A “box of chocolates”

At some point in our life everyone might encounter the challenge of having to lead and manage a smaller or larger group of people towards a common goal (Patel, 2017). The way we lead, is nothing more and nothing less than a pattern of specific behaviours framed by a respective mentality. The latter constitutes the theory and the former the model. In plain words, a leadership theory describes the overall approach of the leader and based on that theory a respective leadership model emerges, delineating how an individual puts the theory into practice i.e. specific leadership behaviours. Now, just like a box of chocolates, leadership models come in all shapes and approaches (Ahmed et al.,2016), with both theory and practice describing a plethora of styles. The most common leadership styles in play today are:

  • Transactional Leadership
  • Transformational Leadership
  • Laissez-Faire Leadership
  • Situational Leadership
  • Adaptive Leadership
  • Visionary

(other categorizations might include: Charismatic, Servant, Inclusive, Democratic, Autocratic, Bureaucratic)

Transactional Leadership Vs Transformational Leadership

A transactional leader -as the term implies- is a leader who drives their people in a “what you give is what you get” fashion; bonuses, monetary incentives and rewards are pre-set and offered according to the amount of work produced (Bass & Avolio, 1994). This model bears three sub-styles; contingent reward, management-by-exception (active) and management-by-exception (passive), but in essence such leaders “believe in contractual agreements as principal motivators and use extrinsic rewards toward enhancing followers’ motivation” (Ahmed et al., 2016, p.4) In this vein, transactional leadership might be good for allocating specific roles and duties to each employee, but on the flipside when employees know what is expected out of them and how much exactly their work is worth, they can easily slip into doing the bare-minimum.

Transformational leaders choose a different path. They seek to drive their people by connecting them under a collective morality and towards a greater good (House & Shamir, 1993). Once again as the term implies such leaders transform their people -and their companies as a consequence- by going beyond weekly pre-scheduled lists of tasks and goals, by pushing their people to take on novel responsibilities outside of their field of expertise (raising their self-esteem and self-actualization), by creating a common vision and keeping people behind it (Ahmed et al., 2016). This model is perfect for growth-minded companies or firms that are just starting to scale up, because it focuses on expanding the potential of the individual employees; the ones who will eventually bring forth the growth. A point of caution, however, should be for leaders to keep their interventions tailored to their people. Everyone has distinct restrictions, personality traits and learning curves, responding thus quite differently when pushed to step out of their comfort zone.

Laissez-Faire Leadership

As the French term “laissez faire” or “let it be or let them do” implies, laissez-faire leaders leave the people to go about and do their job the way they want to. All authority is delegated to the employees while the leader monitors the overall performance. People are fully trusted to complete their tasks outside the context of particular office policies or deadlines. Such familial atmosphere might be observed in young start-ups, where people work closely together. Nevertheless, a laissez-faire mentality should be adopted with caution as it might cause idleness, procedural or relational conflicts and kerfuffle within teams or even result in critical company growth opportunities to be missed.

Situational Leadership

In this style of leadership, the leader functions as a coach who changes their coaching style to meet the needs of the people (Blanchard, 1985; Hersey & Blanchard, 1977). The leading style, in particular falls between two points of a continuum: supervision (directive behaviour) vs arousal (supporting behaviour). Great performers are born when the leader assesses the situation and provides the correct level of supervision or arousal, based upon their followers’ readiness or else their maturity level (Figure 2). Quintessentially, we are talking about a four-step model, since depending upon the situation, the leader can either delegate, support, coach or direct their people. The matrix of relationships can be outlined as such:

  • Followers of high readiness (confident, able and willing to perform) X low support X low direction ? in need of a delegating leadership style
  • Followers of medium readiness (confident, able but unwilling to perform) X high support X low direction ? in need of a supporting leadership style
  • Followers of medium to low readiness (confident and willing but unable to perform) X high support X high direction ? in need of a coaching leadership style
  • Followers of low readiness (not confident nor able to perform) X low support X high direction ? in need of a directing leadership style

We continue with two more recent leadership paradigms: adaptive and visionary leadership. Such styles incorporate traits and process that are distinctive of other leadership styles not included in the present post (mainly traits of the servant, charismatic and inclusive leadership) and are considered the next stage in leadership and management theory and practice. Why? Because they move away from the traditional heroic view of leadership (whereby one person holds the responsibility of “showing the way”) to an era of leading within complex systems. And this is precisely the world of today; a complex, dynamic, global landscape. Such leadership models view companies as being composed of various interconnected sub-entities (teams, leaders, individuals, physical spaces, resources, technology) and as being in constant communication with their external environments (competitors, global market trends, investors, technology, customers etc.).

Adaptive Leadership

When Heifetz (Heifetz, Grashow & Linsky, 2009) introduced the theory of Adaptive Leadership (AL) he highlighted the rationale that anyone, regardless of their position within the organization, can take on the responsibilities of an adaptive leader. AL is not a fixed trait but rather a practice and it can be achieved and learnt by anyone.

