Kate Mercer asked:
t your vision, your passion, and your strategy and plan. So why is it that despite displaying appropriate leadership competencies, you sometimes fail? In practice, there is one factor that distinguishes success and failure in leadership: the leader’s flexibility of style.
Do you pride yourself on involving and engaging your team members in the work you delegate? Do you make huge efforts to include them, give them room to contribute, use their own initiative? And do you sometimes despair when, despite your best efforts, people still resist ownership, come to you for permission, or bring you problems rather than solutions?
There is a very widely held opinion that ‘participative’ or ‘delegative’ leadership is in some way ‘better’ than ‘command and control’. You can hear it in the terminology: it’s almost as if one is more fashionable or politically correct than the other!
In our leadership development work, we quite often meet leaders who resist ‘hands-on’ management of their people, yet complain that they don’t know why people don’t take initiative in their jobs.
Why Does This Happen?
The usual assumption is that there is something wrong with the individuals and their motivation, or maybe with the circumstances surrounding them – the ‘culture’ of the organisation. This may or may not be so in any given organisation. But it is more likely that your leadership style is causing the very problem you are complaining about!
The truth of the matter is that no one style of leadership is right for every person or every situation. It’s no more appropriate to pride yourself on your unvarying commitment to one style of leadership, than it would be to pride yourself on only ever using your forehand in tennis, or only one iron in golf!
What Styles are There?
There’s a continuum from ‘command and control’ through to delegation:
Telling –> Selling –> Supporting –> Delegating
Telling is traditional ‘command and control’. The leader tells people what to do and monitors their work closely before telling them what to do next.
In Selling, you explain the whole task and engage the person in the need to do it, before giving them the jobs they need to do. Ownership of the job still remains with you as leader.
In Supporting people, you include them in ownership of the job and invite their participation in designing and planning solutions.
When Delegating, you give away the whole job to someone, only retaining ultimate accountability for its completion.
How do You Choose Which Style to Use?
Your decision depends on two factors:
– The Situation
The more urgent, dangerous or critical the situation, the more you should veer towards the ‘command and control’ end of the continuum. Don’t try to engage everyone’s inspired motivation and commitment if the house is on fire: bark orders!
As a leader in these situations you are expected to take control. Provide clear direction and, if necessary, instructions, to get the job done.
– The ‘Maturity’ of the ‘Follower’
We don’t mean here their age, length of service, level of qualification, or anything else to do with them as an individual. What we mean is simply their willingness and their ability to carry out the specific task at hand.
If a person is unwilling, they are resistant to doing the task for whatever reason, and if they are unable to do the task, they lack the necessary skill set. The more unable and unwilling they are, the more your style should move to the left-hand ‘command and control’ end of the continuum.
This gives you a guide as to how to match your leadership style to the ‘maturity’ of your ‘follower’ – start where they are. Judge willingness and ability (‘maturity’) against the specific task, and match your leadership style to this. You will make mistakes if you judge a person according to their willingness and ability in a different task, or a completely different role.
Hence your puzzlement when an apparently perfectly capable person suddenly seems unwilling to take on a new task, or needs ‘hand-holding’ in a way you are not used to. If you think carefully, you will find that however capable the person has seemed in the past, it was in another role, or on a different task.
The most important quality of leadership is the ability to choose, then display, flexible leadership style depending, not on your preferences, but on the task maturity of the person you are leading. This is often the key leadership skill participants learn and go on to demonstrate in a Leadership Development Programme. You need to be willing and able to ‘flex’ your leadership style, even adopting styles that may initially be unnatural or uncomfortable for you.
The good news is that if you match your style to a person’s current, task-specific needs, they will very quickly grow and learn, allowing you to return to a more ‘hands-off’ mode. You very quickly improve your ability to get work done through your team, and develop individuals through to full ability and willingness – full ‘maturity’ – in their roles.