s the employee’s first-time “solo” performance.
- The employee lacks confidence.
- The employee needs feedback and encouragement.
- The employee previously demonstrated knowledge and skill.
- The employee’s performance is slipping.
- The employee is upset about things on or off the job.
- The employee’s morale is slipping.
While the participating leadership style and the selling leadership style both involve two-way communication, the key distinction is that the participating approach allows the follower to determine the path forward.
4. Delegating Leadership Style
A delegating leadership style most closely resembles the laissez-faire approach. We can accurately describe it with the statement, “You decide/I trust you,” because the leader allows the individual to make and implement decisions. The objective of delegation is to create autonomy and mastery.
A delegating leadership style has a high probability of success when the individual has a track record of consistent performance and is intrinsically motivated to complete the task. Below are some additional key performance indicators of when a delegating leadership style is appropriate:
- The employee consistently performs at high levels.
- The employee can operate autonomously.
- The employee is committed to and enjoys the task.
- The employee keeps his or her manager informed of task progress.
- The employee shares both good and bad news.
- The employee is clear about his or her competency and skills.
The most significant recognition a leader can provide to a follower who is able and willing to perform a task successfully is the opportunity and autonomy to do so.
Being a good leader is not easy. Determining the best leadership style to use in a given situation (regardless of the leader’s level of comfort with that approach) will always be a challenge. As is the case with any skill, the more time leaders invest in becoming better, the better they will become.