Chapter 8 The Big Battle: Leaders Often Apply the Wrong Leadership Style – Leadership Insights


The Big Battle

Leaders Often Apply the Wrong Leadership Style

Leadership Styles

Enough has been written about leadership styles over the years to fill a library. Indeed, Stogdill (1974) japed that “there are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept.” Dubrin (2000) claims the number of definitions for leadership might be in the region of 35,000. Furthermore, opinions seem to differ as to which is the best style to apply to any given leadership situation. Fads and trends come and go. In any given leadership zeitgeist, this or that style could to be in vogue. All of which makes it difficult for the future manager to grasp a memorable snapshot that will help him or her with the nuance of delegation.

Scholars pose multiple renderings of what leadership is or should be.1 Let us take a look at some:

Northouse (2004) claims it “is a process… involves influence… occurs in group context… involves goal attainment.” Yukl (2002) defines it as “the process of influencing others to understand and agree what needs to be done and how to do it, and the process of facilitating individual and collective efforts to accomplish shared objectives.” Whereas, according to Goffee and Jones (2006) “Leadership is about results. Great leadership has the potential to excite people to extraordinary levels of achievement. But it is not only about performance; it is also about meaning. Leaders at all levels make a difference to performance. They do so because they make performance meaningful.” Kouzes and Posner (1995) see leadership as “the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations,” while Van Vugt, Hogan, and Kaiser (2008) see it more pragmatically in their definition of leadership as “…(a) influencing individuals to contribute to group goals and (b) coordinating the pursuit of those goals.” Some similar themes here, but little concrete accord from the theorists.

Maybe the practitioners have been able to come to a more centralized understanding of leadership.2

  1. “The leaders who work most effectively, it seems to me, never say “I”.” Peter Drucker, Management Guru. (1909–2005) (cited by ­Lipman 2018)
  2. “Be realistic, demand the impossible!” Che Guevara, Cuban revolutionist. (1928–1967) (cited in 2017)
  3. “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” Jack Welch, former CEO General Electric.
  4. “…have the courage to disrupt old structures!” Jürgen Klinsmann, former German Soccer head coach. (Cited by Jenewein 2008).
  5. “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.” Thomas Jefferson. 3rd president of the United States. (1743–1826)
  6. “A leader is a dealer in hope.” Napoleon Bonaparte. French statesman (1769–1821)
  7. “The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.” Tony Blair, former British Prime Minister.
  8. “As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” Bill Gates. Founder of Microsoft.
  9. “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” John F. Kennedy. (35th president of the United States. (1917–1963)

A hop through some historical quotes on leadership further exposes the discordance of sentiment to leadership styles. My intention was not to cloud the issue here; apologies if I have done that. What I hoped to show you is the sheer variety of stances on leadership offered to us, both from academics and practicing leaders, over the ages. One thing is clear: they cannot all be right. And, they are certainly not all wrong.

As Jefferson touches on in his quote, one’s leadership style is irrefutably associated to one’s own principles and beliefs (see Chapter 2), but it is also the managing of processes together with people (Kouzes and Posner 1995; 2010), and at the same time, varied and situational (as intimated by Kennedy and Jobs).

Leadership is situationally adjusting your approach to people in order to get their best out of them.

We can learn a lot from role models (both positive and negative). We have already heard from Bill Gates. Let us take a closer look at his leadership style. Gates is a singularly focused and determined individual (Gilliard, n.d.), who, as the head of Microsoft, worked long hours and expected the same dedication from his team (Rampton 2016). He believed in pursuing what you love and working in a field that stimulates you. He was a once-in-a-generation subject knowledge expert (software coding). He is shy and introverted, but polite and well-mannered. He made decisions quickly, was autocratic and authoritarian, but encouraged his team to challenge the status quo with new ideas, although he often chastised them for what he deemed inaccurate assumptions or incorrect facts (Chris 2015). He was not necessarily an ideas guy (for example, he bought the operating system BASIC, he did not actually create it), but his anticipation of trends was first rate. Since stepping back from direct control of Microsoft, he has set up the largest private foundation in the United States, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which aims to reduce poverty with multi-billion-dollar philanthropy.

At around the same time that Bill Gates was making waves in the software industry, a young college dropout was nudging his technologically more-gifted friend Steve Wozniak to develop the world’s first attractive home computer in his parents’ garage. Steve Jobs became a fiery, and fiercely ambitious leader, who surrounded himself with talent and pushed them to ever greater creative achievements (Isaacson 2012). This persuasive force that Jobs wielded was jokingly referred to as his “Reality Distortion Field after an episode of Star Trek in which aliens create a convincing alternative reality through sheer mental force” ­(Isaacson 2012). For ­example, he was once able to convince Steve Wozniak to design a game for Atari in four days, although Wozniak claimed he needed months. He has been described as “arrogant, dictatorial, and mean-­spirited” (Henson 2011), but was a genius with regards to design, did not care for customer or popular opinion “customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them” (Isaacson 2012), and was an extroverted, salesman-supreme with the rare gift of the gab and unequalled persuasive, sales and pitching techniques (Isaacson 2011). In his private life, Gates was reclusive and stubborn. He estranged himself from family members for decades and lived in a sparsely decorated house, often sitting on the floor for lack of furniture.

