Approaches to Leadership

February 3, 2012 | Author: PM Hut | Filed under: Leadership

Approaches to Leadership
By James Grinnell

Over the years there have been many different models of leadership style presented in the leadership literature. In fact, some have noted that there are as many theories of leadership as there are people studying the topic. While the literature is profuse, there is consensus in broad stroke. Daniel Goleman (2000) provides a contemporary and reasonably comprehensive typology of leadership style in his article Leadership that Gets Results. According to Goleman, there are six different approaches to leadership: coercive, pacesetting, authoritarian, affiliative, democratic, and coaching. Each is discussed in turn.

The coercive leader is akin to a military drill instructor. This type of leader engages in top-down decision-making and demands immediate compliance from his/her followers. Although this approach results in predictable follower behaviors and quick decisions, there are a number of significant downsides. Creativity, innovation, and initiative are virtually non-existent under this type of leader. The complete lack of intrinsic motivation results in subordinates working toward the expectations set by the leader, but rarely if ever producing beyond this level. Why would they? They are motivated to avoid the negative consequences of not achieving the leader’s demands, nothing more. Although the coercive leader creates an alienated workforce, there are some instances where this style is appropriate. When facing a crisis where immediate actions are required and the consequences are steep, the coercive style may be the only option. Likewise, the style may be appropriate when dealing with problem employees who have not responded to other approaches. With the exception of these limited instances, the coercive style is rarely effective.

Pacesetters like coercive leaders are results oriented. These leaders have a compulsive need to achieve, thus they perpetually raise the bar for their subordinates as well as themselves. Pacesetters have a very low level of patience for poor performers or slow learners. Their approach is get it done yesterday and next time get it done even quicker! This type of leader does not provide effusive developmental feedback on how to perform. Subordinates who fail to “make their numbers” will quickly find themselves separated from the organization. Although this style typically leaves behind a wake of burned out employees, some people thrive under this style. This style works best with individuals who are self-starters, are motivated by financial rewards (since pacesetters often provide significant performance-based compensation), and have very little need for guidance/direction..

The authoritative leader motivates his/her subordinates by providing a compelling vision of how the individual’s actions fit into the “bigger picture.” These leaders provide specifics with respect to the desired outcomes, but leave ample discretion for how to achieve these outcomes. Subordinates are empowered to take risks and experiment and they receive ample constructive feedback on how they are progressing. Although feedback is crucial, the authoritative leader must avoid being too overbearing. If they provide too much guidance, they will lose the benefit derived from empowering employees. Overall, the authoritative style is the most effective in the widest range of situations, but it is also a very difficult style to utilize properly.

The first three leadership styles place primary emphasis on the leader insofar as each of them involves the leader driving subordinate behaviors. The remaining three styles, in contrast, place the focus on the followers. The first of these styles, the affiliative leader, puts people before all else. This type of leader seeks harmony amongst the work team and he/she will even sacrifice performance for the maintenance of esprit de corps. These individuals promote open communications, allow people to perform their tasks as they see fit, and build strong emotional bonds with the people they lead. The affiliative leader has no problems doling out praise and positive feedback; unfortunately, this type of leader has a hard time offering negative feedback even when warranted. The overall goal is to promote a strong sense of belongingness amongst the group. While all of these attributes seem positive, there are some significant limitations to this style. For one, this style enables poor performers to “sneak below the radar screen.” Ultimately, this can undermine the cohesion of the group, especially if the other team members absorb the slack of these free riders. The affiliative style also breaks down when a clear sense of direction is needed by the team. Overall, while the affiliative leader builds a positive work environment, this style is rarely successful when it is used exclusive of other styles.

The democratic leader, like the affiliative leader, seeks to create a positive environment with his/her subordinates. They work diligently to build an environment of mutual trust, respect, and “buy in.” Because of such emphasis, a high state of morale exists amongst subordinates. What makes this type of leader different from the affiliative leader is that there is much more emphasis on performance and outcomes under the democratic leader. While the affiliative leader places positive relations above all else, the democratic leader gives ultimate priority to performance. They may work extensively toward building consensus and buy-in, but in the end decisions need to be made and the democratic leader is not hesitant to make those decisions when consensus does not emerge. This approach works very well in complex decision settings, when there is a high need for creativity/innovation, and when the team is comprised of highly motivated and educated members. However, there are some drawbacks to this style. For one, decision making under this type of leader tends to be slow and deliberate. In some circumstances, the team may be frustrated with the pace of action (or more appropriately inaction!). In a related manner, this style does not work well when quick decisions are required. This is just not a style built for speed. Another problem with the democratic style is that followers can grow to feel leaderless and confused. To make this style work effectively, the leader has to find the delicate balance between empowerment and decisiveness. Lastly, this style does not work when subordinates lack team cohesion or when they are unmotivated or performing rote, mundane tasks.

Finally, the coaching style emphasizes developing subordinates so that they ultimately become effective “self-leaders.” To facilitate this process, this type of leader works closely with his/her subordinates to develop long-term development plans/goals. Feedback is a central tool utilized in this style to nurture and guide subordinates toward their developmental goals. This style, like the affiliative style, focuses on building one-on-one relationships with subordinates. The coaching leader effectively taps into each individual’s motivations, builds on their strengths, and helps mitigate their weaknesses. As with the democratic leader, the coaching leader is outcome focused, but they are more forgiving with respect to time horizons and setbacks. It may take a little longer and there may be substantial setbacks-and hence “learning moments”-but in the end results will follow. After some up-front investment, the coaching leader cultivates a team of self-leaders. As with each leadership style, there are drawbacks to this approach. For one thing, the leader must genuinely be accepting of failure especially early in the coaching process. Second, he/she must be certain that the subordinates are up for the challenge. Coaching is a relationship and thus if all parties are not committed, this style will result in failure. Lastly, the leader must be a good coach. This is often overlooked, but this style requires a high level of restraint and patience, strong communication skills, the ability to deliver constructive feedback, and the capacity to build one-on-one relationships. Because of the immense difficulty associated with effectively employing this style, the coaching approach is by far the least utilized style. However, there are significant intermediate and long-term upsides to this style.

The preceding presented these styles as though they are unitary and mutually exclusive. The implication is that individuals fall into one and only one of these styles. In reality, all leaders reflect varying levels of each of these styles and they often employ them in varying proportions depending on the specifics of a particular situation. Indeed, what separates effective from ineffective leaders is the capacity for facile leadership. Leader effectiveness is highly correlated with the extent that individuals genuinely possess each of these styles and applies them as appropriate. Leadership effectiveness thus requires a contingency approach. As Goleman notes “… the research indicates that leaders with the best results do not rely on only one leadership style; they use most of them in a given week-seamlessly and in different measure-depending on the business situation.” Leaders who demonstrate at least four styles fluidly (in particular the authoritative, affiliative, democratic, and coaching styles) perform better than their peers with a more limited repertoire.

James Grinnell is an Associate Professor of Management at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Studies from the University of Massachusetts. His areas of focus include leadership, organizational change & development, high-performance teams, and strategic management. You can read more from James on his blog.

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