How to know your leadership style

If you’re just starting out in leadership or you’ve been pursuing education in leadership, you’ve probably heard that you need to develop your “leadership style.” What does that mean, though? How do you know what your leadership style is? And, more importantly, how do you know if you’re using an effective leadership style for your environment and your team?

Leadership styles: authoritative leadership style, affiliative leadership style, democratic leadership style, pacesetting leadership style, coaching leadership style, coercive leadership style

Daniel Goleman defines six different styles that leaders can employ in directing the work of their teams. These are: coercive, authoritative, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting, and coaching.

In his research, two of the six (coercive and pacesetting) have negative impacts on the teams they’re employed on, but the remaining styles have positive effects. So how do you choose which make sense for you and your environment?

How your environment affects your leadership style

One of the things you can look at to decide which style to cultivate in your own leadership is the environment that you and your team exist within. As you can imagine, this plays a big role in what specific characteristics you as the leader need to embody.

Does your team need clear direction from you to know what needs to be done? Are you taking them in a new direction? That’s a check in the box for an Authoritative Leadership Style. This requires you to mobilize your people toward a vision.

Are you working to heal conflicts within your team? Is your team experiencing a period of high stress? If so, that suggests they may benefit from a gentler Affiliative Leadership Style that allows you to improve emotional bonds and harmony within your team.

Do you need to get buy-in or consensus from your team before moving forward? Then you may need to employ a Democratic Leadership Style, where you look for participation from your team.

Are you trying to develop your team’s skills for the long-term? Is your main goal to create leaders within your team for succession planning or to safeguard the future of your team? If so, you probably want to employ a Coaching Leadership Style, where you’re focusing on developing people for the future and shoring up their strengths.

As you are probably starting to see, it’s not usually possible to just have one single leadership style and have it be effective in all situations. You’ll likely need to develop skills in a variety of areas and then be comfortable flexing to give your team what it needs.

How does personality affect leadership styles

Of course, there are two perspectives on leadership. That of the followers and that of the leader.

While it’s important to know what your followers need, you also need to understand how your personality and strengths influence which leadership styles are available to you. To say that everyone can use the same style of leadership equally would be misleading. Obviously we all have unique personality traits and experiences that influence our ability to effectively flex each style.

If we choose to employ a leadership style that causes us to deviate from our normal way of being, we can call on what Dr. Brian Little calls “free traits” in his book Me, Myself, and Us: The Science of Personality and the Art of Well-Being. These are traits we can choose to employ in order to complete what he terms ‘personal projects.’ These may be examples where an introvert exhibits extroverted traits in order to promote an idea that is important to them. Or an example where someone who is typically agreeable fights for an important cause.

This is something that we’re all capable of doing, but it causes us to experience some costs. Flexing too far out of our natural state for too long can cause us stress and lead to symptoms of burn-out. So, while it may be possible to employ a leadership style that doesn’t match with your personality over the short-term, you’re likely to more naturally lean to one that leverages your strengths over the long-term.

I wasn’t able to find a lot of reliable research on the topic of personality traits and leadership styles, but it’s certainly something to pay attention to.

What’s my style then?

Since your leadership style is affected by your environment and your personality, how do you know what your style is? I would offer that none of us has a single style, but we likely have preferred styles and styles we’re actively using.

To get a sense of how your leadership style affects you and your team, I would suggest considering which style(s) you feel more comfortable employing. What is your default way of being when you’re not getting strong feedback from your environment?

Once you identify which styles feel most comfortable to you in general, pay attention to your actual behaviour in your leadership role. What do you do on a daily basis? How do you relate to your team in order to get the work done? Try to be honest and ask for feedback from a trusted colleague if you’re not sure.

Now look at your team and determine what sort of leader they need. Have you flexed your style to meet their needs? How different is your actual style from your ideal style? Are you experiencing any stress related to flexing?

Reflection is important to help you understand how you impact your team and how you’re being affected by your leadership role. Working with a coach can also help you to develop a leadership style that works for both you and your team.

Whichever style you choose to employ, know that there is no objectively right style. Your leadership style will change over time and with new environments. The important thing is awareness, seeking out feedback, and being willing to shift to meet your team’s needs.

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