How leadership styles and behaviours make a difference

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You don’t need me to point out the seismic impact of the change that has taken place over the last year. What’s been really interesting has been observing how different leaders have managed it, and what’s happened as a result.

In our work we see leadership styles become trends. But that misses the point. All leadership styles are legitimate and necessary. They are often driven by what an organisation needs. What’s important is how you treat people – and that’s what has made the difference this year. 

The impact of style and behaviours

One of the privileges of my work is that it has allowed me to experience many different organisations and meet many people within them. Whether it’s a senior nurse on a ward, a charity Trustee, a Chief Executive or Chair of a board – I get to see leadership in action at all levels. I have been able to witness first-hand varying types of leaders and the impact they have on their organisation and its people. 

I’ve been lucky to have worked for and alongside many great leaders who support, motivate and empower their staff. Positive benefits are always the result. Conversely, I have also worked for poor leaders. In most cases their behaviour resulted in staff becoming demotivated, disengaged and, in the end, leaving the organisation.

It’s been no surprise to me that one major factor which has made the difference for successful organisations throughout the global pandemic has been high-quality leadership. 

When the world of work suddenly had to exist beyond the four walls of the office and reached into people’s dining rooms and spare bedrooms, leaders at all levels needed to help create consistency and security for their teams.

The size and shape of some teams changed, with some people on furlough, others struggling to cope with the demands of caring for their family and holding down a job, and still more impacted by Covid directly. 

Great leaders have helped their people make this transition. They’ve created the right amount of support and challenge, adapted to managing and leading remotely, and ensured that everyone was still aligned to their organisation’s overall goals, even if they were delivering them differently.

The nuances of leadership style and behaviour

When it comes to leadership style and behaviour, understanding the difference is crucial. It’s possible to be a bureaucratic leader and treat your staff with respect. It’s just as easy to have a laissez-faire style, but behave badly towards those you work with. 

We’ve created a graphic to show 10 of the most commonly-accepted styles as a visual way to help you identify your preferred options. You may also recognise the styles of current or former colleagues.

All leadership styles fall on a spectrum, with control at one end and being hands-off at the other. There’s also the additional element of whether a leadership style is more focused on the organisation or focused on people. Leaders don’t always have only one style; sophisticated leaders will be able to adapt their style to suit the situation and the people involved. 

We hear a lot about servant leadership in our work at the moment. This style involves a leader putting the needs of their people first, believing themselves to exist in the service of those people, rather than the other way around. It’s a far less hierarchical style than many. Leaders set strategy and direction, then enable and trust their people to deliver. It means recruitment needs to be sophisticated to ensure that people are aligned with an organisation’s purpose and values, but if that’s the case, it’s a very powerful tool. 

Contrast this with a bureaucratic style, considered much more old-school these days. Leaders with a preference and organisations with a need for this style will create and value hierarchies and will focus on people’s duties over the people themselves. In this model it’s difficult to engender trust at all levels, but this style is necessary in some environments. 

You might recognise the US Army as an example of hierarchical leadership. But as Simon Sinek points out in his book Leaders Eat Last, leaders in this institution recognise the importance of even the most junior team members. This is evident in their behaviour. Sinek points out that senior ranking officers stand behind the more junior ones in the queue for food. They recognise the unit is nothing without those lower-ranking members of the team and their behaviour helps the privates realise that. 

Leading in times of uncertainty

The pandemic has demanded more from leaders than ever before. It has shone a spotlight on cases of poor leadership. Inflexible leadership structures and behaviours established to monitor and manage teams based in offices will have crumbled as people were sent home to work. 

Yet there have been many notable examples of what great leadership could look like. From England’s Chief Medical Officer Prof Chris Witty working shifts on Covid wards over Christmas, to New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, and her ministers voluntarily taking a 20% pay cut for six months in solidarity with people who were suffering financially.

The last year has caused organisations, our clients included, to dig deep and explore whether they have the right leaders with the right skills and what leadership styles and behaviours are being modelled for that leadership population. 

To paraphrase Maya Angelou, people will forget what you did and what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel. Leadership behaviour, not style, is what makes that difference. 

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