In the professional world, there is much debate about leadership styles. Which style is the best? Which style should you use to build a successful team? Do leadership styles even matter?
“People like being able to know where somebody is coming from and they can get caught up in labels, and that’s easy, but it’s not particularly effective,” said Larry Seal, the founder and CEO of EngagedLeadership, an executive coaching and training organisation.
“What’s really effective is taking the time to understand each of those people, and I’m not talking about being a therapist. Understand what’s going to get the best out of each person and recognise that it’s going to be different from you most of the time.”
In order to become effective at understanding people, you actually need only focus on two main leadership styles.
The 2 leadership styles that matter
While a lot of tools, models, or assessments might try to help you find the exact leadership style that fits you best, there are really only two styles that matter, according to Seal.
“I think they can all have their place, but in my 25 years of coaching, the most important distinction – in terms of leadership style – is directive versus collaborative,” Seal said.
When it comes to directive versus collaborative leadership styles, Seal is referring to a leader’s natural tendency. Think about it: are you naturally more directive or collaborative when you’re leading a group? If you’re not sure, keep on reading.
“Obviously they both have their time and place, and for me, really the fun part…the art and the science of leadership communication… is about, how do you bring the two together? How do you be both? Because there’s a time and a place for both,” Seal said.
Directive leadership style
If you are directive by tendency, you will tell more than you ask. Directive leaders start with an answer of their own.
Directive leaders may be open to input, but their default is to go with their own solution because they are the decider. Directive leaders set the direction of the organisation.
“Most leaders, in my experience, start pretty directive because it feels more comfortable,” Seal said.
“They feel like it’s their job to be the decider, and the more experience they get, the more they realise they can let go and they know enough and feel confident enough to let other people jump in. Then, they obviously add their ideas if the team doesn’t get it.”
Collaborative leadership style
On the other side of the directive leader is the collaborative leader, whose tendency is to ask more than they tell.
Collaborative leaders take the time to build relationships, handle conflict constructively, and they often want to share control of the organisation when it comes to matters of direction, vision, and culture.
“The biggest upside of collaborative, in my mind, is that you get a lot of buy-in, and you get a lot of motivation because people are involved versus being told what to do,” Seal said.
How to balance both leadership styles
Balancing between a directive and a collaborative leadership style is “the art and science” of being a leader, according to Seal.
“The biggest part of understanding your style and recognising that there are different ways to approach things is self-knowledge,” Seal said.
When you understand what your tendencies are, whether you lean more towards directive or collaborative, you are able to begin to understand when you have to fight against those natural tendencies for the good of your team and organisation.
If your tendency is to want to be the subject matter expert, and therefore the decider, that’s great because it shows you have both knowledge and confidence. But there is a time and place for that.
Directive leaders should realise that they are probably going to over-rotate on those tendencies, meaning they will go too far in the direction of being the decider.
If, as a directive leader, you want to get buy-in from people, you will have to remember to ask people’s opinions and be a really good listener.
“The biggest advantage of self-knowledge is knowing what you ought to be cautious of and what you ought to proactively prepare to be able to do,” Seal said.
“Do I care most about clarity, or do I care most about buy-in and motivation? The answer is usually both. So, how are you going to lean into that?”
Most leaders come up with great answers to these questions when they stop and think about these matters. Issues in over-rotating into one style or the other usually arise when a leader does not slow down to even think about these questions.
“Where leaders mess up is they are in a hurry,” Seal said. “They don’t stop and think, and then what do they do? They do what they naturally do, which is probably not balanced.”
Balance is key when it comes to leadership. If a leader leans too far, either way, problems usually arise because of their leadership style.
According to Seal, many leaders in start-ups or technical fields think it is their job to solve every single issue in the company and tell each person what to do. The downside to this type of leader is that they will chase out any person who likes to think for themselves and instead the company will build a team of passive people.
But of course, an organisation does need to have clarity and direction. Out of the gate, the leader is well served to say: “This is where we’re going and these are the problems we’re trying to solve”. Then, they can get employees involved in the back end of solving those problems.
How to distinguish your leadership style
If a leader has a hard time distinguishing which style they should use in a certain situation, Seal recommends that they ask themselves these three questions:
1. What is my business outcome?
With this question, you want to establish what problem you are trying to solve and what you are trying to make happen. Think about what your ideal outcome would look like in terms of what you want to happen for the organisation.
2. What is the people outcome I want?
According to Seal, most people don’t ask this question when making leadership decisions, but it’s an extremely important one to consider.
“Your people outcomes are always going to be involvement, motivation, making sure they’re clear, making sure they have a voice, making sure they have their problems resolved,” Seal said.
3. Given what I want to accomplish business and people wise, knowing what my basic leadership style is, what do I need to lean into?
“If I’m a leader who’s really super collaborative and is like ‘team, team, team, team, team,’ I’ve got to be very careful to make sure I’m decisive, that I break ties, that people are really clear about where we’re going next, and not let it drag on,” Seal said. “And if you’re super directive, then you’ve got to make sure you’re asking questions early and often and shutting up and listening.”
No matter which style you lean towards, at the end of the interaction, you should always have the employees explain back to you what was just decided as the outcome.
Check in with them to see if you were successful in communicating what you needed and wanted to get across.
This article was written by Jennifer Fabiano and originally published on The Ladders.