When to seek out this style?

The key words here are “change” and “adaptive problems”. Essentially, adaptive leaders are called upon when the firm needs to manage some type of change, drastic or mild, systemic or smaller scale. Such conditions are faced mainly by firms which operate within complex, quickly changing markets, hence the AL model is perfect for such organizations (Yukl & Mahsud 2010). When facing change, firms must resolve what are described as ‘adaptive problems’. In contrast to technical problems for which a satisfactory solution can be developed by an expert, adaptive problems are foggy, elusive, have no recognized experts and no pre-set adequate responses (Randall & Coakley, 2007). Here is where the presence of adaptive leaders comes in handy, because they hold, not technical expertise, but rather the invaluable ability to observe, interpret, intervene. As such, the leader works in iterations: observing (tracking down the essential processes already in motion within the firm, preserving them and getting rid of the expendable ones) interpreting (testing new practices), and intervening (incorporating the novel parts back into the system). In practice this translates into orienting individuals to their roles and places, maintaining norms and team policies, managing conflict and change resistance and overall empower individuals to work towards effective solutions (Heifetz et al., 2009).

Who can be an adaptive leader?

According to Heifetz, the fundamental distinction between AL and traditional leadership styles is that AL is more of a learnt process rather than an approach based upon particular personal attributes (Heifetz et al., 2004). However, and while there is no universal check-list, both practice and research points towards a few characteristics that are indicative of having a high AL potential:

  1. Systems thinking. This is a cognitive skill that describes a person’s ability to effortlessly develop mental maps of complex systems i.e. systems that are composed of more than one causal relationships (Klimoski & Mohammed,1994). In practice, it means that a potential adaptive leader understands how organizations work holistically, with their various sub-systems, external forces and stakeholders affecting each other.
  2. Empathy. This trait -in the case of AL- describes the ability to put oneself into the other person’s shoes. Perspective taking and empathizing ensures that the leader is able to correctly forecast others’ emotions, understand the political processes and social relationships within the firm and anticipate conflict (Zaccaro et al., 1991).
  3. Honesty-Humility. This quality of adaptive leaders i.e. being truthful and transparent about themselves and their actions, is what might be described in various practice protocols as “Character”. Leader humility facilitates shared leadership by leaving space for leadership-claiming behaviours among team members (Owens, Johnson & Mitchell, 2013).

Visionary leadership

A corporate vision can be viewed as a high level mental map that shapes and sets the objectives of the firm (e.g. Kaplan & Norton, 2004) and it needs a particular individual to capture and embody it. This is the focal job of a visionary leader. Visionary leadership (VL) focuses on creating clear visions and providing purpose (Dhammika, 2016) among subordinates in order to sustain superior performance. Subordinates are in turn, expected to share that vision and respond with commitment. This kind of leadership propels people to create a shared understanding of their work and relationships and cultivate a pro-social orientation (Taylor et al., 2013) i.e. putting the well-being of the team above their own self-interests (Nwachukwu et al., 2017) Some examples of visionary leaders can be frequently found among sports teams or social change movements and may include behaviours such as : risk taking, intellectually stimulating others, empowering and image building (of themselves) consistent across every aspect of their life, be it their personal, professional, their attire etc.

When to seek out this style?

It has been recognized that this leadership paradigm is particularly effective when the company is facing stagnation, has become too siloed or is in great need of re-visiting its set of corporate values. Leaders who adopt this style are assigned with moving the company towards change and innovation. Regardless, VL is not free of practical limitations itself, with one very common drawback being that of followers growing reluctant to disagree with their leader (Nadler & Tuschman, 1990) as time passes by.

Who can be a visionary leader?

Waldman et al. (2001) argue that visionary leaders are first and foremost, very effective communicators in that they are able to change their subordinates’ attitudes and opinions. Effective communication has been measured and treated across literature as high Emotional Expressivity, which visionary leaders possess and display (Groves, 2006). On the same note visionary leaders have been reported as displaying high empathy, in that they are capable of recognizing how others feel & understand their perspectives. Similarly, a key element of visionary leadership i.e. leader’s ability to respond to change through fighting against old ideas, company politics, being comfortable with failure etc. has been linked with trait Openness (Kornør & Nordvik, 2004) and Narcissism (Rosenthal & Pittinsky, 2006). The latter might also prove to be the Achilles heel of visionary leaders in that, their grand visons and charisma might be overshadowed by their strong self-centered motivations, creating thus mistrust and discomfort among followers.


Key takeaway: ‘Chose your style accordingly’

Since leadership comes in all shapes and sizes, a wise solution, would be to choose the appropriate style taking into consideration the development stage of the firm or the challenges an organization as a whole is currently facing.



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