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The Ebb and Flow of Leadership Styles


Leadership is such a broad topic, so much science has been developed around it and yet, it seems like something, only very few people truly master. A good leader is reflecting and constantly seeking to improve. However, this is hard with so many different angles and opinions on the matter. Having consumed my fair share of leadership literature, having led teams and projects, failed numerous times and also succeeded a few times –  I taking an attempt on trying to add some clarity to the topic and hopefully some valuable guidance on how to lead teams and followers in different scenarios.

But first I want to differentiate between two important things:

You, the person, the leader.

Always be authentic. You have your own traits, characteristics and attributes. In order to establish trust and create an environment where people follow you, I strongly believe you should be your authentic self that brought you to this position in the first place. Its hard to maintain an image that you are not and it will have a direct impact on your team or followers, if something about you is not true. So my advice here, don’t try and embody and copy something you are not, show up with your authentic strengths and weaknesses and a healthy dose of openness.

(But more about you, as the authentic leaders another time – this blog post is about the different leadership styles)

Leadership styles

Now that is something, that SHOULD be fluid and adapted to two things that require a change in style: who you lead (audience, followers) and the situation you are leading in (what are the external and internal circumstances).

team spirit, concept, cohesion

Effective leadership is ideally an intricate weave of insightful understanding of your team’s capability and responsive adaptation to the unique situations you and/ or your organization faces. To elaborate on the various leadership styles, to help understand when which one is applicable and help you provide guidance when to chose which style – I tried to categorise them here with some examples:

Situational Leadership

The “Situational Leadership” model, most of us will have come across is great. It calls for a flexible approach where leaders adapt their style based on their team’s maturity and capability. Leaders using this model might start with a directive approach with a new, inexperienced team member, providing clear instructions and close supervision. As the individual gains experience and confidence, the leader gradually shifts to a coaching style, offering guidance while allowing more autonomy. Eventually, the leader can adopt a delegative style, entrusting tasks to the team member, confident in their capability to perform independently.

This is a very helpful model, when we consider the people we lead. Whilst it provides flexibility and helps us adopting our leadership style on changing dynamics, it has one big limitation: it is only inward looking. It considers the situation, the follower is in, but does not consider the situation we are leading in.

So let’s have a look at leadership styles that take external factors into consideration:

Leading in a crisis:

When adversity or an unexpected crisis strikes, “Crisis Leadership” becomes a crucial approach. This style requires swift decision-making, the provision of a clear direction, and the ability to empower individuals with immediate situational knowledge. When a company or project faces sudden disruptions or crises, leaders must strike a balance between taking decisive control and empowering their teams, allowing for informed decisions that address immediate challenges. Some great examples of successful leadership in crises are:

  • Johnson & Johnson: Leadership during the Tylenol poison incident in 1982 where they responded fast, radical and transparently. Most critically, they put people before business.
  • The Chilean Mine rescue:  in 2010, when 33 miners were trapped and successfully rescued after 68 days, where parallel approaches needed to be managed under extreme time and stakeholder pressure.
  • Chipotle: their new CEO who turned the company around with structure, while also allowing space for innovation, after their food-safety disaster in 2015 that poisoned hundreds of customers with the norovirus and put their reputation at an all time low.

Leading in a thriving growth market:

In the context of growth, leaders need to foster a culture of trust. When business is thriving, this is the time to inspiring teams to embrace innovation, creativity, and encourage (educated) risk-taking. The companies who have successfully deployed a “Leadership of trust and inspiration” are:

  • Starbucks: Howard Schultz, Starbucks’ CEO, provides an excellent example of this style. Schultz is known for building a culture of trust and respect, encouraging his employees to voice their opinions, leading to innovative solutions that spurred the company’s growth. His leadership style fostered an environment that inspired employees to strive for excellence and take ownership of their roles.
  • Netflix: Patty McCord, Netflix’s Chief Talent Officer, outlines their unique trust-and-inspire culture. The company emphasizes “people over process,” giving employees the freedom to make decisions and the responsibility to make those decisions in the company’s best interest.
  • Google: their trust-based culture has led to the creation of some of Google’s most innovative products, including Gmail and Google News. This trust and inspire leadership approach has fostered an environment of creativity and innovation that has been instrumental in Google’s growth and success.

“Trust & Inspire” by Steven M. R. Covey is one of my all-time favourite books that I highly recommend reading for every leader.

Leading in environments that require nurturing:

The, what is called “Servant Leadership” style, emphasizes the leader’s role as a servant first, prioritizing the growth and well-being of their followers. This approach is seen in predominantly nurturing environments like academia or non-profit organizations but it my opinion, can bring wonders to any organisation. We know Servant Leadership from politics, such as from Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Madeleine Albright and Jacinda Ardern. But some of the most inspirational commercial business leaders are also known for their Servant Leadership style and the success they have created:

  • PepsiCo: Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo, was known for her dedication to her employees. She made a point to write letters to the parents of her senior executives to thank them for the “gift” of their children. She believed that leaders are not just responsible for employees, but also for the families that stand behind them.

