The 4 styles of leadership — and when to use them
Hate being called a micro manager? Here’s how to switch up your management style and get your team to love you again.
“I’ll leave it up to you to decide how we should handle that refund request.”
The level of decision-making authority you give to the various people on your team (and therefore your leadership style) should change, depending on their:
- Emotional maturity
Let’s examine this a little deeper, starting with the various styles of leadership.
Understanding the 4 styles of leadership
You might be surprised to learn the best leaders see-saw between four very different leadership styles, depending on who they’re leading and what the task at hand is.
Leadership and management are fluid skills that you constantly need to adapt based on the situation and the person in front of you.
Lucky for us, though, there’s a simple (but powerful) leadership framework we can follow to understand when we need to change our leadership style:
As you can see by the x and y-axis on the chart, your leadership style should change depending on how direct and how supportive you want to (or need to) be.
- If you want to provide a lot of direction with little support, tell
- If you want to provide a lot of direction with a lot of support, sell
- If you want to provide a lot of support with little direction, collaborate
- If you want to provide little direction and little support, delegate
Let’s examine each leadership style with an example so you can understand them in more detail.
Leadership style #1 — Tell
The first style of leadership is what we call “tell”. This is where you provide a lot of direction with little to no support. Essentially it’s more a management technique than a leadership style, because there’s no real leadership involved at all.
With the “tell” style, you’re simply telling your team members:
- What to do
- How to do it
- When it needs to be done
Hardly inspiring leadership. So when might this style of leadership be useful? Well the first example that comes to mind is if you’re working with freelancers or contractors.
You might have a very specific outcome in mind and know exactly what needs to be done to get there, but you just don’t have the time to do the work yourself, so you outsource it. Or you might need something done urgently, so you race off to your assistant and tell him exactly what to do.
As you can imagine, employing the “tell” style won’t do much to build an enduring culture and of course it doesn’t scale beyond a small team.
Best used when your team is comprised of: individual contributors such as contractors or freelancers.
Leadership style #2 — Sell
Next up is the “sell” style, where you provide a lot of direction, but also a lot of support. This style of leadership is best used when the final decision is outside the control of the people on your team, but you want them to feel empowered and excited about the decision.
By selling your team on a decision, you can get their buy-in and engagement. A typical example for employing the “sell” leadership style would be when you need to rally a team of engineers around the direction in which you want to take your product. You’re the one who made the decision, but you really need them to agree with the direction and even be excited about where the product will end up.
One important thing to remember when using the “sell” leadership style is to always mention why you’ve made a particular decision. Provide everyone on your team with enough information to understand the bigger picture and explain why your decision is in everyone’s best interest, not just your own.
Best used when your team is comprised of: individual contributors that are full-time employees.
Leadership style #3 — Collaborate
The “tell” and “sell” leadership styles are typically best used when you’re directly managing a team of individual contributors.
So which leadership style should you use when you’re managing a team ofmanagers such as directors or vice presidents? Most of the time you’ll want to employ the “collaborate” or “delegate” leadership styles.
The “collaborate” leadership style is high on support but low on direction. Typically you’ll ask for suggestions, ideas and solutions to solve a problem but you will ultimately have the final say in which approach is taken.
The thing you want to be careful of when employing the “collaborate” leadership style is to make sure everyone knows upfront who is responsible for the final decision (you). They need to know you want their input and that it will be carefully considered and used as part of the decision-making process.
When might you employ the “collaborate” leadership style? A great example is when one of your team members is hiring someone on their team. They run all of the interviews and shortlist the best candidates, but you have the final say in which candidate actually gets hired.
Best used when your team is comprised of: a mix of senior leaders and middle managers.
Leadership style #4 — Delegate
This is the ultimate form of leadership and involves you providing very little direction and very little support in regards to decision making. You should only employ the “delegate” leadership style if you’re completely comfortable with the person who will be responsible for making the final decision.
The best CEOs typically employ a highly delegative leadership style. They have to, otherwise they’d end up working 100 hours every week. They rely strongly on their teams and take very little actual work on themselves. They trust their team and expect them to make the right decisions most of the time.
Of course delegating critical decisions doesn’t always work out well. In situations where the CEO finds her team is making poor decisions, she would ultimately look to move from a delegative to a more collaborative style of leadership. If that doesn’t work, she would typically replace the person on her team who continued to make poor decisions.
Best used when your team is comprised of: senior leaders such as directors and vice presidents.
Changing your leadership style over time
Depending on the size of your team and how quickly your team will grow over time, your leadership style will need to adapt. Let’s take a look at a few examples of team structure and which leadership style(s) you might employ to get the highest level of engagement and productivity from those teams.
Example #1 — Startup (5 people)
In a startup with a small team, you’ll typically be the only manager, which means you’ll spend most of your time using the “sell” and “collaborate” leadership styles.
If you have a co-founder, you’ll probably delegate certain decisions to them completely because they know a specific area of the business better than you do (such as engineering, finance or sales).
As your team grows beyond a handful of people, you’ll either hire or promote your first few managers. At that point your number of direct reports will be reduced and you’ll work through your managers to make progress.
With a few managers reporting to you, it makes sense to shift to more of a collaborative leadership style, mixed in with a bit of selling and delegation as needed (depending on their seniority and previous management experience).
You want managers to take a lot of the task-based work off your plate, but they still need to understand your overall strategy and make decisions you agree with, especially when it comes to building out their team and spending.
Example #2 — Medium-sized business (300 people)
A business with a few hundred people will typically have multiple layers of management, starting with the CEO at the top. In most cases the CEO will employ a mix of collaborative and delegative leadership styles, depending on the strength of each person on her team.
Below the CEO, the senior management team (directors, senior directors, vice presidents, etc) will most often also employ a mix of collaborative and delegative leadership styles. If their team is comprised of more experienced leaders (managers and senior managers) they will let them make more of the decisions. If not, they will make most decisions in a collaborative format.
For a CEO in a medium-sized business, everything starts and ends with the quality of people brought into the company. Ideally you’re looking to hire A-players who build out their teams with other A-players. Be wary of managers who hire sub-grade talent and try to make up for it with a lot of “tell” and “sell”-style leadership.
One decision, four leadership styles
Let’s look at how you might communication a decision in the context of each leadership style. We’ll assume you’re the CEO of a 100-person software company and you decide to launch a new product.
Here’s how you might communicate that decision using each of the four leadership styles:
- Tell: “I’ve decided we’re launching a new product. Here’s exactly what you need to do to get that product ready…”
- Sell: “I’ve decided we’re launching a new product. Let me tell you why that product will be so important and how you can help bring it to life…”
- Collaborate: “We need to launch a new product. Why don’t you run the strategy and bring it back to me for a final review when you’re done?”
- Delegate: “We need to launch a new product. I’ll leave it with you to decide what we build and how we build it.”
You’ll also want to tell the entire company, at once, about your decision to launch a new product. You’d typically do this at a company meeting where you would be in “sell” mode — talking mostly about why the new product is important, how it will help your customers and how it will help grow your business and provide new opportunities for your team.
Tying this all back to the headline — if you’ve ever been called a micro manager (or know someone who has), then it’s probably because you’re telling when you should be selling or collaborating.
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