Written by
Karen West
Heidrick & Struggles

Published
23 Jan 2018

The eight styles of leadership

23 Jan 2018 • by Karen West

Why do some business leaders thrive while others flounder? What is your leadership signature and how can you use these to improve your effectiveness?

This article is provided to Changeboard by our Future Talent 2018 partners, Heidrick & Struggles. You can see Heidricks' Managing Partner Colin Price in conversation with Aviva's CEO, Mark Wilson, at Changeboard's Future Talent Conference 2018.

Professional qualifications and technical competencies (the whats of leadership) play an important role in determining success, but far more often we’ve observed that success or failure depends on how leaders lead — specifically, how leaders’ styles mesh with their teams and the cultures of their organisations.

An empirical research project we conducted to better understand these dynamics, and the behavioural patterns that underpin them, identified eight leadership styles, or archetypes.

Taken together, they suggest implications for senior executives looking to better understand — and improve — their leadership skills, for teams seeking to improve their dynamics, and for organisations striving to improve the overall effectiveness of their leaders.

What contributes to effective leadership?

To better understand how leaders lead, and what contributes to effective leadership, we created a psychometric survey to measure three interrelated facets of leadership that our experience suggests are important differentiators.

We wanted to see to what degree leaders possessed: 

  1. a “thriving mind-set” (including a clear sense of purpose, deep commitment to learning, and conveyed sense of optimism)
  2. a combination of social, self, and situational awareness; and
  3. essential leadership values such as a performance orientation, ethical integrity, ability to collaborate, and openness to change, among others.

We surveyed 1,006 largely US-based executives of director level and above at companies with 250 or more employees. Respondents represented a broad range of industries and functions.

Our survey questions were designed to highlight the ambiguity and fluidity of the kinds of real-life situations that senior executives face.

We did this by asking respondents to rate themselves on a continuum between sets of opposing, yet equally “right,” choices (for example, “I prefer a changing environment” versus “I prefer a stable environment,” or “I love to win” versus “I hate to lose”).

Factor analysis allowed us to isolate the dozen or so survey questions (from the original 72) that together accounted for the vast majority of the variance we observed in the responses.

The eight leadership 'signatures'

When we looked at the patterns in the data and conducted further statistical analyses on them, including cluster analysis, we discovered something interesting: eight statistically distinct leadership styles distributed among respondents.

While the characteristics of each signature style, or archetype, were quantitatively unique, they also resonated deeply with our own experience of conducting executive assessments. In short, we all know leaders like these — and the strengths and weaknesses they exhibit are at once intuitively recognisable and instructive.

What are the eight archetypes of leadership?

  1. Collaborator: Empathetic, team-building, talent-spotting, coaching oriented
  2. Energiser: Charismatic, inspiring, connects emotionally, provides meaning
  3. Pilot: Strategic, visionary, adroit at managing complexity, open to input, team oriented
  4. Provider: Action oriented, confident in their path or methodology, loyal to colleagues, driven to provide for others
  5. Harmoniser: Reliable, quality-driven, execution focused, creates positive and stable environments, inspires loyalty
  6. Forecaster: Learning oriented, deeply knowledgeable, visionary, cautious in decision making
  7. Producer: Task focused, results oriented, linear thinker, loyal to tradition
  8. Composer: Independent, creative, problem solving, decisive, self-reliant

Leadership — no right or wrong

It’s important to note that there is no such thing as a “right” or “wrong” leadership style, and in fact individuals are likely to have access to every style to a varying degree.

That said, our experience and this research both suggest that leaders are likely to gravitate to a much smaller set of default styles they find comfortable or familiar — and particularly so when they are under stress or aren’t consciously managing the impressions they leave on others.

What might this mean for leaders? For senior executives, recognising your “go-to” style or styles could help you better understand and articulate the focus of your leadership (be it relationships, ideas, problem solving, execution, and so on) and thus better play to their strengths when leading teams or operating in complex environments.

It can also help individuals understand the other leadership styles to which they have access, thus potentially broadening the range of situations and environments where they might be successful.

This could also help you recognise potential pitfalls and areas for heightened vigilance. For example, a “collaborator” whose empathetic, consensus-driven style is a strength when interacting with his or her C-suite peers could find it ineffective (or even counterproductive) when interacting with subordinates who crave clarity and direction.

Similarly, a learning-oriented “forecaster” who uses his or her ability to gather information and think conceptually to help generate great ideas may not consider formulating a deeper buy-in strategy that appeals to people’s hearts as well as their heads.

Similarly, a better understanding of the archetypes and how they interact with one another could help inform the talent management approaches taken by companies, including:

  • Understanding how leaders are likely to react to and deal with ambiguity
  • Identifying situations and contexts in which up-and-coming leaders are likely to be most successful and where they may find their leadership skills stretched
  • Seeking to understand — and balance — team leadership dynamics in order to align leadership styles with organisational objectives (for example, leading a change initiative)

While our research into these leadership archetypes is in its early stages, some things are already quite clear. Human motivations and behaviours are complex, and therefore any model attempting to explain them (including this one) will always have limited power as a predictive tool.

Moreover, change is constant as leaders evolve throughout their careers and accumulate experience. Nonetheless, by developing an enhanced understanding of how leaders behave and interact with one another, we might better seek to harness that ability to change in service of expanding leadership potential.

See Heidrick & Struggles at the Changeboard Future Talent Conference

About the author

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Karen Rosa West is the chief innovation officer of Heidrick Product Laboratories (H Labs) and is a Partner in the Heidrick & Struggles Chicago office.

Heidrick & Struggles