Powerful leadership begins with knowing what leadership style to use and when to use it. One of the biggest challenges facing leaders today is knowing when to be decisive, when to include the group, and when to be hands-off. Faced with the fear of making people unhappy, leaders cave in when they should hold firm or get too involved when they should give latitude.

This occurs when there is a lack of clarity about leadership styles resulting in a lack of confidence to back up their actions.

Some leaders, especially those new to the position, are under the mistaken impression that the best leaders offer broad discretion and latitude to their team in every situation. Just look at the most popular leadership quotes posted on LinkedIn. If you rely solely on these quotes for your leadership training and development, you might get idea that you should let everyone do whatever they want whenever they feel like it. Sometimes, carte blanche is the best approach and in other cases it can spell disaster.

Not knowing when to hold firm and when to let go can lead to irreparable harm to your team and your reputation as a leader.

flex your leadership style

A practical approach is to lead with flexibility according to each situation. As a leader, you are responsible for using good judgement. That means looking at the big picture and making decisions in real-time that support long-term goals. To build trust and respect, avoid knee-jerk reactions that may feel good and appease people in the moment but create future problems.

Let’s look at 3 powerful leadership styles and when you should use each one:

Powerful Leadership Style #1 – Autocratic

This is a ‘my way or the highway’ approach. There is no debate, no discussion, and the decision is non-negotiable. At first glance this does not sound very good at all. However, it is very effective when used appropriately. There are 5 specific situations when you should use this style: safety concerns; regulatory/legal mandates; policy enforcement; crisis situations; and deadlines.

As a leader, you are responsible for being autocratic in these situations. In fact, you do not have the right or the authority to not use an autocratic style when it’s called for.

Example: an employee is violating company policy (as indicated in the company’s employee handbook) by watching YouTube videos on their phone during working hours. [Note: policy is the set of rules that a company chooses for the purpose of developing the organizational culture and brand protection. Policy is set at the highest level of leadership based on how they want the organization to operate.]

Caution: as a leader, you are responsible for addressing this violation with the employee. Ignoring the issue will result in disastrous consequences for you. If you fail to flex to this style you will earn a reputation as a pushover, be seen as weak and ineffective, and you will lose the respect of other team members and leaders.

On the other hand, if you use this style outside of the 5 specific situations indicated above you can earn a reputation as a dictator and you don’t want that either.

Powerful Leadership Style #2 – Participative

This is an inclusive leadership style that encourages involvement and solicits input from the team. In this situation the leader doesn’t make a decision until the issue has been thoroughly discussed with those directly impacted. This style results in buy-in which is very powerful when you need to get people on board.

This style should be used in 3 specific situations: procedure updates; change implementation; and goal-setting.

Example: when updating processes or procedures (a never-ending task!), involve the people who are actually responsible for doing the job. Too many times a task is updated without getting input from the end-user resulting in a deflated, demoralized workforce.

Caution: if you overuse this style and make a habit of running everything by your team before making a decision you will get a reputation for being wishy-washy and indecisive.

On the other hand, when used appropriately this style will result in trust, loyalty, and strong teamwork.

Powerful Leadership Style #3 – Empowerment

This is a hands-off, Burger King (‘have it your way’) leadership style. This style offers the greatest latitude for completing one’s work and results in high levels of employee engagement, when used in the right situations.

There are 2 specific instances where you need to mind your own business and let other people do their job: when the employee is doing the work they get paid to do; and project work where you want creative, innovative solutions.

Example: when an employee is meeting their deadlines, producing quality work, and completing the required amount of work, don’t interfere with how they are doing it.

Caution: there is always more than one right way to complete a task and as long as it meets the requirements resist the temptation to tell them how you would do it. You can quickly earn a reputation as a micro-manager if you get too involved in the details.

On the hand, there is a thing as being too hands-off even with your top performers. If you never check in you could get a reputation as a leader who doesn’t care, is oblivious, or is missing-in-action. Make a point of having regular meetings to touch base.

Take the time to observe each situation and flex to the appropriate style and you will multiply your effectiveness and be seen as successful a leader. Keep in mind that your decisions won’t always be popular but good leadership isn’t a popularity contest. Focus on the long-term vision and your leadership values and you will earn a reputation as a solid leader who can be trusted to do what’s best.

Liz Uram is a nationally-recognized leadership expert who delivers high-impact, high-retention leadership training programs. Contact Liz to find out how she can develop strong leaders in your organization.

3 Powerful Leadership Styles
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