First of all, there is not just one leadership style, there are many. Loosely based on psychologist Daniel Goleman’s research, which identified six main styles, I shall give a quick overview. I suspect you will recognise yourself at some point.
Different leaders for different situations
The caricature of a leader is often viewed as an army-style commander that tells you exactly what to do. These type of leaders can be highly effective in severe crisis situations or where work is highly repetitive and undemanding. Apply that style in another situation or with more critical staff and it quickly becomes counterproductive.
Most of us would be happy to follow a leader who is able to dream big, inspire and see the future. This type of leadership can be great for things like start-ups, but it can be risky for well-established organisations. Leaders like this can easily get detached from reality, lacking an eye for detailed execution or quite simply, their compelling vision might be wrong.
More common is the leader who encourages their team competitively. This leader indicates how fast their team should go and when. We all know that nobody wins a competition by simply going as fast as possible; tactics and, most importantly, harmony between team members is needed in order to be effective. Though this type of pace-making is a crucial role, most organisations will require more if they really want to reach great heights.
Team members often respond best to a more democratic approach, whereby the leader carefully listens, observes and accepts that the best ideas and initiatives can come from others. Sometimes, however, it can be seen as indecisiveness, and this style is highly unlikely to work in times of crisis or in a case of starting up new ventures.
Harmonious leadership can be effective
Seeking to bring out the best in people is, in normal circumstances, a very effective style of leadership. Coaching rather than commanding does tend to get outstanding results. This applies especially to situations where pressures allow for this style to flourish, and when the team is made up of people who are highly talented, skilled and easily motivated.
In a similar category of harmonious leadership is the peacemaker. This type of leader brings people together, addresses internal conflicts, radiates warmth and understands the power of emotions. As with the coach, the listener and the pace-maker, this leadership type is highly effective if the conditions are right, but can be unsuccessful under other circumstances or with different people. A peacemaker is not the best crisis manager or visionary.
Reinvention is key
Most of us have a talent for a certain kind of leadership style. How good you are as a leader depends heavily on whether you are able to apply the right style, in the right setting, with the right people. The sobering answer is that few, if any of us are, because it is extremely exceptional to be able to play any of the roles of leadership competently. As a consequence, leaders that are carefully selected to fit a certain moment in time are invaluable upon appointment, but when things change they are perceived as past their sell-by date and in need of being replaced.
This is one of the reasons why people do not last that long in top roles. It is also one of the main reasons why so few people are able to set up a company successfully, and then manage it when it becomes big and successful: this requires the ability for complete reinvention as leader. Richard Branson is a famous example that proves it is indeed possible.
Even those exceptional leaders who are able to master convincingly maybe four or five different leadership styles will find it challenging to use these styles effectively. People like to see consistency and predictability. A very capable leader who can be authoritative in one situation, but then suddenly switches into a democratic listening role, may find it difficult to create a consistent image and build up trust amongst their team and staff.
Leadership alone is not enough
There are no easy answers here, except that we should be aware that we can get a bit carried away in our focus on what makes a good leader. A much more sensible question is, what makes a good team? The reason one organisation is successful and the other is not is more about bringing the right diversity of talents and skills together, than just about how they are being led. Ultimately the biggest test of leadership is the ability to compose teams and find the best way of getting them to work together.