Leadership Styles: How to Dress for the Occasion

••• Thomas Barwick/Getty Images

Published 3/7/2015

When it comes to the clothes we wear, we all have a style that we are comfortable with and suits us for the majority of the places we go and people with whom we interact.

For some, it’s an old pair of jeans and a sweatshirt. For others, it’s an expensive tailor made suit.

Most of us understand the importance of “dressing for the occasion.” It’s just not appropriate to wear that comfortable old sweatshirt to a fancy restaurant (or so I’m told), nor would it be right to wear that $2,000 Ralph Lauren suit to an informal summer cookout.

Not only will you probably feel uncomfortable and inappropriate, you’ll probably make others around you uncomfortable, and you’ll be seen as clueless.

In some ways, the same is true for leadership. We all have a leadership style that we are most comfortable and suits us well in most situations. For new leaders, it may take a while to figure out what that style is, usually though trial and error experience.

It’s important for all leaders to have a high degree of self-awareness about who they are, what they stand for, and lead in a consistent way that doesn’t leave people guessing. Behavioral inconsistency can lead to distrust – people never know where you are coming from.

Just as with the outer clothing we wear, our natural, most comfortable style of leadership will not serve us (and others) well in all situations. Effective leaders need to learn to sometimes adapt their approach to the situation at hand.

For example, while a leader’s preferred style may be “hands off,” and they may be a natural delegator, that style will spell disaster for a brand new employee that’s never done what they are being asked to do. This employee needs direction, training, and support.

On the other hand, a highly competent and experienced employee doesn’t need high direction.

You’ll be seen as a dreaded micromanager.

This approach to leadership styles based on employee needs is called “situational leadership.”

The Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory was created by Dr. Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, author of the One-Minute Manager.

While there are different version of the Situational Leadership model, they follow a similar format, using a four-box grid based on the amount of direction and support an employee needs. The four styles are:

  1. Directing: Leaders define the roles and tasks of the 'follower', and supervise them closely. Decisions are made by the leader and announced, so communication is largely one-way.
  2. Coaching: Leaders still define roles and tasks, but seeks ideas and suggestions from the follower. Decisions remain the leader's prerogative, but communication is much more two-way.
  3. Supporting: Leaders pass day-to-day decisions, such as task allocation and processes, to the follower. The leader facilitates and takes part in decisions, but control is with the follower.
  4. Delegating: Leaders are still involved in decisions and problem-solving, but control is with the follower. The follower decides when and how the leader will be involved.

    See “10 Things a Manager Should Never Delegate.”

    Another approach categorizes leadership styles according to emotional intelligence (EQ), some of which work better than others in specific situations. Rather than adapting your leadership style to an employee based on the employee’s needs, the leader adapts to the situation at hand.

    These six EQ leadership styles are:

    1. Coercive: This “do what I say” style demands immediate compliance. It is especially useful in turnaround situations, in a crisis, and with problem employees. Using this style inhibits your organization’s flexibility, and can dampen employee motivation.
    2. Authoritative: This style mobilizes people toward a vision. Specifically, it provides an overarching goal, but gives others the freedom to choose their own way of reaching it. This approach is most effective when a business is at sea and needs direction, or during an economic or business downturn. This style is less successful when the leader is working with a team of experts who may have more experience, and may disagree with their approach.
    1. Affiliative: This “people-first” style engenders the creation of emotional bonds and team harmony. It is best used when team coherence is important or in times of low employee morale. But this approach’s focus on praise may permit poor performance among employees to continue unchecked, and employees may lack a sense of overall direction.
    2. Democratic: This style builds consensus through participation. It is most appropriate when organizational flexibility and a sense of individual responsibility is needed. The downside of this style is that it may result in indecision, and some people may be left feeling confused and leaderless.
    3. Pacesetting: This style expects excellence and self-direction. It works best for highly skilled and motivated people who work well on their own. Other people may feel overwhelmed by a pacesetting leader’s demands for excellence. Their self-esteem, trust, and, ultimately, their morale may drop under the regime of this type of leader.
    4. Coaching: This style focuses on development. Coaching leaders help employees identify their strengths and weaknesses, and tie them to their career aspirations. While this style is highly successful with people who want to change or improve professionally, it is largely unsuccessful with those who are resistant to learning or changing their ways.

    While some styles may be more comfortable for you to adopt than others, the more you stretch yourself to learn a range of styles, the more effective you will be as a leader.