(Indra has a fantastic masterclass on leadership, that I highly recommend)

  • Unilever: The previous CEO at Unilever, Paul Polman, implemented a clear commitment to servant leadership. He redefined Unilever’s purpose around sustainability, aiming to “make sustainable living commonplace.” He was known for putting the welfare of the company’s employees and the needs of the communities they served ahead of short-term profits, reflecting his belief in serving a broader societal purpose.
  • IKEA: Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA built the company with a strong focus on simplicity and cost efficiency that directly served the customers. He was known to lead by example, often performing tasks that many CEOs would delegate. He nurtured an egalitarian culture in IKEA, which reflects the key principles of servant leadership.

Leading through transformation and change:

“Transformational Leadership”is characterized by leaders inspiring followers to exceed their own expectations, often leading to extraordinary results. Transformational leaders often instigate drastic changes within organizations, inspiring and motivating their teams towards a shared vision. When companies take pivots, there is this specific type of leadership needed. Some examples of outstanding transformational leaders:

  • Microsoft: Since taking over as CEO, Satya Nadella, has revitalized Microsoft, steering it towards areas like cloud computing and AI. He emphasized a “growth mindset,” encouraging experimentation and learning from failures. His focus on transforming the company culture to one that values learning and growth is credited with restoring Microsoft’s pioneering spirit.

Nadella for me is one of the most inspirational leaders of modern times. He truly walks the talk and I could listen to him and his wisdom for hours.

  • Apple: Steve Jobs, the co-founder of the company, was a transformational leader. He revived Apple from near bankruptcy to become one of the most valuable companies globally, inspiring his team with a compelling vision, demanding innovation, and fostering a culture of high expectations. People aspects of his leadership have been highly questioned, but from a product and process perspective, he has been highly visionary and transformational.
  • LVMH: Bernard Arnault transformed the French conglomerate LVMH into the world’s largest luxury goods company. He’s been instrumental in revitalizing traditional luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Dior, while acquiring new ones, constantly pushing for innovation and excellence.

Leading in highly competitive and rapidly evolving markets:

In highly competitive or rapidly evolving industries, “Adaptive Leadership” is arguably the most effective leadership style. It emphasizes the ability of a leader to encourage and facilitate change that builds on the existing resources and capacities of an organization.

Adaptive leaders strive to create an environment that encourages learning, experimentation, and innovation. They understand that failure is often a part of the learning process, and rather than punishing failure, they see it as an opportunity for growth and improvement (failure culture). They adapt their strategies based on the feedback and learning they receive, making them highly flexible and responsive to change. Here are some great examples of successful adaptive leaders:

  • GlaxoSmithKline: CEO Emma Walmsley, has overseen the strategic shift of GSK towards prioritizing its pharmaceutical business, a significant departure from its diversified focus on consumer health products. Her leadership has encouraged the company to adapt its operations and priorities to accommodate this shift, ensuring GSK remains a leading global healthcare company.
  • BMW: As the former CEO, Harald Krüger led the company’s shift towards electric mobility and autonomous driving. Acknowledging the automotive industry’s changing landscape, his leadership involved substantial adaptation in both technological innovation and business strategy. His efforts have kept BMW at the forefront of the industry’s transformation.
  • Air France: Anne Rigail, CEO of Air France, has been navigating the tumultuous aviation industry marked by economic uncertainties and a global pandemic. Her leadership has required considerable adaptability, managing crisis situations, and leading strategic transformations, such as improving customer service and implementing environmental measures.

Leading in start-ups:

In the fast-paced, innovative world of startups, a blend of leadership styles often proves most effective, which I feel is worth mentioning separately. On one hand, “Transformational Leadership” is pivotal, inspiring team members towards a shared vision, fostering a culture of high expectations, and driving innovation. On the other hand, “Adaptive Leadership” is also crucial, creating and encouraging a culture of learning, resilience, and agility, enabling the organization to navigate the dynamic startup environment. Last but not least,  aspects of “Servant Leadership” are highly encouraged, as it emphasizes empowering and supporting team members, building a strong culture and fostering their personal and professional growth.

May you lead – happily ever after!”

So – hopefully this has helped to provide some guidance in a time, where successful leaders need a nuanced understanding of both the situational demands of the company and the maturity level of their team and followers. By constantly and fluently assessing these two aspects and adapting their leadership style accordingly, leaders can effectively navigate their organizations through the ever-evolving business landscape.

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