Feb 8, 2023 6 min read

The Best Leadership Style - There Might Not be One

If you're the ambitious type, you've probably had your fair share of leadership books and management training. More than likely you've come across two stalwarts of the leadership literature and their models : emotional intelligence and authentic leadership.

A key thrust of these models, including many others, is that there are different leadership styles, and some supposedly more effective than others. Successful leaders tend to have a wide "repertoire" of styles that they are able to adapt to a given situation.

The leadership genre can often read like religion with its various prescriptions especially around "good" leaders. The most effective styles invariably end up being those that sound democratic and "morally sound".

But how much of this is true in practice? In my own experience, I've seen autocratic leaders who were very effective and rose rapidly through the ranks, while the emotionally intelligent, "coaching style" manager struggled with results, floundering in the bottom ranks.

So what are you to do as an individual to maximize your chances of success? This leads to two important points:

  1. Leadership literature can often be misleading or useless, if not borderline harmful.
  2. Success in leadership and management, and by extension in organizations, is contingent on the person-environment fit more than any other factor.

Let's look at these ideas through the commentary of two articulate but practical voices from the business world itself.

Business idealization is hazardous to your career

In organizations and teams, paying close attention to our own observations on what's actually working, is a better use of time than relying on models that are often ideal abstractions, removed from the messy reality and context of your particular situation.

Writing in Power, Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford outright issues a warning when consuming the leadership genre:

Most books by well-known executives and most lectures and courses about leadership should be stamped CAUTION: THIS MATERIAL CAN BE HAZARDOUS TO YOUR ORGANIZATIONAL SURVIVAL.

That’s because leaders touting their own careers as models to be emulated frequently gloss over the power plays they actually used to get to the top. Meanwhile, the teaching on leadership is filled with prescriptions about following an inner compass, being truthful, letting inner feelings show, being modest and self-effacing, not behaving in a bullying or abusive way—in short, prescriptions about how people wish the world and the powerful behaved.

There is no doubt that the world would be a much better, more humane place if people were always authentic, modest, truthful, and consistently concerned for the welfare of others instead of pursuing their own aims. But that world doesn’t exist.

As a guide for obtaining power, these recommendations are flawed.
Most CEOs are not the level 5 leaders described by Jim Collins in Good to Great as helping to take companies up the performance curve—individuals who are “self-effacing, quiet, reserved, even shy,” who get the best out of employees by not soaking up all the limelight and making all the decisions. The rarity of such leaders may be why so few organizations go from good to great.

And even Collins begins his story when these paragons were already in the CEO position—the road to the top may require different behavior than being successful once you have arrived. For most leaders, the path to power bears little resemblance to the advice being dished out.

— Jeffrey Pfeffer in Power

Pfeffer outlines three reasons why this is so:

[1.]... leaders are great at self-presentation, at telling people what they think others want to hear, and in coming across as noble and good. This ability to effectively self-present is why successful individuals reached high levels in the first place. In the stories told either directly in autobiographies or indirectly in the case studies found in leadership books, leaders overemphasize their positive attributes and leave out the negative qualities and behaviors.

[2] ... Those in power get to write history ...one of the best ways to acquire and maintain power is to construct a positive image and reputation, in part by coopting others to present you as successful and effective.

[3] ... the just-world effect: if people know that someone or some organization has been successful, they will almost automatically attribute to that individual or company all kinds of positive qualities and behaviors. Although it is far from evident that doing the stuff in the leadership books will make you successful, once you become successful, odds are vastly increased that people will selectively remember and attend to the positive characteristics they believe make good leaders.

Context and environment matters more than you think

In Managing, Henry Mintzberg highlights an important assumption that often goes unquestioned: that we can in fact change our styles to what is optimal. This is of course assuming we know beforehand what is in fact optimal.

Can we really do it beyond the superficial? Even when it's possible, it requires enormous amounts of time, energy and attention to make a fundamental change in how we behave and approach everyday work and lives. While it can be done, it's not as easy as others would like us to believe.

You might be better off finding an environment and context where your styles and talents are a natural fit, instead of trying to adapt your style to that of your organization's.

Is the Manager a Chameleon?

A Harvard Business Review article entitled “Leadership That Gets Results” was described by its author Daniel Goleman as taking “much of the mystery out of executive leadership”, by reducing it to six basic styles.

These were coercive (“Do what I tell you,” which Goleman called a “negative style”); authoritative (“Come with me . . . toward a vision,” which he called “most strongly positive”); affiliative (“People come first”), democratic (“What do you think?”), and coaching (“Try this”), all three of which he called positive; and pacesetting (“Do as I do,” which he considered negative... .

Goleman claimed that, much like “the array of clubs in a golf pro’s bag,” these styles can be picked and chosen “based on the demands of the shot. . . . The pro senses the challenge ahead, swiftly pulls out the right tool, and elegantly puts it to work. That’s how high impact leaders operate too” .

This assumption, that we can change our behaviors the way we change our golf clubs—a long-standing one in much of applied psychology and management development—needs to be scrutinized.
Bear in mind that while chameleons change colors, they do not change tails or tongues, let alone habitats. In fact, all they really do is hide—that is, use color to pretend to fit. It may work for them in a very limited context, but for how long can that work for any manager?

The effective manager may more usually be the one whose natural style fits the context, rather than the one who changes style to fit context, or context to fit style (let alone being a so-called professional manager whose style is supposed to fit all contexts).
So while every manager has to make the job, he or she also has to do the job. That is why managerial style cannot be considered out of context, independent of where it is practiced—as does so much of the literature. And that is why, to me at least, so much of the literature on style feels sterile.

So if you are a manager, be careful to understand your own style, not in general but in the context in which you practice management. And then be awfully careful about what other managerial jobs you take or put other managers into.

Recently a professor of education asked me what I thought about the current American practice of appointing retired army officers to head up school systems. Good idea, I replied, and let’s have schoolteachers run the army.

— Henry Mintzberg in Managing
  • A classic model on differing leadership styles is the Blake Mouton managerial grid. It maps leadership styles along two parameters of people and task orientation to generate five different styles of leadership, each with its own set of polarities. It's decent first go as a diagnostic tool rather than a prescriptive one.
  • One reason why success as a manager or leader is contextual is because of implicit theories of leadership. Both you and your organization have implicit notions about leadership which influences your approach and how you judge others. A good or bad fit of implicit leadership theories can determine whether careers flourish or flounder.

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  1. Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don't by Jeffrey Pfeffer. His most recent treatise on power is 7 Rules of Power. Both are essential reading in understanding how power really works in organizations.
  2. Managing by Henry Mintzberg — his magnum opus and the best 30 dollars on a book I've spent in terms of return on investment. Devour this one before you go get an MBA to become a better manager. There's a shorter version called Simply Managing.
Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at sheril@leadingsapiens.com.
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