In the professional world, there is much debate about leadership styles. Which style is the best? Which style should you use to build a successful team? Do leadership styles even matter?
“People like being able to know where somebody is coming from and they can get caught up in labels, and that’s easy, but it’s not particularly effective,” said Larry Seal, the founder and CEO of EngagedLeadership, an executive coaching and training organization. “What’s really effective is taking the time to understand each of those people, and I’m not talking about being a therapist. Understand what’s going to get the best out of each person and recognize that it’s going to be different from you most of the time.”
In order to become effective at understanding people, you actually need only focus on two main leadership styles, which Seal explained to Ladders in detail. Plus, find out the five main characteristics of an accountable leader, based on research from Dr. Vince Molinaro, the CEO of Leadership Contract Inc.
The 2 leadership styles that matter
While a lot of tools, models, or assessments might try to help you find the exact leadership style that fits you best, there are really only two styles that matter, according to Seal.
“I think they can all have their place, but in my 25 years of coaching, the most important distinction in terms of leadership style is directive versus collaborative,” Seal said.
When it comes to directive versus collaborative leadership styles, Seal is referring to a leader’s natural tendency. Think about it, are you naturally more directive or collaborative when you’re leading a group? If you’re not sure, keep on reading.
“Obviously they both have their time and place, and for me, really the fun part…the art and the science of leadership communication… is about, how do you bring the two together? How do you be both? Because there’s a time and a place for both,” Seal said.
Directive leadership style
If you are directive by tendency, you will tell more than you ask. Directive leaders start with an answer of their own.
Directive leaders may be open to input, but their default is to go with their own solution because they are the decider. Directive leaders set the direction of the organization.
“Oftentimes, most leaders in my experience start pretty directive because it feels more comfortable,” Seal said.”They feel like it’s their job to be the decider, and the more experience they get, the more they realize they can let go and they know enough and feel confident enough to let other people jump in. Then, they obviously add their ideas if the team doesn’t get it.”
Collaborative leadership style
On the other side of the directive leader is the collaborative leader, whose tendency is to ask more than they tell. Collaborative leaders take the time to build relationships, handle conflict constructively, and they often want to share control of the organization when it comes to matters of direction, vision, and culture.
“The biggest upside of collaborative, in my mind, is that you get a lot of buy-in, and you get a lot of motivation because people are involved versus being told what to do,” Seal said.
How to balance both leadership styles
“Leadership today demands a little bit more range,” Molinaro said. “The challenge, of course, is knowing how to show up, at any given moment, given what your team needs, given what the company needs, given what the customer needs.”
Balancing between a directive and a collaborative leadership style is “the art and science” of being a leader, according to Seal.
“The biggest part of understanding your style and recognizing that there are different ways to approach things is self-knowledge,” Seal said.
When you understand what your tendencies are, whether you lean more towards directive or collaborative, you are able to begin to understand when you have to fight against those natural tendencies for the good of your team and organization.
If your tendency is to want to be the subject matter expert, and therefore the decider, that’s great because it shows you have both knowledge and confidence. But there is a time and place for that. Directive leaders should realize that they are probably going to over-rotate on those tendencies, meaning they will go too far in the direction of being the decider.
If, as a directive leader, you want to get buy-in from people, you will have to remember to ask people’s opinions and be a really good listener.
“The biggest advantage of self-knowledge is knowing what you ought to be cautious of and what you ought to proactively prepare to be able to do,” Seal said. “Do I care most about clarity, or do I care most about buy-in and motivation? The answer is usually both. So, how are you going to lean into that?”
Most leaders come up with great answers to these questions when they stop and think about these matters. Issues in over-rotating into one style or the other usually arise when a leader does not slow down to even think about these questions.
“Where leaders mess up is they are in a hurry,” Seal said. “They don’t stop and think, and then what do they do? They do what they naturally do, which is probably not balanced.”
Balance is key when it comes to leadership. If a leader leans too far, either way, problems usually arise because of their leadership style.
According to Seal, many leaders in startups or technical fields think it is their job to solve every single issue in the company and tell each person what to do. The downside to this type of leader is that they will chase out any person who likes to think for themselves and instead the company will build a team of passive people.
But of course, an organization does need to have clarity and direction. Out of the gate, the leader is well served to say, “This is where we’re going and these are the problems we’re trying to solve.” Then, they can get employees involved in the back end of solving those problems.
If a leader has a hard time distinguishing which style they should use in a certain situation, Seal recommends that they ask themselves three questions.
The three questions are:
1. What is my business outcome?
With this question, you want to establish what problem you are trying to solve and what you are trying to make happen. Think about what your ideal outcome would look like in terms of what you want to happen for the organization.
2. What is the people outcome I want?
According to Seal, most people don’t ask this question when making leadership decisions, but it’s an extremely important one to consider.
“Your people outcomes are always going to be involvement, motivation, making sure they’re clear, making sure they have a voice, making sure they have their problems resolved,” Seal said.
3. Given what I want to accomplish business and people wise, knowing what my basic leadership style is, what do I need to lean into?
