The diversity of issues that any professional faces today are vast and complex. In the last few years, leaders have had to respond to an array of issues including a global pandemic, decades-high interest rates, and the emergence of prevalent remote work, just to name a few. Given the speed and severity of disruption in today’s global workplaces, it’s reassuring to see so many leaders taking their professional development seriously. Indeed, given the availability of information thanks to the internet and the attention many organizations place on their leadership development, the democratization of leadership education has arguably never been more available to those seeking to better themselves.
A lot of attention has been rightfully placed on improving leadership behaviors to be more inclusive, open, and conducive to collective decision-making and co-ownership of performance and outcomes. This is a welcome change. For too long, leaders were focused on influence through authority and rank. The art of influence, persuasion, and servant leadership were all but absent in many leaders as they developed and rose through their careers. While this change has been needed and beneficial for leaders and those under their care, the complexity and speed of change mentioned earlier makes it necessary for leaders to develop an ability to flex their styles and ready their organization for situational leadership that will be necessary at different points along any team’s journey.
When asked about leadership style preference, most leaders have been conditioned to answer something that includes open-door, discourse, consensus, and mutual buy-in. These are ideal and should be skills that every leader can exercise – when they make sense. But when a team is faced with immediate challenges that require swift and decisive action, leaders need to be ready to pivot. When a leader is asked about their leadership style, the more responsible answer is increasingly, “it depends.”
Each individual should develop and be self-aware of their leadership style preference – the style with which they are most comfortable and prefer to exercise. A preferred style is hopefully something that encourages discourse, communication, consensus building, and collective ownership. But given today’s dynamic environment, leaders need to sometimes act with decisiveness, speed, and clear direction. The more immediate and severe the challenge, the more leaders need to select a style that is fit-for-purpose and not necessarily the most democratic.
This extends beyond business. First responders are taught the criticality of incident command systems for effectively responding to emergencies. When lives are on the line in an immediate situation, collective discourse and democratic decision making take a back seat to direction and action. There is, however, a need for leaders to create the environment where healthy and relevant dissent is still safe to practice even when speed and decisiveness are key to success. Incident commanders need to listen to vital information that may influence their next directions.
The need to flex leadership styles depends on the situation that leaders need to select and develop their teams purposefully. Leaders need their teams to appreciate different approaches depending on the situation, and they need to be clear about how certain situations will be led. It’s too risky to assume that everyone will appreciate the nuance of certain situations and accept that a different leadership style and decision-making approach will be necessary. People need to know the rules of each scenario and environment and engage appropriately. Leaders who do not explicitly discuss and develop their teams to be aware of and bought into these flexing styles risk unnecessary dissent and conflict.
The way we lead a forward planning 5-year strategic vision session is different from an immediate crisis such as COVID or rapid inflation. Today’s leaders need to be ready to pivot, flex, and deploy a fit-for-purpose style that each situation needs. Further, they need to develop their teams to appreciate these differing styles and set clear definition for how decisions will be made and what time horizon is critical for success. The idea that any one style of leadership can effectively support all situations is dangerous and expecting our leaders to apply one style is unfair. Situational leadership will continue to be a core competency required of leaders as we navigate an increasingly unpredictable global environment. The best way forward? It depends.