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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Management

7 Leadership Styles the Best Bosses Use (Just Not All at Once)

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Regardless of where you are—a new manager, a long-time boss, or an entry-level person who’s managing an intern, you can develop new skills to do a better job (and feel more confident). For example, have you noticed that a few of the projects you have to manage take three times as much energy and time as others to complete, even though they aren’t any harder or more complex? You sweat your way through the hard parts, but it feels like you’re missing something and you wonder what you could be doing differently.

The answer could be your leadership style. In competitive management positions, especially senior ones, sweat isn’t always the answer. You need to be able to adapt your approach to fit the position, organization, and situation in ways that feel relatively natural and comfortable to you. Having one go-to strategy for every situation won’t work in the long-run, which might be why multiple studies show that less than 40% of leaders are successful in their jobs.

To avoid that trap and show everyone—from your employees to yourself—that you’re a capable boss, you’ll want to acquaint yourself with the following seven different leadership styles.

1. The Guru

Are you an expert in your field? Do people know to come to you for answers? Are you considered a thought leader at work, or even better, within the industry? If so, this style probably comes naturally to you.

When it Works

Use it when you have the most data or experience relevant to the task at hand. If the knowledge gap between you and your team is too wide or if time is too short, leading like a guru may be your best choice.

When it Doesn’t

However, this is one of the management styles smart leaders use sparingly. Because if you use it too often, you’ll come off like a know-it-all who isn’t interested in what your team thinks.

2. The Questioner

Questioners are the opposite of gurus. Instead of relying on their expertise, they rely on their ability to question the status quo and challenge ideas to foster creativity and better thinking.

When it Works

Using this works when the entire team is smart and confident in their abilities, and what is needed is a leader who can coax greatness out of them. To learn this style, start thinking in opposites. For example, if the team decides a new product launch has to include an ad campaign of some sort, ask “How could we make this even more effective without an ad campaign?” Then listen to what gets stirred up.

When it Doesn’t

Don’t use this unless your team is comfortable with debate and critique. For example, if an employee is still struggling to get up to speed or is shy and insecure when it comes to sharing his ideas, you’ll want to pick a more supportive approach.

3. The Orchestrator

In more and more workplaces, the day-to-day default style that works the best is this one. Orchestrators make sure everyone is seen, engaged, and heard while they build great relationships with the group.

When it Works

Orchestrators have dual vision; they can focus on their objective and on the people who can help achieve it at the same time. Build these muscles by first observing and assessing your team’s innate talents, then assign tasks accordingly. As a result, you’ll see increased employee engagement.

When it Doesn’t

While this is a good default style, it’s worth noting that it doesn’t work 100% of the time, including if an employee wants to grow and try new things or feels like you originally misread him or her.

4. The Standard Setter

Standard setters pay attention to quality and motivate others to think about what being the best means. They set hard-to-achieve goals for themselves and others and then they achieve them using a mix of discipline, accountability, and hard work.

When it Works

Great standard setters model the behavior they want to see in others. Start by going public with your own goals so everyone knows your level of committment. Nothing builds trust and confidence like practicing what you preach, so do that. As you gain cred for your work, people will start following your lead.

When it Doesn’t

When you define the team’s goals you need to be aware of either over-reaching (setting the bar too high) or under-reaching (setting the bar too low). If goals aren’t remotely feasible you’re setting people up to fail, and if they’re a breeze, no one will be inspired to work to their full potential.

5. The Developer

Developers relish mentoring employees. The real benefit of this approach is that you’re not just helping individual employees, you’re increasing the quality and capacity of the entire organization (and that’s a great thing!).

When it Works

The best developers have learned that, when it comes to training someone, it’s usually better to describe—rather than prescribe—how to work. They’ll coach someone in what needs to be done, and only as a last resort tell him or her specifically how to do it.

When it Doesn’t

Of course, not everyone is ready to be coached and developed. To assess whether or not someone is responding to your leadership, look at his overall productivity. If you keep trying this, but his work isn’t improving, it’s time to test another tactic.

6. The Idealist

Some see being an idealist as a bad thing. But when it comes to leadership, there are times when there is no substitute for a person who can imagine the future positively. They dare to dream when dreaming is difficult.

When it Works

Skilled idealists engage others in working toward creating a better tomorrow. They don’t let their ideas get snubbed because they haven’t worked out the details. If your organization’s struggling with how to improve or grow, it’s time to flex these muscles. Begin by asking yourself “If a competitor came along that could put us out of business, what would he or she be doing?” Once you find the answer, do that.

When it Doesn’t

If changes need to be made and harsh realities need to be considered, speak in terms of realistic solutions. Your employees may think you’re out of touch if your rhetoric is too pie-in-the-sky.

7. The Rock

When you aren’t sure which style to use, defer to this. Rocks are like, well, rocks. They don’t move a lot and they don’t change much, but they are patient and solid.

When it Works

Rocks provide a strong foundation for the people who work for them by using solid management practices and by being consistent. They may not have big personalities, but you can always depend on them be present and provide direction from the top.

When it Doesn’t

The danger here is that rocks can get too comfortable and lose the ability to adopt other styles. They’ll be passed over for roles that require vision and innovation.

There’s an eighth category I purposely excluded from this list: the charismatic leader, who swoops in and save the day at the hour of need. That’s because being a hero isn’t a style choice, it’s an outcome of doing what’s right.

When faced with a difficult choice, heroes do the morally right thing even though doing so may be career limiting or unpopular. Don’t try to be this person, just use integrity and empathy regardless of which style you pick from the list above. These moments will present themselves, the question is will you be able to adapt and address them when they do?

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