23/02/2011

By Laura Thomson

“Leadership is like beauty – it’s hard to define but you know it when you see it” (anon)

In response to the age-old question ‘are great leaders born or made?’ I think it is worthwhile considering an additional element: situational context.

Churchill was said to be an inspiring leader in wartime but less so once normality resumed. Tony Blair engaged the electorate in a way that had not been seen in a decade, but a decade on, many were left feeling fully enraged. There will be a myriad of reasons why, but it does lead one to think that perhaps the style of leadership that is effective in a certain set of circumstances, is less so in another.

The circumstances in the UK workplace (whether private, public or third sector) are significantly different now compared to a few years ago. The leaders and managers that I am talking with, are taking great comfort from the idea that an ‘enviable leader’ is one who adapts and flexes their style depending on the needs and demands of the situation. Not, that they have failed, or are unable to cope ‘like I used to’.

I am a great believer in the Situational Leadership idea developed by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey in the late 1960′s. Our world is 3 generations on, but from a framework perspective, it’s simple to understand, and it works in most environments for most people in a leadership position looking to create enviable workplaces.

The model defines 4 quadrants of leadership style: Directing, Coaching, Supporting and Delegating. I am particularly interested in the idea of the ‘space’ given between the leader and the team.

From a chronological point of view, the model suggests that an enviable leader will at first provide lots of direction and guidance with a new starter, and then ease the reins and create distance over time as the new team member gets to grips with a new job. Straightforward enough. We would intuitively give more attention to someone on their first morning, than with them 6 months on. But what about in times of ‘emergency’?

Off to Vegas tomorrow, the analogy of flying a plane seems apt. The Delegating style that may have been appropriate when there were no headwinds, may be less so if that empowerment and freedom could be perceived as careless or reckless. The ‘come to me when you need me’ approach can make that distance appear as a gulf rather than a bridge. This is when the Directing style needs to briefly show itself again, even with most established team.

Regardless if someone is a frequent flyer or first time in the air, when the turbulence kicks in, we need reminding of where the exits and oxygen masks are. We need to know that there is a captain who is clearly and confidently heading to the destination. To remind us to keep calm and breathe.
So as a leader, turn your radar on and do a weather check on the situation. Is your style appropriate to what is required? Do you need to close distance or create space?

Laura Thomson is a Leadership trainer specialising in sales and business skills development, running small and large training courses as well as 1-1 coaching with individuals. Laura has 10 years training experience gained in large corporate as well as start-up companies. You can read more about company culture on her blog.