The Best Leadership Style is Knowing How To Juggle All of Them

Watching the fall of Uber founder and CEO Travis Kalanick in recent weeks, I came across an intriguing quote from his resignation letter to his employees. As someone dedicated to personal growth, it resonated with me:

“There is of course much to be proud of but there is much to improve. For Uber 2.0 to succeed… I also need to work on Travis 2.0 to become the leader that this company needs and that you deserve.”

This sentiment that one should evolve on a personal level at the same time their business is evolving is at the heart of what makes highly effective leaders and strong companies. However, for many founders who fall into their CEO roles, improving how you show up as a leader often takes a backseat (sometimes permanently) to the hours and energy spent building the company and scaling in the market.

As exemplified most recently by Uber’s Kalanick, when one’s leadership leans too heavily on one style, and no concern is placed on how that style impacts the people carrying the weight of the company’s success, it can put the future success of the enterprise at risk.

Pros and Cons to Common Leadership Styles

Similar to Kalanick, most startup CEOs tend to lean on a particular style that matches with their personalities or how they were lead themselves — good or bad. These styles can range from the autocratic leader who controls every decision to the laissez-faire leader who delegates everything. In the middle of this spectrum can be found the participatory leader who solicits opinions from the group before making a decision and the transformational leader who inspires people to work towards the same goal through a vision of a future they are creating together.

Each of these styles has its pros and cons, and each is effective based on the situations and the followers involved. While some teams might resent the total decision making control of autocratic leaders, it can be effective when a business faces constant change and quick direction is required. Creative environments also thrive on autocratic leadership, such as in the case of Ridley Scott, where the realization of his exact vision is critical to the success of a film.

Laissez-faire or delegative leaders, can be so hands-off that teams fail to make the best decisions or suffer from low productivity due to a lack of direction. However, when capable, dedicated and self-directed team members are hired and properly incentivized, (as in the case of someone like Warren Buffett), this hands-off style can yield impressive results.

Participatory leaders solicit team member opinions before making decisions. This practice is utilized by Southwest Airlines CEO James Parker, who creates an environment where employees to feel valued and “heard” by management. As a result, they tend to be more productive and feel a higher level of job satisfaction. However, such a style can slow down decision making and create a security risk when knowing sensitive information is required before an employee can provide constructive feedback.

Finally, transformational leaders, like Elon Musk, have an uncanny ability to quickly assess a company’s current situation and formulate a vision for improvement that energizes people to get on board. However, transformational leadership can often gloss over details for execution, causing some teams to struggle to realize the vision set for them. Additionally, transformational leadership sometimes rely too much on hype or the engagement of emotions, and less on the reality of the situation.

Evolving A Leadership Style Requires Feedback & Adaptation

It is natural for a person to lean on one of these styles, generally out of habit, or a lack of awareness of other styles. However, just because it’s successful in one context, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be effective in every context. Without behavioral flexibility — the ability to fluidly switch between leadership approaches — employee confidence might become eroded and a collective sense of dissatisfaction in the organization could fester.

An entrepreneur named Anthony, who worked with me a few years ago, embodied this monotone mindset. After struggling for some time to grow his small company into a bigger player, he enlisted my help to “fix” his “problem employees.” He claimed they were lazy, didn’t take direction, resisted fulfilling his wishes, didn’t really understand what they were doing, and they relied to heavily on him. He felt like nothing happened without his involvement. A frustrating experience, indeed.

To gain a better understanding, I conducted a 360 analysis designed to understand both what was working in the organization and what needed to be improved — including Anthony. As the interviews proceeded, a very different picture began to emerge of the company’s operations. There was substantial evidence that Anthony’s had a habit of making unilateral decisions on corporate direction without consulting any of his department heads. Staff told me of his tendency to say one thing to one group of people, and something entirely different to another. Instead of finding lazy employees, I found hamstrung workers who were in the dark and held little-to-no decision making authority.

In the end, the objective methodology of the 360 analysis allowed us to see a complete picture of Anthony’s startup. The interviews made it clear this team was full of well-meaning and hard working professionals, who still believed strongly in their startup’s mission and its ability to change their industry with their technology products. However, they were also a group in desperate need of a leadership style that would build consensus and trust them to do their jobs as they saw fit.

The root of Anthony’s challenges with his employees was not that they were lazy or incompetent. It was that over the years he had relied too heavily on the autocratic style of leadership and allowed any trust or confidence among all parties to erode to nearly nothing.

My respect for Anthony definitely grew, in part, for being courageous enough to subject himself to such analysis and, more importantly, to take the 360 findings to heart and immediately stretch his leadership repertoire. Over the next few months, we worked together to broaden his flexibility, develop the awareness to know what style type was best suited for the person or situation, and how best to implement it. His natural autocratic leadership style might still come in handy when situations required a quick or unilateral decision, but now Anthony assesses the situation and takes action out of choice not from habit.

Through this learning process, he also developed greater patience and restraint in his management style, learned to delegate more authority, more frequently solicit feedback, and he developed consistency in the messages he delivered to his staff. Soon his stress levels were reduced, his joy in the business returned, and his time was freed-up to focus on larger organizational needs, such as growing the company and positioning it for a lucrative exit.

Like Anthony and Kalanick, many leaders routinely fail to take stock of the situation at hand and employ the leadership tool(s) that will deliver the most effective results. When leaders understand how they can consciously choose the right leadership style for a particular context, organizational effectiveness and productivity soars to new heights. Just as a golfer selects the best club for the current shot, highly effective leaders see these various styles as tools they can implement to ensure their teams achieve their goals.

What leadership style do you lean on the most? Do you tend to have one style at work and another at home, or do you employ the same methods everywhere? Are you courageous enough to ask a few close friends or family members to provide feedback on how you show up as a leader? Are you willing to take their feedback, step out of your comfort zone and expanding your repertoire?

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” —Lao Tzu

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