Entrepreneurs are bold and adventurous risk-takers who leverage these qualities to inspire, push, cajole, charm, and (sometimes) berate their employees into creating amazing results for their newly minted companies.
In Silicon Valley, for example, tech startup CEOs or founders are encouraged to be “quirky” and receive positive reinforcement for their unique way of doing things. Many executives take pride in having their own signature style of leadership — a business approach that they believe is an integral part of their success. However, signature business styles are not always the best way to lead.
The Problem With a Signature Style
Having a single signature leadership style can be dangerous, because employees will quickly learn to moderate their feedback and expectations to match their leader’s style. As a result, the leader will be left with some serious blind spots.
For instance, Tracy loves to be the innovator, but she doesn’t have the patience to wade through every tiny detail. Consequently, her surrounding team has been trained to approach her with big-picture solutions only. Her colleagues have learned that when confronted with problems and intricate details, Tracy will lose interest and “switch off.” Sadly, it is this particular behavior and distinct leadership style that will earn Tracy praise, regardless of its negative repercussions.
On the other end of the spectrum, Jeff is obsessed with details and has created a culture in which data must validate each problem before resolutions are discussed and implemented.
Another example is Amanda, who encourages her direct reports to come up with the answers. She is thrilled when her team takes the lead because the idea of servant leadership warms her heart.
The problem with being predictable and having a fixed leadership style is that a leader can miss out on the opportunity to truly understand a specific situation. Those employees who are used to working under a certain leadership style will moderate their behavior to match that style, which may be counterintuitive. In addition, employees can eventually resent that form of leadership. One group might react in silent frustration or complacency, while another might adopt a confrontational attitude, which they believe is necessary to connect and engage with the leadership style they are being subjected to.
The concept that a leader should have a fixed style and expect others around them to adapt is a dangerous one. When this happens, the leader becomes the very reason the organization can’t fix problems and move forward in an efficient manner.
The Right Leadership Style
Some leaders are great at giving advice and mentoring employees toward the right path. Some excel at seeing the big picture and delegating tasks with unparalleled efficiency. And some are known for their creativity and problem-solving skills. While all of these qualities are valuable, it’s important that leaders understand the value of flexibility. Great leaders learn how to adjust their style according to the needs of the company, meeting, or employee at that moment in time.
The most effective leaders are able to adapt their style on the spot, are consciously aware that it must be changed, and will even announce their changing strategy to those around them. The best CEOs will even take it a step further, by cooperating with their colleagues and agreeing on which style is the most appropriate to use.
Agreeing to a Leadership Style
How, then, does a leader implement this strategy? In this example, a business leader is holding a meeting with Linda, product manager at the company. The leader might not have had the time to prepare because of their hectic schedule. This is a defining moment. Here, the leader should not default to their autopilot style of leadership. Instead, now is the time to seek Linda’s opinion and offer her the support she needs. Initially, Linda might be confused by this type of dynamic leadership style, and might not have the required answers. The leader should use this opportunity to put forth the available style options, and reach an agreement as to which one will best support or solve the situation at hand.
By coming to terms with the type of role that will be adopted, leaders can support their teams in a manner that doesn’t harm relationships. When employees take an active part in supporting the company, they will offer better support to their leaders, helping them to build stronger ideas and solidify working relationships.
The following leadership styles may be appropriate in certain instances:
- Commander – This leader calls the shots and makes decisions. This style is required in business-critical scenarios, or when a point needs to be made. It’s also useful when a tie-breaker is needed or when a decision must be made. Those who adopt this style must remain consistent, firm, and decisive. However, one must be wary of unconsciously adopting this approach, as it might intimidate others. To avoid being interpreted as aggressive, the leader should express that this is solely a role that is being played to move forward.
- Mentor – This style is used to guide a team or team member in the right direction. The mentor listens carefully before providing guidance to others. Advice is tempered so that it will come across as a suggestion rather than a demand. Founders struggle with this style due to lack of patience. Seasoned executives tend to over-rely on this approach. This style has its downsides, as it can result in sending unclear directions to subordinates.
- Brainstormer – This requires creativity to create and build on ideas as a team. Entrepreneurs love bouncing ideas around. As such, they naturally lean toward this style. The capability to innovate is what makes an organization successful. A leader who allows others to co-create increases buy-in for ideas. With this style, judgment and safety must be de-prioritized, as creative expression thrives in a constraint-free zone. However, it’s essential to apply this style in the right setting; otherwise, the leader will create a culture in which execution is secondary to ideation — the antithesis to scaling a company.
- Challenger – Oftentimes, a leader needs to “poke holes” in a plan or idea to make it even better. The challenger offers contentious opinions and plays out the counter-arguments that provoke debate and test a plan’s strength. This is a critical role to play when a leader worries about a lack of objectivity. However, those who adopt this style can be misconstrued as being argumentative and unsupportive. Therefore, it is important to gain agreement with others and be explicit in the role that will be played.
- Therapist – An employee may just need to vent. Here, listening skills are critical. The therapist creates a safe environment for employees, allowing them to vent and express themselves. The therapist needs to listen and refrain from being judgmental or assertive. Cultures in which leaders fail to apply this style are often plagued with burnout and resentment issues. Knowing when to apply this style requires emotional intelligence and the right environment. Those who adopt this style might find it emotionally draining, so it’s important to find a replacement when exhaustion sets in.
- Friend – Since we spend so much of our day with our teammates, it’s important to build connections that don’t depend on a work agenda. Leaders who pay attention to the personalities and interests of their employees are appreciated and viewed as being less transactional and more trustworthy. It’s also important to recognize that leaders crave genuine social connections, and need time when they can switch off from the daily grind. This style may only be revealed to those closest to the leader in question, or expressed in the early stages of a new working relationship. However, leaders should recognize their place and maintain a healthy boundary between professional and personal relationships.
A great leader can switch between these different styles and use them according to the circumstance at hand. The best leaders include other team members and seek their agreement on which style is the most productive for that given moment. This could be as simple as providing the team member with a choice of styles that may best fit the situation.
When You Shouldn’t Seek Agreement
There might be instances when a leader will need to drive the interaction and determine their own style. In such cases, they should not seek agreement or give team members a choice. This can happen when a leader has more information on a particular meeting topic, needs to discuss a sensitive subject, or bring up a concern about a co-worker or employee.
If Linda, for example, is someone who often complains, the leader shouldn’t offer to be a therapist. Similarly, if Linda is distracted and always coming up with new ideas rather than getting things done, then the leader must refrain from being a brainstormer. In these scenarios, the leader might want to adopt a commander or mentor approach.
Leaders who don’t want “cookie-cutter” answers for their team, or don’t want to be blindsided with problems that could have been solved earlier, need to be flexible with their leadership style. By adjusting the style to suit the need of the moment, leaders will help their team become more productive, which will ultimately strengthen the business. By being flexible, leaders will experience a radical difference in how productive their meetings and processes are.
Zain Jaffer is founder and CEO of Zain Ventures, an investment firm investing globally in startups, real estate, stocks, fixed income, hedge funds and private equity.