How to help leaders flick their leadership-style switch

Leaders need to be able to switch their leadership style from time to time; here's how HR can help them do it:

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Mar 15, 2024

In today’s ever-changing and diverse workplaces, the ability of leaders to adapt their leadership style to meet the evolving needs of their teams and situations isn’t just an advantage, it’s nigh-on a necessity.

But convincing leaders to change their style isn’t easy; leaders can often think their style is as innate and immutable as their bone structure or blood type.

The key is recognizing that while our blood type cannot change, ones leadership style can and should change – and employees are demanding it too. Results from the more than one million people who have taken our “What’s Your Leadership Style?” test reveal two-thirds of employees would rather their leader have a different style than the one they’re currently presently.

Regular readers of my articles here might recall that there are four fundamental leadership styles – the idealist, diplomat, pragmatist and steward leaders.

As a quick recap, idealist leaders inspire creativity and innovation, encouraging their teams to grow and explore.

Emphasizing interpersonal connections and teamwork meanwhile, diplomat leaders foster a supportive, collaborative work environment.

Goal-oriented and decisive – that what pragmatist leaders are. They thrive on challenges, pushing their teams towards exceptional outcomes.

Steward leaders, by contrast, prioritize structure, support, and process, ensuring operational stability and consistency.

The ability to switch is vital

While many of like will likely prefer one style over the other, being able to switch styles is an essential skill for today’s leaders.

That’s why CHROs in organizations today should teach leaders how to adapt and change their leadership styles, and I believe the following two exercises will help:

Exercise 1: Adaptive leadership challenge

A big challenge can often be the best teacher.

The Adaptive Leadership Challenge is designed to push leaders out of their comfort zones, by encouraging them to adopt a leadership style that is not their default for a set period.

This exercise requires leaders to consciously apply a different style – be it the visionary idealist, the empathetic diplomat, the decisive pragmatist, or the dependable steward – in various real-world situations.

To do this best, leaders should select the style that contrasts most with their natural tendencies. For example, a leader who typically adopts a pragmatist approach might choose to explore the diplomat style.

Over the course of a week, or during a specific project, they should commit to this style, applying its principles in their interactions, decision-making, and problem-solving processes.

Throughout the challenge, leaders should keep a detailed journal of their experiences, noting how their team responds, any changes in team dynamics, and their personal effectiveness in achieving goals.

This reflective practice is crucial, as it fosters self-awareness and insights into the impact of different leadership styles on team performance and morale.

At the end of the challenge, leaders should then share their experiences in a structured group discussion. This debriefing session offers a platform for peer learning, as leaders exchange stories and hear about challenges, and successes.

Through this collective reflection, leaders gain a broader understanding of the versatility and applicability of different leadership styles, enhancing their flexibility and adaptability.

What it achieves:

Done well, this is more than just an exercise; it’s a transformative experience that broadens leaders’ perspectives and toolkits.

By actively experimenting with and reflecting on different styles, leaders learn to navigate the complexities of their roles with greater dexterity.

This not only benefits their personal growth but also elevates the performance and satisfaction of their teams.

Exercise 2. Cross-Style Mentorship Program

This exercise pairs leaders with mentors who have a markedly different leadership style.

This exercise aims to expose leaders to alternative approaches and philosophies, fostering a deeper understanding and appreciation of the diversity in leadership.

Leaders are deliberately matched with a mentor whose dominant leadership style contrasts with their own.

For instance, an idealist leader might be paired with a steward.

Over the course of several months, mentors and mentees meet regularly to discuss various aspects of leadership, from handling specific challenges to general strategies for team management and development.

These discussions are complemented by shared experiences and observations, with both parties providing feedback and insights into the effectiveness and impact of different styles in various situations.

Structured reflection sessions are integral to the program, allowing leaders to contemplate their progress, identify areas for improvement, and plan how to integrate their learnings into their leadership approach.

What it achieves:

By engaging with mentors who bring a different perspective, leaders are encouraged to think critically about their own styles and the potential benefits of incorporating elements from other approaches.

This exercise not only enhances leadership flexibility but also promotes a culture of continuous learning and mutual support among leaders.

Developing leadership flexibility requires intention, effort, and a willingness to embrace change.

By engaging in these two exercises, leaders can enhance their ability to adapt their leadership style to fit the diverse needs of their teams and the ever-changing business landscape.