What Style of Leader Are You?
By Kevin Dwyer
Friday, 25th January 2013
I think leadership is such a broad topic that it is hard to define; there are some quotable quotes which I think help define leadership.

Quotes such as Drucker; "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things" or Tom Peters; "Leaders don't create followers, they create more leaders" come to mind when I think of leadership.

Whilst leadership is hard to define, it is easy to observe good leaders. We tend to know them when we see them. My observation of people in leadership positions over far too many years has led me to conclude that there are four basic types of leaders. The four types each have a core characteristic comprising one of:
  • My way or the highway
  • After you
  • Follow me
  • This is your opportunity
--> My way or the highway

The leader is very clear on what they expect of people. The vision (what we want to be) and mission (the boundaries of how we are going to get there) are clear even if they are not documented. The leader hires people in their own image. They are quite clear about what constitutes good performance, not only in terms of outcomes but also in terms of how the outcomes are achieved. The leader is often considered a micro-manager.

When it works
My observations are that this leadership style works when the team under the leader are very inexperienced and there is a sense of urgency to achieve an outcome to prevent a serious risk event occurring. This might be in organisation turnarounds required to prevent insolvency or in situations where the safety risk is considered to be totally unacceptable requiring a transformation of actions, resources and behaviours.

The legacy of this leadership style is normally a disgruntled workforce. The disgruntlement comes from the perception of being micro-managed and consequently feeling unable to stamp their own thoughts and values on their job. Often though, the legacy is also of a transformation.

The key to dealing with this kind of leader is to understand that they have a use-by date. They need replacing, in most cases, by a leader who has the capacity to heal the wounds created by this uncompromising style.

When it does not work
Generally, this leadership style does not work when there is no crisis or no transformation required. This leadership style is not sustainable.

It creates an underclass of people who in normal circumstances would be good performers robbed of their motivation to perform as independent, capable people. It also creates an elite who fit into two categories; people genuinely in the image of the leader and sycophants who do not have the capability of the leader but are good actors.

--> After you

The leader works in the background helping people achieve their goals by providing resources and advice. They do not set direction themselves as an individual, relying on the team to take a collegiate approach and then supporting the consensus.

When it works
This leadership style can work after a difficult transformation, although I have noted in some cases that the change from dogma to democracy has its own issues. People sometimes cannot cope with the dramatic about turn in leadership style. "After You" leadership style also works well when the value of the organisation is associated with its technical strength across multiple disciplines. The leader has to ensure that the goal of the organisation and the boundaries, within which that goal is achieved, are very clear. However, after that, facilitating agreement between the multiple disciplines is probably where a leader can add greatest value.

Skilled leaders who assist their people to determine the goal in a collaborative fashion and then support them to achieve the goal leave behind a group of people who are able to work collaboratively.

When it does not work
When an organisation needs speed of decision making and clarity in the criteria used for making decisions, this style tends not to work. This is because if the goal of the organisation and the boundaries of how the organisation will get there are not clear, then the time taken to reach consensus can be too long. In addition, the criteria for decision making is unlikely to be clear and the consensus reached from time to time may be at odds with previous consensus.

When this style of leadership does not work, the legacy is often a group of people who require consensus to arrive at a decision. If the consensus becomes more important than the appropriateness of the decision, such organisations appear myopic and slow and have low productivity rates.

--> Follow me

The leader sets direction with the team and provides leadership by demonstrating the behaviours they want people to display. They lead by example and anticipate others learning and following in their footsteps, not necessarily in their image, but with the same sense of urgency and decision making ability.

When it works
When the team is inexperienced and there is a lot to be done, a "Follow Me" leader can motivate a team by their sheer will and capacity to get things done. Motivation appears in the form of a sense of urgency to get things done and, albeit less so, in the form of a desire to learn the skills required to emulate their leader's decision making capacity.

Leaders of this nature can leave behind a series of accomplishments and a group of people who have coalesced into a team. However, often the common purpose that the team have formed around is to follow and support the leader. In this situation, when the leader leaves, the group of people lack the sense of purpose required to form a team.

When it does not work
When the organisation is large and the skills very diverse, it is difficult for one person to get across all of the disciplines to the extent that they can lead the way with all discipline areas. When leaders of this type try to lead in this manner in this environment, they are subject to high levels of stress as they try to lead in areas well outside their comfort zone. Prioritisation of time also becomes a core issue, adding to the stress.

The most common legacy is burn out of the leader. In addition, individual members of the group being lead may try to emulate the style without having the personality, endurance and support from family, friends and colleagues required to sustain this style. The end result in this situation is not only one of likely frustration and possible burnout, but also of a dysfunctional group of people driven by the inability of the copycat leaders to deliver on their promises.

--> This is your opportunity

The leader sets the direction with the team and provides the opportunity for their team to grow and become leaders themselves. The leader sets challenges for the team to meet as individuals and as a collective with a mixture of resource and coaching support and tough love, encouraging their team to succeed despite…, not fail because...

When it works
Setting goals and providing the group of people that work for the leader with both the resources to deliver and the understanding that they have to deliver is the most useful and adaptable style. This style also works best when the leader has a good ability to coach people with different leadership styles.

Done well, this style creates new leaders. It provides people the room to use their own knowledge, skills and attitude to deliver, safe in the knowledge that they have the support of their leader. Individuals get to understand what it means to collaborate with the necessity of consensus. They also get to understand that results need to be achieved and that it is not acceptable to make excuses for poor outcomes rather than taking accountability.

When it does not work
I struggle to find an occasion where the environment in which an organisation finds itself causes this style to not work from the organisation's point of view. It is clear, however, that this style is not for all people either in the leadership role or as a member of the team. It takes a particular personality and set of values to execute this leadership style. For many individuals the concept of accountability is actually a foreign concept. Even though they can explain it they do not practice it. People who cannot accept accountability find this leadership style somewhat harsh.

When this style does not work, there is potential for a spike in turnover of employees. Even when this is the case, if the organisation can weather the storm they will end up with a set of employees who are much more results oriented, much more collaborative and more aligned to the corporate vision and mission. So even when this style does not work in the short term, it does in the longer term.

We welcome your comments.
Contact Kevin by email at kevin.dwyer@changefactory.com.au or via phone on +61 (0)408 508 490

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