5 A closer look at more leadership styles
Historically, leadership research has focused on male leaders, often in large private-sector organisations within the North American context. Today’s research considers the perspectives of both male and female followers, peers and supervisors from a diverse range of organisations and countries across the world, and this has led to the definition of more inclusive leadership styles.
Adaptive leadership helps people and organisations to adapt to changing and challenging environments: ‘Simply stated, adaptive leaders prepare and encourage people to deal with change’ (Northouse, 2016, p. 257).
The concept of adaptive leadership was developed by Ronald Heifetz, who worked with a variety of colleagues during the 1990s and beyond. He explains that ‘adaptive work is required when our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful become less relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge’ (Heifetz and Laurie, 1997, p. 132).
Heifetz and Laurie define six leader behaviours that are key to the process:
- Get on the balcony – take a step back from the ‘field of action’ and look from a different perspective
- Identify the adaptive challenge – find out what the key challenge is
- Regulate distress – manage conflict and provide direction for your followers
- Maintain disciplined attention – encourage followers to remain open to, and learn from, conflicting points of view
- Give the work back to the people – empower your followers to solve their own problems
- Protect voices of leadership from below – encourage junior staff to share their concerns and don’t dismiss them.
Heifetz separates adaptive from technical challenges, explaining that technical challenges can be more easily defined and solved through the leader’s authority and/or expertise. In contrast, adaptive challenges are not clearly defined and require a range of expertise and a supportive and collaborative environment.
We face many adaptive situations in the workplace – Activity 5 will help you to consider a challenge you have faced.
Activity 5 What are your adaptive challenges?
Consider an adaptive challenge you have faced, either at work or in your personal life, for example, implementing a new set of regulations in the workplace or changing your lifestyle to correct a health issue, and answer the following questions:
What was the challenge?
What was difficult about adapting to your new situation?
What personal behaviours or habits did you have to change?
What specific actions did you take?
Who else needed to be involved to ensure success? What was their approach?
Change can be difficult and distressing for many individuals and an effective leader will address that, even while having to adapt their own behaviours/values. Was the example you’ve used difficult or distressing for you? Did you receive support from the leader in your situation?
Understanding more about theories such as this one can help you to be a better leader of change in a difficult environment. It can be useful to have a list, such as the six behaviours outlined by Heifetz and Laurie, to refer to. You’ll explore leading change in more detail in Week 6.
A strategic leader articulates a strategic vision for their organisation and motivates and convinces their team to buy in to it. Many organisations have chosen to focus on the strategic leadership style, as it provides a more collaborative approach to organisational strategy.
Schoemaker et al. (2013) describe six skills that characterise an effective strategic leader, i.e. the ability to:
- anticipate – they understand what’s going on elsewhere in their market
- challenge – they question assumptions and encourage divergent points of view
- interpret – they interpret the information around them – recognising patterns and seeking new insights
- decide – they don’t rush into decisions, but carefully consider other options
- align – they look for common ground and communicate and engage with stakeholders
- learn – they promote a culture of inquiry and learn from mistakes and failures.
A case study
Facebook provides a useful case study of strategic leadership (Ray, 2011), where the six skills outlined by Schoemaker et al. can be illustrated. For example, Mark Zuckerberg has invested significant resource in anticipating the rest of the market and interpreting the information around him. The organisation prides itself on challenging assumptions and taking risks.
In his own words, Zuckerberg says, ‘The biggest risk is not taking any risk. In a world that’s changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks’ (Fell, 2014).
Aligning with their stakeholders is a key element of Facebook’s proposition – i.e. addressing our shared human need to connect and build relationships with people is at its core. As a company, it operates a shared decision-making model with lots of autonomy given to individual teams. Famously, Facebook learned from mistakes made by MySpace, an earlier social networking platform, by ensuring its look appealed to a wider audience and advertising was less intrusive.
While strategic leadership can bring a more cohesive approach within an organisation, ensuring that staff across many teams are working towards the same goals, there are disadvantages too. Strategic leadership involves working towards long term goals and this can lead to decreased flexibility when unexpected opportunities arise. There is also a risk that the future that your organisation is working towards will change.
Now you’ve explored several styles and theories, it will be useful to reflect on your own leadership style, which you can do in Section 6.