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What is the best leadership style?

Monday, June 6th, 2016

Type this question into Google and you’ll be offered a vast array of different ‘types’ of leadership from Transactional, to Charismatic, to Agile and much more. Whilst various leadership models exist, in terms of recent academic research there appears to be consensus that the most effective leaders are those who are able to flex their style to suit the situation. One of the most common leadership models out there is Situational Leadership.

Situational leadership refers to the need for the leader to adjust their style to fit both the development level of the followers they are trying to influence and the situation they are dealing with. With situational leadership, it is up to the leader to identify the most effective style that will deliver the best outcome. The style employed by the leader will change continually to meet the needs of others in the organisation based on the situation.

A recent study by management consultancy Hay Group that analysed data on 14,000 leaders in 400 organisations identified that only 18% of UK leaders are able to create a high-performance environment for their employees, whilst 53% of leaders create demotivating working environments. UK leaders who create high-performance climates are set apart by their ability to tailor their leadership style to different situations. Nearly half (48%) of these leaders are comfortable using four or more leadership styles, compared with just 9% of leaders who create demotivating environments.

So how do you assess someone’s leadership style?

Typically in an interview when you ask a candidate to describe their leadership style they tend to nail their colours to one particular leadership type. People appear to be proud to be seen as someone who is very collaborative, or alternatively the type of leader who ‘leads from the front.’ The situational leadership model would suggest that both styles are likely to be effective in different scenarios, and ineffective in others.

In order to really understand what type of leader someone will be we need to identify their ‘default’ style, the approach that they are most comfortable with and are likely to use most often, and their back-up style or styles. We then need to assess how effective they are likely to be at moving between these styles. There are two considerations here. One is to understand a leader’s underlying preference for different styles. The other is to determine their accuracy or judgement in selecting the ‘right’ style for any given scenario. Someone with a very strong preference for being Directive for example, may find it very difficult to judge when an alternative style is most appropriate. Someone who has a very strong preference for being Inclusive may find it very difficult to determine the situations where it would more effective to make decisions alone. By contrast, someone whose preferences are more even may find it easier to move between styles.

What is important is not the default style that a leader employs, but their accuracy in choosing the ‘right’ style and their authenticity in moving between those styles.  No leadership style is universally effective and no single leadership style is inherently better than the next. What does make an effective leader is their ability to accurately analyse a situation, and to employ the ‘correct’ style authentically even where that style is not natural to them. Great leaders employ their leadership styles like a top golfer chooses their clubs—based on an understanding of the situation and what is likely to deliver the most effective outcome.