In a world where everyone is unique, there is no one-size-fits-all leadership strategy. Great leaders must have the adaptability to lead diverse teams, aligning and coalescing different personalities, ages and cultures around a common vision.
In successful organizations, the job of a leader is to make sure a variety of people in different roles pull in the same direction. There is no single “best” style of leadership when organisations are in different stages of growth, competitiveness and are staffed with employees with varying skills, abilities, personalities, motivations, experiences, age groups and cultural backgrounds.
To manage effectively given all of these variables, great leaders must be versatile.
Different leadership styles are required in different and often challenging business environments. During times of change, a transformational leadership style is often needed and can be very effective. These transformational leaders are often charismatic – not necessarily boisterous – and inspire followers to higher goals and achievements. They encourage followers to be creative and tackle original, challenging projects with energy by extolling a shared vision. For transformational leaders, their leadership is an entrepreneurial activity.
During business conditions that are defined by maintaining the status quo, a transactional leadership style is often more appropriate. Instead of motivation for change, transactional leaders encourage excellence via compliance and efficiency. This is a much more process-oriented style of leadership where tasks are clearly defined, logic is virtuous and there is less outside-the-box thinking. In these organisations, leaders strive to build higher performance cultures within the existing frameworks rather than creating something new or different all the times.
In reality, most businesses fall somewhere in between these two extremes, yet they never remain static in that way. Given the fluid nature of business today and increasing frequency of disruption, companies are continuously transitioning through stages of change and certainty. Companies that can afford complacency for the time being are bound to enter a period where change is necessary for survival. Thus, managers will require more than just one type leadership skill throughout their career if they are to remain relevant, and become effective leaders.
Beyond the company’s competitive landscape, organisations are comprised of individuals with varying degrees of experience, needs and personalities. Leadership cannot be the same for each one. To create synergies that achieve the broader objectives, a manager’s style must depend on the combination of skill and motivation of the person they are trying to influence in order to create followership across the organization.
Employees in most organizations can be generally classified into four distinct groups – each requiring a different approach to leadership:
Competent and committed: These types of employees are a manager’s dream – they are skilled in their duties and motivated to do them. In these idyllic situations, managers can afford a hands-off approach, empowering employees with clear objectives, few restrictions and trust. Because these employees are often intrinsically motivated, managers have little need for close support relationships. Unfortunately, these type of employees account for the smallest proportion of employees in today’s organisations, where a significant part is either “not engaged” or are “actively disengaged” from their work.
Skilled but unmotivated: When an employee can do the job but shows a lack of effort or commitment, a leader’s first instinct may be to become more directive. In most cases, however, constantly reminding this employee of their tasks and responsibilities can have a further demotivating affect and may lead to more resistance. Task awareness is not the issue. Great leaders will spend a disproportionate amount of time and emotional energy on these employees as they become part-time psychologists rather than superiors. Close relationships, attentive listening, emotional support and empathy will unlock where advice is truly needed.
Unable but motivated: New hires and executives who have shifted responsibilities will fall under this category. Because a high-degree of motivation is already present, the primary responsibility of mentors for this group is skill-based. Leaders must provide development tools and close supervision as long as they are required, but ease off as skills are developed. Eventually, a leader’s responsibility should shift toward emotional support and encouragement only rather than direct involvement. Continuing with an autocratic style of leadership that is no longer necessary may have an adverse effect on moral.
Unwilling and unable: This type of person is the polar opposite of an ideal employee and will not only test the emotional and motivational skills of a manager, but also their patience. When a follower cannot do a job and is also unwilling or afraid to try, leaders must not only respond with direction, problem-solving and decision-making on daily tasks, but also provide the psychological support described in the previous example. However, it is important to monitor the development closely, as the employee can damage the organization in the long term, so terminating employment may be the solution
Great leaders must be comfortable using all four styles of leadership, flowing seamlessly between each method with each interaction. Knowing when to let go, when to trust and when to take control at the right time will allow employees to reach their full potential. Unfortunately, more people today view their managers as an obstacle to their effectiveness than as an enabler of it – much of this is due to their ignorance of the right leadership style or their inability to apply it.
