Leaders often describe a desire to have ‘better leadership flexibility’ – or they want to see it throughout their organisation. Understanding leadership flexibility and how to create it is critical in business – and it is not as hard as most people think!
Leadership flexibility can be described as “The ability to lead and manage others in a non-rigid way”. The definition is important, because too often people want leadership ‘flexibility’ to mean only using a more negotiated, discussion and consensus based approach.
That is, they want to rigidly adopt a more consensual decision and leadership style. The underlying belief is that this is the “best” leadership style for a leader to have. Perhaps derived from a view that such a style demonstrates high Emotional Intelligence, and therefore must be good. This, however, is faulty.
Leadership flexibility is about being able to utilise a full range of leadership styles, from ‘authoritarian’ right through to ‘lassaiz faire’. No one leadership is better than the other, it is simply a matter of realising that there is a better style that can be deployed depending upon the specific context.
There are circumstances when each of the styles of leadership makes the most sense:
• Authoritarian leadership is valuable when there is a need for conformity, when the knowledge resides in the leader or where high uncertainty drives fear based actions.
• Democratic leadership is valuable when there is a group of peers, or individuals with mixed skills. It works well when there are a number of valued outcomes and the group has some degree of freedom in defining and deciding which outcome should be pursued.
• Lassiaz faire leadership is valuable when there is a group of specialists who are likely to work reasonably independently. The leader offers the direction, and relies of the specialist to define the best path forward and its execution.
In western cultures, there has been a large shift away from the ‘authoritarian’ style of leadership. However, if the building was on fire, people would look for an authoritarian leader to tell them what to do. The leader would say “Stand up, exit this door, proceed calmly, meet here…”. Consider the alternatives – a democratic leader would ask the room “OK, there is a fire. I open the floor for suggestions on what we should do. We will have a vote to decide.” A lassaiz faire leader would simply say “you know what to do, get out of here”.
It may seem like an extreme example, but there are many instances in your business where you need to be rigid, dogmatic and directive. Consider issues such as ethics, compliance, legal issues, occupational health and safety, your principles, your standards or your values. In these things I would want and expect a leader to be the ‘authoritarian’. Clear and consistent ‘directive’ is required where the organisation can tolerate little latitude. Crisis communication is another perfect example of this.
However, there are also many other times when different leadership styles should be employed. Differing levels of negotiation, inclusion and adaptability can be applied depending on the specific issue. Developing buy-in, overcoming political impasses and developing the skills and competencies of the people require a more open and less dictatorial leadership style.
The key to leadership flexibility is therefore to:
• Lead issue by issue, congruent with your styles and values.
• Determine ‘what is at stake’: is it a critical issue with no latitude that requires an authoritarian style? Do the people need direction without cramping their specialist abilities? Is there a better solution by discussion and agreement?
• Determine the human implication: How does this impact the people involved – does it help develop their long term value for the organisation? What is the prevailing and accepted style for the group? Is the leadership process also a teaching/development process?
• Ask: What would I miss by simply following my personal leadership style preference?
Often people have ‘problems’ with being authoritarian – they have a belief that it will ensure they are not liked or appreciated. On the contrary – when it is made clear ‘why’ the issue is being dealt with in a directive way, it can give people certainty which they greatly appreciate. If you are consistent in your application of flexibility, the staff can understand and appreciate both the role you play and the opportunity for their participation.
We all have a preference for how we like to lead. Being aware of your personal preference allows you to make great decisions if this is the right ‘style’ of leadership to deploy at such times. Leadership style is based upon a range of specific interpersonal behaviours and skills that the leader will select to deploy or hold back. As you shift from unconsciously behaving according to your personal preference and start to consciously select your leadership behaviours, you can immediately become a more flexible leader, adding significant value to the business.
What is your leadership style?
How could you be more flexible?