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Is It Time To Update Your Style?

I will never forget the moment it dawned on me that some of my teachers might not like my faculty meeting style.  I was in a graduate class for school leadership, and we were discussing personality traits and communication preferences when the conversation turned to meeting formats. I was shocked to learn that some people preferred meeting structures that allowed time for connecting with each other on an emotional level, discussing issues and concerns in depth, and brainstorming together about future projects and long-term goals. Not me! I liked brief meetings with a manageable agenda. I loved when we accomplished what I had set out to do in the meeting, and I especially liked when we made it out of there on time! 

In interviews and “get to know you” sessions, leaders are often asked to identify their leadership style, as if there is just one style that will carry them through their careers.  This expectation is certainly not true when it comes to selecting our style of dress. No matter how cute your new swimsuit is it will never be appropriate work wear. And while a suit and tie may be in order when it comes welcoming parents at Back To School Night, a good pair of worn out “dad jeans” will serve you best when it comes to getting the yard work done. Just as different occasions call for different styles of dress, we must be willing to change our leadership style for specific situations.  

The Situational Leadership Approach

The situational approach to leadership was developed in the 1960’s and revised and refined many times over the next thirty years. Northouse (2013) explained, “The premise of the theory is that different situations demand different kinds of leadership. From this perspective, to be an effective leader requires that a person adapt his or her style to the demands of different situations” (p.99). The biggest challenge of this type of leadership approach is accurately assessing the group’s competence and commitment levels, to select the style of leadership that will best serve them (Northouse, 2013).

As I was sitting in my graduate class reflecting on my meeting style, the faces of some teachers came to mind because they often seemed a bit unhappy when my meeting was over, even though we ended five minutes early!  What I counted as a triumph seemed to disappoint them, and slowly I accepted the fact that as a leader, I was not meeting everyone’s needs. I eventually realized that it was time to change my style.

When I first took on the position of Principal at my previous school, I inherited a group who was frustrated with the previous lack of decision-making and clear direction, and the confusion and chaos that had resulted from that situation. So my direct style of leadership was welcome from most teachers in the beginning. Being able to discuss the issues quickly, make a decision, then give directives, freed everyone up to do their work, and allowed us all to move forward.

However, in time, the faculty grew and matured. They learned to work together as a team, they took on more responsibilities, and eventually, they were able to handle many problems on their own. They had changed as they invested themselves in the school, altered their styles of teaching to meet the needs of the students in their classes, and excitedly made plans for the school’s future growth and improvement.  Leading such a group of dedicated professionals was an absolute pleasure! But, one of the results of all of that positive change was that my directive style of leadership was no longer a good fit for the group I served.

Leadership Styles

Four distinct leadership styles are generally accepted as part of the Situational Leadership Approach, and the styles can best be described as combinations of different levels of supportive and directive behaviors (Northouse, 2013). The four different leadership styles are as follows:

1. Directing: The primary focus of this style is achieving a goal.  Communication is focused on goal achievement, with specific instruction on how the leader’s goals should be met.

2. Coaching: This style also focuses on goal achievement, but it consists of a higher amount of support for followers as they seek to achieve the goals. To give support, leaders solicit feedback from followers and provide high amounts of encouragement as the followers focus on task completion.

3. Supporting: In this approach, the leader’s directive approach is much lower, and more focus is placed on support to encourage leadership behaviors in followers. Followers have more control over day to day decisions with the supportive approach, but leaders are still available for listening, praising, giving feedback, and asking for input (Northouse, 2013).

4. Delegating: This type of leadership calls for the leader’s initial involvement with determining what the group must do. But then after that, the leader backs out and the followers have full responsibility for achieving the agreed upon goal in whatever way they see fit. The delegating style is described as a “low supportive - low directive” style of leadership (Northouse, 2013).

When it comes to these four distinct styles, most of us have preferences and dislikes, but it is important to realize that there are situations where each of these styles may be desirable. For instance, in a crisis, the directive leadership approach ensures that decisions are made promptly by a knowledgeable person. However, in a situation where the leader must often travel, or has other responsibilities that prevent him/her from participating in day to day management decisions, relying on a group of responsible and talented team members may allow the organization to move forward with their goals in the leader’s absence. 

Analyzing the Needs of the Group

Engstrom (1976) suggested some questions to consider when analyzing a group’s need for a particular style of leadership such as, “Are the individuals within the group capable of responsibility and decision making? Do they know the goals? What is their past performance? Have we prepared them to accept delegated responsibility and authority?” (Engstrom,1976, p.69). Taking note of several other institutional factors when contemplating the best leadership style for a group is also recommended. The size of the group, the current degree of interaction and communication between leaders and followers, the personality of the group members, and how decisions are made in the organization should all be considered (Amanchukwu, Stanley & Ololube, 2015, p.10-11).

Just as students have diverse talents and needs, groups of teachers are also made up of various combinations of developmental levels and degrees of commitment to their schools. For instance, within one group you could have a new teacher who is lacking in some skills, but is very committed to his/her work, a teacher who is growing in his/her abilities but also losing some of his/her initial dedication, and finally a seasoned and accomplished educator who is also very committed to the school. All of these types of teachers need effective leadership, and a-one-size-fits-all approach is sure to fall flat with such a diverse group. Leaders should conduct informal group assessments on a regular basis, not just when they first start to work with a new group. If professional growth is the goal for faculty and staff, we should expect that their needs will change as they continue to grow and develop.

Changing Your Style

In considering whether or not it may be time to change your style, Engstrom (1976) recommended looking at your calendar or agenda from the last two weeks and thinking about each of the meetings that you attended or led during that time.  Did you take different approaches for different situations and groups of people? Or do you have a standard style that you employ at all times? If it’s the former, it’s probably time for a change.

In his well-known book, Leading Change, John Kotter discussed the importance of lifelong learning for leaders, an idea that should resonate deeply with us as educators! Changing your leadership style will require a willingness to learn new things, humility to acknowledge that a particular style or approach may not be working, and an openness to input from others.  Kotter shared these five habits that support lifelong learning in Leading Change (p.183).

·      Risk taking: Willingness to push oneself out of comfort zones.

·      Humble self-reflection: Honest assessment of success and failures, especially that latter.

·      Solicitation of opinions: Aggressive collection of information and ideas from others.

·      Careful listening: Propensity to listen to others.

·      Openness to new ideas: Willingness to view life with an open mind

Developing Our Style

One of the most impactful style changes I made was the addition of an “ice-breaker” question to the beginning of some of my meeting agendas. As you can imagine, the very words “ice-breaker question” initially elicited groans from some group members, but others were quite pleased. I promised not to ask questions like, “If you could be any vegetable, what would you be?” Instead, I asked about teachers who had been influential in their lives, what they would dedicate their lives to if money didn't matter, and sometimes I just asked them to tell us about something good that had happened that week.

I learned so many important things about our team members by setting aside my agenda for a few minutes and sitting back and listening to what people had to say.   To be honest, we started accomplishing less in our meetings. But on the other hand, we also got a lot better at identifying ways we had wasted time in the past - like announcing things that could be shared through email. Spending just a little bit of time connecting on a personal level made a big difference in the way we set goals, made plans, and worked together. In the end, the little tweaks and changes I made to my leadership style resulted in the creation of a brand new format, and a style that could best be described as ours.

References

Amanchukwu, R.N., Stanley, G.J., Ololube, N.P. (2015).  A review of leadership theories, principles and styles and their relevance to educational management.  Management, 5(1), 6-14.

Engstrom, T.W. (1976). The making of a Christian leader. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Kotter, J.P. (1996). Leading Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Northhouse, P. G. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Amanda Lake