Moving the Dial on Leadership Styles

Some years ago I surveyed 20 senior executives in preparation for their attendance at a leadership development program. The primary purpose for the conduct of these surveys was to contribute to the learning of the 20 participants; but the aggregate data was also useful.

There were two standout results from the aggregated survey data. One such result was that the participants operated in an environment characterised by low clarity. They were unclear about their own accountabilities and/or the organisational direction to which they were intended to contribute. The other result was that they all favored a certain style of leadership whereby they saw themselves as role models for their staff and led by example.

This leadership style is effective in the short-term in raising performance. When used effectively, it works for employees who are completely self-motivated and understand their objectives. It is also important for demonstrating that a manager can “pitch in with the troops” when necessary.

It is less effective in times of organisational change when an explicit discussion of the mission and employees’ roles is warranted. Also, it can produce extreme stress as the manager takes on more of the work of his or her subordinates.

I didn’t get to meet the CEO, but it’s tempting to assume that he too led by example. Leaders tend to learn from other leaders, so this leadership style on the part of the CEO would explain both the prevalence of the style across the next level down and the low clarity environment in which they all operated.

This experience should come as no surprise. It’s clear anecdotally that leading by example is a common leadership style among senior executives. Promotion to senior ranks generally requires an unwavering focus on performance which is typically fueled by the same motive [achievement] that fuels this style.  Sadly it should also come as no surprise when, in this time of rapid change, company growth starts to stagnate, productivity flat-lines and innovation falters.

The obvious answer is for leaders to invest more of their time and thought in the long-term development of others; helping them to identify their unique strengths and weaknesses; sitting down to a candid, mutual assessment of their strengths and weaknesses in the light of their aspirations; helping to establish a development plan, and providing ongoing support and feedback.

So why don’t leaders coach? Are they under too much pressure themselves to deliver? Are they simply wired to operate as a loner? Are they lacking in good role models? Perhaps a generational change in leadership ranks is needed to move the dial on leadership styles.