Highly effective leaders tend to be able to adapt their leadership approach to suit the circumstances at hand. They know when it’s time to take a back seat and simply listen and the when it’s appropriate to step forward and take an authoritative stance.
They key is to be able to judge situations well and know what type of involvement you need to make in each situation. Sometimes leaders have a preference for one of these approaches (that I outline below) and use it the majority of the time, without actually reading the circumstances closer to see if it actually needs a shift in their approach to get the best of the situation at hand. In this article, I will define these three approaches to leadership and when to use them.
Leaders who TAKE UP space
Some leaders have a natural tendency to take up space. They always seem to have the answer, and the people working for them have become conditioned to turn to them for the answer. They can be the most well intentioned and most lovely of people, but by doing this they are taking an authoritative approach and preventing their employees from thinking for themselves. Very often leaders who favour this approach have risen to the ranks through superior technical knowledge and skills in a particular field. They have spent a good many years being the person people turn to for technical answers. But this kind of leadership style should not be used in every situation and to establish every outcome.
Most leaders want to foster a speak-up culture, but these types of leaders are inadvertently quashing ideas before they can come to light and creating a “follow-the -leader” culture where employees tend to move their opinions towards those of their leader.
To get the best out of your staff, you need to encourage experimentation and creative thought and empower others to think for themselves.Leaders who don’t listen to others will soon find themselves with people who have nothing to say. This approach will stifle creativity and productivity and the resulting lack of responsibility will kill motivation.
This approach to leadership is best used when there is one best technical answer or when you need to move through an issue with expedience. When deciding whether to speak up in a group discussion with your team, ask yourself “Will adding my input draw attention to me as a leader and away from the focus at hand?”
Leaders who COLLAPSE space
When there is a group discussion to establish a desired outcome, tension can naturally form through conflicting interests, and differing opinions. It’s important as a leader to feel comfortable with this process as it is often this built up tension that eventually works towards a shift in energy where a collaborative outcome and next steps are defined. In this situation, it is often desirable to facilitate discussion and a sharing of opinions to reach a point where the energy shifts, the tension is broken, and collaboration is reached. Leaders who collapse space are generally uncomfortable with this tension and try to immediately put a stop to it. They will step in and break it up before it has a chance of getting to the good bit; “OK, OK, let’s take a break…” or perhaps they will use humour and make a joke to lighten the mood. Either way they prematurely break the tension, preventing the group from reaching a point of collaboration.
This approach is best used when/ if the tension gets to the point where someone’s feelings are more important than the level of tension. Sometimes it is necessary to immediately change the dynamic in a room, but it should not be your preference. Some of the most creative ideas come from great tension and initial disagreement. Learn to judge when you need to intervene and when it ought to be encouraged and guided.
Leaders who HOLD the space
Holding space is about being able to keep the group focussed on an issue and be comfortable with the tension that will naturally occur when you have differing opinions bouncing around a room. If you can hold that tension for long enough, you will reach a point where there is a shift. Often you need an emotional shift to reach this point. But when you get there, a commitment is formed by everyone on the team. You move from the ‘can’ts’ and the ‘shouldn’ts’ to a commitment to move forward . You can’t force this shift as you need everyone to be heard and have the chance to state their opinion before they can get to it.
This approach should be used often. It encourages creative thinking and a collaborative commitment to an outcome.
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