Leadership in the twenty first century requires a high degree of emotional intelligence in order to be effective. As much as leaders want them to, people will not always fit neatly in to the four categories described above. Instead, they will flow between them over time, from day-to-day and even from task-to-task. Leadership versatility requires an ability to assess a situation accurately before applying the appropriate leadership style (or combination of styles). Not an easy task for any leader, but it can be learned and fine-tuned over time.
Of the two dynamics described above, the motivational element is by far more difficult for a leader to decipher than skills. Yet, motivation is the most important. As human beings, we tend to project our own priorities, sensibilities and world view on others. In other words, we believe other individuals will behave in the same way that we would in the same situation. However, it is clear that the same reasoning does not work with everybody.
To lead people, managers must understand the unique perspective and experiences that shape each person. Assume you have two people of equal stature, equal academic background and equal work experience. However, one has come from an impoverished childhood and overcome many early challenges compared to the other whose privileged background provided vastly different life experiences. When taken at face value, the two should respond to direction and incentives in the same way – while this may be true, it may also be far from the truth. Great leaders strive to understand the world through the lens of those they lead and avoid assumptions, generalisations and stereotypes. They are fully aware of any important social contexts so they can apply a high degree of sensitivity to their leadership styles.
Demographics of modern organisations are continuing to evolve and two specific areas that challenge leaders today include a widening generational gap and increasingly multi-cultural teams.
Leading across generations: Millennials now make up the largest portion of active workers in organizations around the world. Combined with the fact that older workers are remaining in the workforce longer, such age diversity creates new challenges for leaders. For example, more than a third of human resources managers, report that the level of professionalism among new hires has decreased in the last five years. Management techniques that emphasize career progression and monetary rewards are becoming less relevant. In many Western organizations, freedom, flexibility and trust are becoming more important characteristics of an ideal workspace. Millennials in each country will have different priorities.
In many companies, young leaders are rising fast and may find themselves leading employees many years their senior. Older workers who are more accustomed to formal hierarchies and more face-to-face communication may even project a degree of resentment toward their younger leader. Young leaders will need to find a middle ground of understanding, searching for shared experiences as well as areas where they complement each other. A millennial leader with advanced capabilities in the new digital world inclusive of gathering data and insights, for example, may find their employees much more effective at making decisions and avoiding past mistakes.
Leading across cultures: Globalization has meant that multi-ethnic teams are now the norm in a world that increasingly has become real-time 24/7. More than 60% of managers say their teams have become more diverse in the past three years and 55% are more geographically distributed. Leaders must, therefore, account for widely different cultural perspectives, such as Confucian values of many Asian countries and the more individualistic traits of Western countries. Theories mentioned earlier in this article will also require some adaptation. Employees in the West, for example, are less likely to require clarity of roles and responsibilities compared to their Asian counterparts. Complicating matters further, Asian countries are not as homogenous as once believed. Each nation is a mosaic of culture, religion and tradition that requires great care to understand completely to apply an effective leadership style.
The financial impact of effective cross-cultural leadership cannot be ignored. Organizations rated as “excellent” in harnessing perspectives of diverse teams are more likely to achieve earnings growth above than 10% per year.
Great leaders must be flexible and continually adapt themselves to their situation. At the strategic-level, there must be a good fit between the leader’s behavior and the company’s state of competitiveness – for example whether they are in a period of change or consolidation, or somewhere in between these phases. However, on an individual level, there are far more variables to consider. Great leaders use the style of leadership appropriate not just for the company as a whole, but for each individual.
Without exception, versatility is a necessity for every leader from the line manager throughout the organization to the boardroom members inclusive of the CEO, CFO and CMO. While some may believe the micro-interpersonal details are not necessary for boardroom executives who deal with big-picture strategy, it must not be forgotten that these people have many types of directors, regional heads and vice presidents reporting directly to them. In fact, the more senior a person in any organization, the more important the effectiveness of leadership becomes. The reason being that subordinates progressively also have greater power to influence the organization for better or worse.
Human capital is the engine that drives growth and performance in order for companies to compete across cultures and markets in a globalized world. Organizations will achieve no more than the combined synergies created by their people will allow for. In the end, it is not only the style of leadership that counts, but its effectiveness. The best leadership style is not one style, but a dynamic process driven by change.
Versatility is the key to effective leadership in the twenty first century.
This article is part of the Leadership Series. Read the other articles: