Adaptability is a key to survival, both in the natural world and in the business world.  Those that are slow to recognize and respond to changes risk being driven out of existence by competitors.  For people in positions of leadership, it is important that they are aware what type of leader they are.  (Check out our article titled “What Type of Leader Are You?” for more on this.)  It is also important to understand when situations call for a change in leadership styles to ensure success.

There are a wide range of leadership styles and labels out there, but most leaders fall within extreme ends of the spectrum when it comes to certain leadership qualities.  Some leaders are more inclined to taking direct action while others are more inactive and reliant on their subordinates.  Some are more democratic in their approach while others are authoritarian.  Some seek participation from associates before making decisions; others prefer to give directives to those working under them.  Some leaders are highly considerate of their subordinates and believe that success is most likely attainable through developing strong relationships and teamwork among people within the organization; leaders who are more oriented towards tasks focus on achieving success through the initiation of activities and procedures that people within the organization are expected to complete or fulfill.  Regardless of the primary style of the leader, there is a time and place for everything, and a good understanding of which leadership styles are best suited for which situations will increase the chances of any organization’s success.  Let’s look at some examples, keeping in mind that this is not at all an exhaustive examination of leadership styles. 

A coercive or transactional approach that depends upon subordinates complying with directives from the leader in exchange for rewards (or in the case of failure, punishment) may be an effective style in a time of crisis or when a particular long-term problem needs to be addressed, but it is seldom a good idea to use it as a long-term strategy because it can stifle creativity, flexibility, and motivation.  On the other hand, highly considerate servant leadership is not usually well-suited to situations where quick decisions or meeting hard deadlines is imperative, but it is an excellent style to employ if the organization needs to heal after a traumatic event or if there is a need to establish or rebuild trust. This is because it involves the whole team in decision-making, and the servant leader puts the interests of the others in his or her organization before his or her own interests. 

An inactive, laissez-faire style of leadership can be successful if team members are experienced, competent self-starters who enjoy working autonomously, and it may be useful when team members are working remotely or are separately in charge of various components of a project that must come together quickly.  However, it can be a disastrous leadership style if team members are not very competent or motivated, and it can lead subordinates to perceive the leader as weak or ineffective if he or she is not adequately controlling situations.  On the other hand, a people-oriented, coaching style can be effective in creating an environment of collaboration and teamwork while trying to help teammates reach their full potential by developing personal strengths that lead to overall success.  This style can lead to failure when team members are resistant to change or defiant, and over-implementation of this strategy can lead to failure to achieve team goals. 

Task-oriented or authoritative/autocratic leadership styles can be very effective when time is limited, deadlines need to be met, or when safety is at stake.  A more authoritative style may also be useful when the team needs a change of vision because circumstances dictate one.  Prolonged use of such leadership styles may lead to dissatisfaction among subordinates and a high turnover rate because the ideas or needs of team members are often neglected, and this style may not work well if the authoritarian leader is actually working with a team of people who know more than he or she does.  Conversely, a democratic approach from a transformational leader typically motivates and inspires the team through a collaborative vision of future success.  With this type of leadership style, team participation in decision-making is expected, and group members are encouraged to provide input and to develop and explore innovative and creative pursuits.  This tends to foster enthusiasm, commitment, and optimism from the group, which in turn can lead to higher productivity.  However, in cases of emergency or when time is of the essence, this type of approach may hinder success, particularly if team members are not sufficiently informed to offer useful advice to the leader. 

There are many types of leaders out there, and most leaders have proclivities toward one leadership style or another.  However, sometimes circumstances call for a change in approach.  When a leader exercises situational leadership by adopting a style best suited to the conditions facing the group, both the leader and the group have a better chance of effectively meeting challenges and achieving success.

*image courtesy of salvatore vuono/freedigitalphotos.net