When two leadership styles collide

Written by
Mark Swain

04 Apr 2017

04 Apr 2017 • by Mark Swain

This being a deliberate crash and mash-up of old-world management and new-world leadership. But it’s positive and necessary, and here's why…

Let’s go with the (debated, disputed, but valid) idea that the “old-world” was one we could at least understand; where:

•    business seemed to change in a fairly even (and more predictable) way
•    big problems could be solved with reasoned responses, and
•    we often knew our position on the grid

Back then I had two powerful bosses. Both had big energy and huge passion, and took their responsibilities very seriously. Each threw their considerable (metaphorical) weight behind ideas and initiatives.

But what I really remember was their range of reactions. They could be calm and collected, and yet angry sometimes. I took the brunt of some outbursts, and had to suffer pretty blunt feedback. Neither hesitated to make decisions, and I made sure I did what they asked - out of loyalty, and because it made sense. Oh, and there was just enough fear to make sure I delivered what was expected. And I always, always, knew where I stood. With the benefit of hindsight, I think this “old-way” it was a clumsy form of situational leadership.

A new world of leadership

The “new-world” is very different, being more like a big tub of random magnetic letters - where the sense only comes when you see a pattern, and make words to stick on the fridge!  It’s an occasionally-ordered (and often random) set of circumstances and events, lacking obvious predictability, missing previous norms, and creating a compelling need for a new way to think about leadership. For me, that “new-way” is all about mastery. First, leaders need to master themselves, and I love the idea of this being around four intelligences - IQ, EQ (Emotional Intelligence), PQ (Physical Intelligence) and SQ (Spiritual Intelligence). Second, they need to master leadership - meaning moving smoothly between the different working styles of telling, directive, facilitation, mentoring, coaching, and even as far as more therapeutic intervention. Think of it like a Newton's Cradle, with each of those styles being one of the swinging spheres.

Old world Vs. New world

So what’s the role of HR? HR needs to offer (70:20:10?) learning in each of these styles, encouraging leaders to develop areas like coaching. Coaching needs to be worked like a muscle, ready to be used effectively and at the right time. But we need to accept that coaching isn't right for every situation. I'm talking about mastering all of these areas, and not just one. Your best leaders must be given permission to use all the styles (even when a more telling/directive approach makes them appear to be pushing hard) without worrying about petty politics and silly sensibilities. And if pushing hard means a return to old-world management, where there's just a little wariness and plenty of honest conversation, then sobeit. Employees need to deliver, and must be clear when they don't. We shouldn't hide behind performance management and company procedures. Now, let me clarify. I wouldn't recommend that leaders scream and shout. What old-world managers said was sometimes over the line, and we don't want blustering bullies. But there's a time and a place for everything - if you were in a perfect storm you'd chart a course, tie everyone down and shout above the noise.

I've used more cliches here than I ever do, and I hope it makes the point. If I sound a little reminiscent, then maybe it's because I am. Let those two worlds collide. The new world requires a grown-up approach, and returning (sometimes) to old-world management may be more important than you think.