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What is your leadership style?

February 26, 2023

In this article I would like to go over the foundational topic of leadership styles. This is not just a common interview question but an important skill set for any leader to have. I am a believer that leaders are made and not born. Learning and applying these principles is the way you get better at using them. There are many different leadership styles but I would like to go over some of the most common ones out there. This is not an exhaustive list so I would encourage anyone that is interested to explore this topic in more debt.

1. Servant

Servant leaders prioritize the needs and well-being of their team members. They usually ask questions like “What can I do to set you up for success” or “Do you need anything from me in order to do your job better?”. They empower and develop their team to do their best work. This style may not be as effective in situations that require having a clear vision and a decisive leader.

2. Autocratic

Autocratic or sometimes called directive leadership is characterized by leaders providing clear expectations and guidelines for their team, and closely monitoring progress towards goals. This style can be effective in achieving short-term results. If overused this may cause people to feel a lack of trust, and halt creativity and independent thinking among team members.

3. Democratic

In this style, the leader involves team members in the decision-making process and seeks their input and feedback. This style can lead to high levels of engagement and commitment, and can also promote collaboration and creativity. The downside is that sometimes stalemates can occur if the team fails to agree on a common solution or direction.

4. Laissez-faire

In this style, the leader allows the team to make decisions and solve problems on their own, without much direction or interference. This can be effective in situations where the team is highly skilled and motivated but can lead to confusion and lack of direction.

5. Transformational

Transformational leaders inspire and motivate people toward a common goal by communicating a vision and creating a sense of purpose and enthusiasm. This style is effective at driving innovation and change. That said if used incorrectly it can lead to setting unrealistic expectations and create more harm than good.

Which one is the best?

As you can probably tell by now there is no single leadership style that is best, it all depends on the circumstances. Every style has its pros and cons and we as leaders need to be versatile and be able to use several in order to be effective. So now that we have a couple of tools or should I say styles under our belts, let’s explore how to use them.

Realistically no amount of theory is going to be able to substitute the experience of applying these in the real world. That said, I will try to provide a framework that you can use as a starting point. I learned this in a leadership and management training some years ago and it's called the Will Skill Matrix.

Will Skill Matrix

The Will Skill Matrix is actually a tool used for performance management. That said I found the underlying principles very useful to develop situational leadership and becoming a better coach and leader as a result. So what is this tool? Imagine a square and divide it into 4 equal parts. Each quadrant represents visually the competence (skill) and the motivation (will) of an individual. See the image below.

Will Skill Matrix

Now let’s explore each possibility one by one and see how we might want to change our approach by using a different leadership style.

High Will, Low Skill

This is where a lot of people start their careers. They are highly motivated but don’t have the skillset yet. It is very important to guide the person to acquire the necessary skills. I would recommend coaching and mentoring here. Don’t be overly prescriptive but also provide them with direction and guidance. Because of their high level of motivation you can at times let them fail and learn their own mistakes.

Low Will, Low Skill

This is where low performing individuals find themselves if they don’t get good support and guidance and are left to fail over and over again. Clear direction and instructions on what exactly they need to do to perform well are necessary and a directive leadership style here might work well. I would recommend defining clear next steps, starting with small wins and progressively increasing the difficulty of tasks until they reach the level they need to be at.

Low Will, High Skill

These are your senior folks that can do their job well but are lacking the motivation and drive. A transformational leadership style will likely work well in this instance. Explain the “why” behind initiatives. Show the impact on clients and stakeholders they will create with their work. Use 1:1 conversations to dive into what drives them and create those opportunities.

High Will, High Skill

These are your top performers. They can solve any problem you throw at them. Here a lot of things can work. Depending on the situation you can let them run their own course if they know exactly what they want and how to do it. Or you can use a servant leadership style and make sure they have what they need. One thing I think is crucial here is to make sure you understand what motivates them and keeps them challenged.

Finally, remember this is not a prescription and everything depends on the situation. In my experience it’s best to have an individualized approach and see what works for the person or team you are working with. I will leave you with the recommendation to go out there and apply what you learned, test it out and modify as needed.

As always I hope at least someone can find value in reading this article.

Keep a growth mindset and take care!

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