I’ve just returned from delivering teamwork training in Kuwait and, inevitably, this touched on the concept of leadership and leadership styles. Participants on the programme were keen to know what I thought the “best leadership style” was, even though they recognised that this might be situational.
Out of interest, I entered ‘leadership styles’ into Google. Thirteen million responses suggested that leadership could be Autocratic, Bureaucratic, Charismatic, Democratic, Emergent, Facilitative….through to Servant, Transactional, Transformational and Visionary: pretty much a leadership style for every letter of the alphabet. You might be able to find an X, Y and Z…..
In attempting to answer my learners’ questions directly, I found myself explaining the following conclusions that I have come to over recent years. You may or may not agree with me that the concept of ‘leadership styles’ is an outdated one. However, I much prefer to think of leadership as a set of attitudes, values, skills and behaviours that are applied consistently, rather than a ‘style’ that is changed depending upon the context.
I believe that leaders are accountable for four key things in any organisation.
- They develop a vision of the future that determines strategy and sets a direction that they want others to follow.
- They communicate the vision and direction to those who will be required to implement it, influencing them to engage with it, work through future change and recognise the long-term, sustainable benefits that will result.
- They ensure that those they lead, who will be required to deliver the desired organisational results, have the physical and emotional resources they need to be successful.
- They constantly monitor progress, evaluating the progress of the strategy and ensuring that it is having the required impact and reaching the goals it was developed to achieve.
These can all be offered by leaders with different personalities, experiences and professional skills. None requires the adoption of a particular ‘style’. And this is why I believe that leadership can be learned, by developing specific capabilities and then ensuring that there is an environment and culture in which these can be applied.
Developing leadership capability, rather than style
In order to create a vision and then develop a strategy to implement it, leaders need creative thinking skills in order to develop new ideas and make new connections. These creative thinking skills must then be balanced with critical thinking skills to enable robust evaluation of the options on the table and make the best possible strategic choices.
A combination of empathetic listening skills and the ability to influence with integrity is needed in order to motivate people to follow, and engage them in the delivery of the chosen strategy.
Ensuring that individuals and teams have the training, resources, challenge and support needed, not only to do their jobs but also to grow and develop, requires a focus on coaching and communication. This must be combined with a high level of observation to be able to discriminate between effective and less effective effort.
Finally, leaders need skills of reflection and analysis in order to evaluate progress, improve processes and assess impact.
Values and beliefs
Followers describe the importance of leaders building trust, maintaining open relationships, demonstrating fairness and consistency in their treatment of people, being willing to seek out and act upon feedback and showing respect to everyone, regardless of their role. These are reflections of a set of underpinning values and beliefs about the leader’s responsibility for meeting the needs of individuals.
Finally, in a fast-changing world, leaders must believe in their own, and their teams’, ability to change and adapt. This requires a relentless focus on learning and a willingness to take time to process experience in order to ensure that mistakes are not repeated and useful learning is carried forward.
The keys to making leadership development stick
I believe sustainable leadership development is dependent upon a number of factors that all of those involved in leadership education can provide. Please don’t focus on ‘leadership style’. Instead, focus on offering the kind of development that leaders need. This includes the need to:
- Encourage learning from experience. Give challenging, stretching experiences that create a degree of stress but also provide the processes that enable these to be reviewed, ensuring positive learning results.
- Recognise and value the power of emotion. Feelings drive behaviour. Explore how leaders (and followers) feel, identifying the memorable and powerful emotions they experience and work with them to identify what triggers these, how to reduce the negative emotions and build upon the positive ones.
- Facilitate, rather than teach. Leaders all experience their worlds differently. There are no generic right answers. Facilitate processes that allow leaders to find their own best solutions.
- Don’t expect leaders to change their behaviour if the environment around them doesn’t change. Encourage reflection on organisational culture and working environment and ensure that it is conducive to on-going leadership learning.
Kathryn Ann Alder
Ann specialises in trainer training (developing the training and facilitation skills of L&D professionals, teachers and operational managers). She has a wealth of experience in leadership, management and team development training, as well as executive coaching and group facilitation. She enjoys working with multi-cultural groups, and her recent projects have involved extensive travel, much of it to work with specialist technical trainers.