When Should You Change Your Leadership Style?

by Andy Wood on June 22, 2011

in Leadership, Life Currency

Want to see a sure-fire sign of a leadership disaster?  Try leading everybody the same way.  Fairness is one thing.  Crafting organizations with a cookie cutter is another.  It doesn’t work with kids; why in the world do you think it would work with their parents?

Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus put it this way:

Leadership is essentially a human business…. What we have found in studying leaders is that the higher the rank, the more interpersonal and human the undertaking.  The top executives we followed spent roughly 90 percent of their time with others and virtually the same percentage of their time concerned with the messiness of people problems.

Different situations, different people, and different teams and organizations require leaders who can flex their approach.  Here are seven different situations that call for different styles or messages from leaders:

1.  When followers increase or decrease their competence.

If you have a team of highly-skilled professionals with lots of experience, give them the bottom lines, deadlines and boundaries, and leave them alone.

Do that with a group of untrained or unskilled rookies, however, and you have a recipe for disaster.  You can empower them and appeal to their sense of autonomy when they know what the heck they’re doing.  In the meantime, tell them what to do and don’t apologize for it.

2.  When followers increase or decrease their commitment.

Sometimes the issue isn’t ability, but attitude.  Nobody in the realm of your influence shows up in a vacuum.  They all bring their baggage and aspirations, relationships and history with them.  And without fail, that affects short-term and long-term commitment to the task.  Add to that the stresses and uncertainties that come with corporate life, and you find different people with different levels of commitment.

Remember this:  Commitment is a byproduct of support and encouragement.  And that doesn’t happen behind a desk or inside a policy manual.  If commitment is low, show up.  Be there. Listen.  Encourage.  On the other hand, if you’re harnessing a team of motivated, driven world-changers, you can afford to turn ‘em loose with the right communication and clarity.

3.  When the relationship between the leader and follower(s) varies between good and poor.

Good relationships in a high-trust environment allow leaders to be more task-oriented and bottom-line.  But if the relationships are strained, a wise leader will use more people skills like empathy, encouragement, and concern.  That may mean applying different approaches to different people on the same team in order to keep them on the same team.

The key to this is having a good feel for the quality of the relationships.  That may mean asking a question similar to the one Jesus once asked:  “Who do men say that I am?”  But be prepared – honest questions may produce some surprise answers.

4.  When the work to be done varies between repetitive and non-repetitive.

Feel free to “be the boss” when the job to be done is pretty much the same as yesterday.  But when you gather a team of creative problem solvers, visionaries, or specialists (and for crying out loud, that certainly includes a church staff), you’d better be prepared to empower, delegate, and stand back.  Nothing is more unleader-like than somebody trying to throw their authority around in a team-based environment.

5.  When subordinates vary in their expectations of leader authoritarianism.

In some places or situations, constituents expect to be told what to do and how.  Maybe that’s healthy, maybe it isn’t.  But at any rate, that’s no time for focus groups or teambuilding sessions.  Just tell them what to do.  And then if you need to change their expectations to build a stronger team down the road, start building their ability to lead themselves.

6.  When subordinates vary in their sense of locus of control.

Some people believe in fate, chance, or powerful forces outside their control.  Others believe “if it’s to be, it’s up to me.”  The difference is what’s called locus of control.

People with an external locus of control believe somebody else is controlling most of their lives.  They get really anxious about having to make decisions, and prefer leaders to give them clear direction.

People with an internal locus of control believe that events result mostly from their own behavior and actions.  They expect to have more say in the decision-making process and will become frustrated and de-motivated if their only task is to follow directions.

7.  When the climate varies between anticipation and anxiety.

One kind of leader designs and builds the building; the other manages the situation when the building is on fire.  Vision and expectation call for people skills.  People respond to a message that inspires them, encourages them, or makes them feel important.

Anxiety calls for clarity and decisive action.  It is not enough for leaders to analyze the possibilities or give everybody a hug.  Somebody has to point the way out of the burning building.


If you’re the same leader you were 10 years ago – or even 10 days ago – you may want to check to make sure people are still following.  Times change.  People change.  Situations vary.  And if you think you’re leading and nobody’s following – you’re just taking a walk.

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