“What is your leadership style?”

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Recently someone asked me: “Elaine, what is your leadership style?”  My response: “which one of the 100 frameworks out there are you referring to?”

People studying leadership appear to be irresistibly drawn to classifying humanity into categories.  Following are a few leadership style frameworks that I have seen in recent years.

  • Here is a list of 4 leadership styles from Inc back in 2012. The four styles are: directive, participative, laissez-faire, adaptive.
  • Here is a list of 5 leadership styles from USA Today in 2013. The styles include: the sports coach, the driver-director, the mentor, the country clubber, the eclectic.
  • Here is a list of 6 leadership styles from Wall Street Journal, originally put forward by Daniel Goleman in his book “Primal Leadership“.  Also cross referenced by Fast Company. The styles include: pacesetting, authoritative, affiliative, coaching, coercive, democratic.
  • Here is a list of 8 archetypes from Inc., by Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, the author of “The Hedgehog Effect: The Secrets of Building High Performance Teams”.  The archetypes include: The strategist, the change-catalyst, the transactor, the builder, the innovator, the processor, the coach, the communicator.
  • Here is a list of 9 leadership styles from an executive coaching consultancy, based on the enneagram personality typing system.
  • Here is a list of 10 leadership styles from the Under30ceos.com website. I am not sure what it is based on.

While these frameworks can help people better understand themselves, they can also end up confusing people.  First of all, they oversimplify.  People are complex, and few people fit perfectly into any one style.  Secondly, there are so many frameworks and they don’t all agree with each other. Which one should one read?  Lastly, how many people read one of these articles, see themselves in one of the styles, start justifying their actions, and stop growing as a leader?

To be fair, many of the articles referenced above do mention that good leaders need to adapt to different situations.  But I wonder how many people come away with that insight, after being drawn to an article with a title like this:  “Leadership: 8 Archetypes Explained”.

Leadership is holistic and multifaceted.   No one can stick to any one style and expect to succeed.  Of course we all have our preferred styles of interaction, but different situations will warrant different styles.  For instance, if you find yourself heading up a team with a clearly defined set of objectives and a very aggressive deadline, and you have experience and insight that the team lacks, a directive style would be most effective.  If you have a strong vision about a problem you want to solve, but don’t quite know how to bring it to fruition, you would need to refrain from micromanagement, and learn to give your team the time and space to come up with ways to implement your vision.  If you are implementing a cross functional initiative that needs buy in from many constituencies, then a collaborative and inclusive style would be appropriate.  If you are trying to build bench strength and develop a scalable organization in a time of rapid growth, a coaching style would make sense.

To be an effective leader, you need to be able to do all of these things and more, whether or not you are innately comfortable with adopting these leadership styles.  It’s not easy at all for someone who is a natural at a command-control style to adopt a nurturing or coaching style.  It is equally jarring for a naturally collaborative leader to have to adopt a directive style.  Pushing yourself beyond your boundaries is uncomfortable.  However, challenging yourself to grow and mature will benefit yourself, your team and your organization as a whole.

If you come across one of these frameworks, by all means use it to help gain insights into how you think and work.  At the same time, do consider using the entire list as a learning curriculum.  A leader with a broad range of styles can achieve far more than someone who can only exercise a small range of leadership styles.

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