“If I’m a leader who’s really super collaborative and is like ‘team, team, team, team, team,’ I’ve got to be very careful to make sure I’m decisive, that I break ties, that people are really clear about where we’re going next, and not let it drag on,” Seal said. “And if you’re super directive, then you’ve got to make sure you’re asking questions early and often and shutting up and listening.”
No matter which style you lean towards, at the end of the interaction, you should always have the employees explain back to you what was just decided as the outcome. Check in with them to see if you were successful in communicating what you needed and wanted to get across.
The 5 characteristics of an accountable leader
Through global research, Molinaro discovered the five major characteristics that accountable leaders share. Molinaro analyzed leaders who are considered accountable, as well as mediocre leaders to see which characteristics the latter lack.
“What I’ve learned is, that if you want to get better as a leader, the quickest way is actually to focus on accountability, because we can always be more accountable if we’re honest with ourselves,” Molinaro said. “If you do that, as an individual, as a leader, you set a tone for others to emulate.”
Here are the five main characteristics of accountable leaders:
1. Accountable leaders hold themselves and others to high standards of performance.
“There’s no tolerating of mediocrity, that’s foundational,” Molinaro said.
Accountable leaders set the bar high for themselves and their entire teams. Leaders need to pause and consider their standards and expectations, and then make sure that those they are working with completely understand those standards.
“Make them absolutely clear, because without that, that’s when you start getting into problems,” Molinaro said. “As I work with companies, it’s a surprise to me how few leaders actually do that. If you just focus there, that already helps you take care of so many things that are problem areas for leaders.”
2. Accountable leaders have the courage to tackle tough issues and make more difficult decisions.
Making difficult decisions is a challenge for a lot of leaders because many of them want to be liked by those they are working with.
“We want to be liked, we don’t want to be unpopular, and sometimes we have to make unpopular decisions, which are in the best interest of the company, that may upset your employees,” Molinaro said. “That’s part of what it means to be a leader today.”
3. Accountable leaders are very good at communicating strategy to their team.
Effective and accountable leaders make sure that everybody on their team is clear on what each team does and how it contributes to the overall success of the company, which helps each individual realize how they support the success of the company.
“That clarity is a critical piece of accountability, because if you, as my manager, make it absolutely clear what I need to deliver on and how it’s going to help us be successful and I don’t do that, then you can sit down with me and have a conversation,” Molinaro said.
If expectations are clear, the manager can hold individuals accountable, too.
4. Accountable leaders express optimism about the company and its future.
Great leaders express optimism and excitement about both the current state of the company and its future. Excitement is a huge factor in driving engagement within an organization.
“From time to time, I’ll work with leaders who look like they’re dragging themselves into the company…they’re not excited, they’ve lost their passion, or they’re just overworked,” Molinaro said. “When you’re in a leadership role, you’ve really got to be mindful of the tone you set.”
5. Accountable leaders display clarity about external trends in business and what’s happening in their business environment.
Effective leaders keep themselves and their team informed about what’s happening in the industry and how it affects the organization.
“Leaders find themselves being too ‘heads down,’ focused on execution, and too internally focused, and then they lose perspective,” Molinaro said.
Many times leaders aren’t even aware that something happened that would call for them to adapt their leadership style. It’s a constant juggle, but leaders need to learn how to stay aware of both the internal and external environment and adjust their style accordingly.
Great leaders balance the “heads down” part of the job, which would be executing their priorities, with the “big picture” part of the job in which they take the time to look at what’s coming so that they can anticipate, react and take advantage of opportunities.
Why it’s important for leaders to think about their leadership style
Like anything in life, leaders have a tendency to react a certain way when a situation arises, but that does not mean it will be the right way to respond or lead to the best outcome.
“When you think about what needs to happen, if you’re a smart person, you’re probably going to choose pretty well,” Seal said.
Problems arise when people think only about what of work and not about the why or how.
“Most people wander around work not thinking,” Seal said. “They’re just trying to do, do, do as fast as they can. What are the chances they’re going to be successful? They don’t know. They haven’t even stopped to define success. They’re just doing what they do.”
Seal reminds leaders to keep in mind that they often need to slow down in order to speed up.
“It’s like if you’re on a bicycle, and you’re in first or second gear, you’re pedaling super fast, but you’re not you’re not getting a lot of power, you’re not going really fast,” Seal said. “From a leadership perspective, maturity often looks like using all 10 gears.”
Why you can’t manage every one with the same leadership style
Each of your employees is different, which means they will each react to your attitude, decisions, and leadership style differently. While some employees may be comfortable discussing a matter right there in the conference room and moving on, some employees need more time to digest the information and would rather come back later to ask questions and collaborate on solutions.
Many times issues also arise when a leader has to lean more into their directive side than usual.
“What I find throws a team is when a leader has a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type of thing, where one day they show up one way and then the next day they’re completely different and nobody knows what’s going on,” Molinaro said.
In order to avoid confusion or tension, Molinaro recommends that leaders are very explicit about why they need to show up in a certain way at a certain time.
Saying something like, “I’ve got to adopt this role right now because that’s what the business demands, even if I may not want to, but I have to do it,” could help employees understand why their manager is making certain decisions without much flexibility or input from them.
Jennifer Fabiano is an SEO reporter at Ladders.