by Andrea Charman

Choosing and using leadership styles

In an increasingly global arena, where players are sourced from a huge variety of cultural, ethnic and belief backgrounds, one leadership style (and we all have a default style) will not suffice. One size does not fit all; this is the clear message around leadership effectiveness today. Context counts. What works in one context may be totally inappropriate for another.

Since it is now commonly accepted that leadership capacity is learned, then it goes without saying that effective leaders are those who have learned how to draw on a gamut of styles. The context will dictate which approach to any given challenge is appropriate and most likely to offer successful performance outcomes. It will take an enhanced level of emotional intelligence, however, for the highest levels of success. Since EQ is a leaned capacity, success will clearly begin with an awareness of the issues and a strategy with which to proceed.


Jack Welch at General Electric (GE) is the most commonly-quoted example of the criticality of context-appropriate leadership. When he started at GE as CEO, his initial style was authoritarian, directive and even autocratic, verging on coercive. He set the pace, drew up stretch performance targets and was very clear about boundaries and what was expected.

The result was a radical cleaning of house; people quickly understood what was expected of them and what it would take to remain employed. Once he had GE back on track, he shifted his approach to a more consultative, networked and enabling style.

When he retired, he handed over a successful business to an internally-grown leader, Jeffrey R Immelt, and at the same time, three senior leaders, who had not made the number one position, left GE to take up CEO positions with other Fortune 100 corporations and offer the leadership capacities they had learned at GE with Welch.

Daniel Goleman sums up this capacity for selecting the appropriate leadership approach for any given situation by using the golf club analogy. Effective leaders select the ‘right’ club to reach their goal. Put simply, if you are leading a military hit squad into a war zone, you cannot even dream about a consultative style.

Which are your styles?

As in all things, fit is critical. Styles and approaches differ and each of us has a default style. If you do not know what your default is, you will abdicate choice. Great leaders (unfortunately, these are rare) have such high levels of self-awareness and self-management that they can select the most impactful approach for any given situation without loss of authenticity or levels of trust.

As you look through the following styles, ask yourself which style (or styles) you are most comfortable with. What is your default style? Which style (or styles) do you find difficult? This is the area where you will need practise if you are to broaden your scope and work on your leadership capabilities.


The leader tells, owns and resolves problems, and instructs staff; this style works best when changes require new vision or a clear direction is needed.


The tiger model is visionary, but can be isolated and misunderstood; the lone leader is set apart by high levels of self-belief and a desire to achieve exceptional results.


The directive leader uses authority to achieve results; this style can be productive in times of crisis/transition.


The hero takes a stand against the odds; this style is often the result of fast moving events and not suited to the long-term.


This leader demands immediate compliance; the style works best in a crisis.


The consultative leader determines objectives, but seeks input and recommendations from key stakeholders.


From the word ‘charismata’ in Greek, meaning ‘gift or grace’ – through the ages, the term has been used by the Christian Church to signify a divinely-bestowed power or talent. In the early 20th century, German sociologist Max Weber identified charisma as one form of leadership authority – the authority bestowed on the leader by his or her followers. The result is an emotional attachment to the leader’s goals and mission, evidenced in the desire to contribute in any way possible to successful achievement. It is no surprise, therefore, that this style can result in a ‘risky’ form of hero-worship.


A collective, collaborative approach to achieving impact and performance based on consensus and obligation, this works well in cultural environments anchored in group or collective values, but it can stifle innovation.


This person develops people for the future; their style is anchored in self-awareness and empathy, and works best when the context can support a long-term perspective.


Towards one end of the leadership styles spectrum, there is a body of thinking that sees the idealised leader as a transformer of businesses and organisations. Transformational leaders are viewed as agents of radical change. While pedestrian leaders focus on ways to achieve things – often emphasising the means over the end – the transformational leader puts the end (in the form of a set of goals or a vision) above the means. These are the innovative, entrepreneurial transformers of tired, dispirited organisations. They are able to visualise the form the new organisation must take to revitalise itself and then motivate people to make the vision a reality. What does it take to achieve this status? A high level of courage, a risk-taking mindset linked to self-belief and a desire to achieve great things. Transformational leaders are usually driven by their own powerful set of stated values. They can inspire those around them; they are at ease with ambiguity and uncertainty and, above all, they are visionaries.


Short-term thinking leaders, these are focused in a rather pedestrian bargaining model. Such leadership often lacks sustainability and always lacks vision and inspiration. It might, however, be useful in getting an organisation back on track.


This self-absorbed figure is often highly successful and effective in creative environments, but usually fails to engage other talent in a productive and value-creating way long-term. The narcissistic style can end in inertia.


The pace-setter sets high standards of for performance, and works best to get quick results from a highly motivated and competent team, creating a drive to achieve. Sustained use of this style will burn people out as they try to keep up.


The modest, low-key approach uses influence without position.


This style is focused on making things happen, fostering a can-do attitude where contributors are encouraged to ‘just do it’.


Beyond delegation and empowerment – leadership capacity becomes a resource, with final accountability pushed down to an operational level.


The context counts; this requires flexibility of mindset and a high level of EQ, plus the self-awareness to know when to hand over to someone with another approach.


Leadership that responds to the needs and the direction of the collective, this style is anchored in values associated with modesty, abnegation of self and an ethos of the greater good. A weakness may be the clash of values in ‘political’ contexts.