If you recently interviewed for a management position, you were probably asked the question: What kind of a leader are you? I am not entirely sure what kind of an answer is desired; perhaps, something along the lines of: “I practice consultative leadership, but I make my own decisions, so the buck always stops with me.” Or, perhaps, “I lead through delegation, by my empowering people to make decisions and endorsing them.”
The interviewer might have nodded appreciatively and mumbled, “Good,” and you might have gotten the job, but is there a right answer? Is there one particular model of leadership style that everyone should aspire to adopt? I will attempt to answer this question here.
A leadership style is all about the manner in which a leader makes a decision. Think Al Dunlap and the adjective autocratic will come to mind (more precisely, tyrannical, in Chainsaw Al’s case). Dwight Eisenhower, on the other hand, was known for his participative decision making. A great deal of books are dedicated to biographies of successful leaders and even more, to telling the reader how to become as successful by copying what the exemplar has done in the past.
In fact, no single kind of the leadership decision making is appropriate for every situation. A platoon commander does not gather his men for an offsite retreat in the heat of battle. Nor does a CEO decide on a divestiture or an acquisition in the first five minutes of a phone conversation on the subject.
There are only five approaches to decisions available to you.
- Authoritative I: You make the decision on your own, using the information available to you.
- Authoritative II: You obtain necessary information from your subordinates and make a decision on your own. You may or may not share the objective of your decision. They merely provide information you deem necessary for you to have.
- Consultative: You share the objective (a problem, an opportunity, etc.) of your decision with subordinates and solicit both information and suggestions. Then, you make the decision.
- Group: You share the objective with a group of subordinates, discuss and analyze it as a group, and arrive to a mutually agreeable solution.
- Endorsement: You share the objective and delegate decision making to the group of subordinates. Once they reach the decision, you endorse it.
To choose the right approach, you need to consider the following five parameters:
- Information available: You may or may not have the information necessary for prudent decision making. Quality of decisions generally improves as input information becomes more complete.
- Time available: Authoritative decision making requires far less time than other types. If an expeditious action is required, it may be impossible to engage the group or even consult with the key staff.
- Development priorities: If you consistently exclude your staff from decision making, there are no learning opportunities for them to develop their decision making skills. This also often means that there won’t be any opportunity for you to grow out of this role.
- Need for engagement: Authoritative decisions meet compliance (at best) among employees. The much more powerful state is the one of engagement, where those who execute the decision have “bought into” it wholeheartedly. This is when people’s productivity and the quality of work go through the roof. You are likely to get it when you involve your subordinates in making the decision.
- Risk: There are two considerations included in this one parameter. First, the more isolated the decision maker is, the higher is the likelihood that some critical piece of information will be missed (most commonly, the case of “you don’t know what you don’t know”). Second — and this is a bit Machiavellian — a suboptimal decision made with a clearly demonstrated effort to seek information from subject matter experts and develop consensus can be much easier excused than the same decision made on one’s own.
Trending of these parameters across the five decision making styles is illustrated by the graph below. There may very well be other parameters that you may find necessary to add.
So, what is the best answer to the question on your leadership style? The right answer is this: “Leadership is situational. The best leaders understand the five approaches available to them and choose them as they seem appropriate. Let me tell you how I do it…”
I hope that you put these concepts into practice. What do you think of these categories?