Two men. Born around the same time. Growing up in the same period of history. Brought up in similar, American, middle-class backgrounds. Both entered the same (burgeoning computer) industry, and both went on to become captains of industry, founding leaders of two of the most successful companies (by capital and market share) the world has ever seen. But, both worked and led in very different ways. Jobs achieved greatness with silky communication skills and raw (but strengths-oriented) emotion, whereas Gates’ drive, blinkered determination (he never let 21 years of legal challenges distract his work) and subject matter skills helped him lead his company to the top. Jobs’ leadership gathered creative experts (he was never considered a computer expert himself) into his close circle of followers and drove them to excellence with ceaseless and seductive persuasion. Gates, on the other hand, founded his leadership philosophy on his own subject skills combined with tireless focus and attention to detail. He rarely included others in decision making and micromanaged every aspect of business. However, his philanthropic nature was conspicuous in comparison to Jobs’ troublesome private relationships.

Two unforgettable leaders with two very distinct leadership styles.

There is no golden road to leadership success. Leadership is situational and varied. What is true is that, whichever style you choose, it will fall somewhere on the following leadership spectrum.

Transformational Versus Transactional Leadership

If we were on a sinking ship, how might the crew communicate with the passengers?

  1. “Dear, respected passenger. I trust you are having a pleasant journey with us. As you might have noticed, the ship is sinking and anyone not in the lifeboats will surely drown. I would like to invite you to reflect on whether or not you would like to climb into a lifeboat of your choice. It is your decision which one you take. It is also your choice as to when you board the lifeboat. I trust you to make the right decision and am there to assist should you need any help.”
  2. Get in that lifeboat, now!

There is a time and place for the leadership style portrayed in a. (transformational leadership), and we will cover that in detail later in the chapter. But, it is hugely important for young leaders to recognize that b. (transactional leadership) is still a completely valid and often suitable choice for certain leadership scenarios. Firefighters, the armed forces, the police force, medical teams, situations involving safety (for example, involving children), inexperienced newcomers, and many others experience powerful transactional leadership on a daily basis. When leading a team of firefighters required to rush into a burning building or leading a team of nurses and doctors trying to save the life of a dying patient, democratic, transformational, decision making by committee is time-wasting, can lead to protocols and regulations being broken, and could ultimately end in tragedy. However, in challenging situations regarding creativity, elaborate cognition, and intellect (see Chapter 7), expression of talent (see Chapter 4) and to drive motivation and personal development (see Chapter 5), transformational leadership is essential (Gumusluoglu and Ilsev 2009).

What is interesting is that nature does not appear to prefer either one definitive leadership approach. Both seem to have their place. The chimpanzee and the bonobo monkey (close relatives genetically) have been observed to lead their troops very differently from one another. The dominant chimpanzee in the group commands his or followers in a (transactional) direct, aggressive, and controlling style. The structure of the troop is strictly top-down and hierarchical. But, this differs greatly from the network structure seen in bonobo monkeys. They protect and assist each other (whether dominant male or otherwise) and appear to work together for the common good, without an obvious, hierarchy (transformational) (Wrangham and Peterson 1996). The only learning we could take from our ape cousins is that both species live in different environments, and so might have needed to develop differing survival tactics.

Both leadership styles exist in the animal and human kingdoms. So, now let us take a closer look at the two ends of the leadership styles spectrum.

Transactional leadership, metaphorically speaking, keeps things ticking along; it keeps the ship afloat. Transactional leaders instruct, command, set goals, and expect them to be completed and reward and motivate accordingly. Hence, the term transactional (Ingram 2018). This type of leader reduces their relationship with their team, by way of their disciplinary power, to a series of transactions. “I would like you to complete X by next week…. Do this on time and you will get that reward…” Transactional leaders are more concerned with the status quo of procedures and work less toward strategic or developmental organizational or personal change. The difference between transactional and transformational leadership is what the leader and follower offer each other (Conger and Kanungo 1998). Transactional leadership offers the follower targets, clarity and rewards whereby transformational leadership offers the follower significantly more.

The term transformational leadership is first accredited to James Burns in 1978 (Judge and Piccolo 2004), was later refined by Bass (1985, 1995) and describes a leadership style that facilitates personal development of followers through charismatic, supportive, encouraging, coaching, motivating, rewarding, inspiring, intellectually stimulating, and appropriate promotional rhetoric and action. Bass and Riggio (2006) highlight four key areas (known as the 4Is) on which a transactional leader focuses, and ultimately, develops his or her followers:

Idealized influence (II): The leader serves as an ideal role model for followers; the leader “walks the talk,” and is admired for this.

Inspirational motivation (IM): Transformational leaders have the ability to inspire and motivate followers. Combining these first two Is constitutes the transformational leader’s charisma.

Individualized consideration (IC): Transformational leaders demonstrate genuine concern for the needs and feelings of followers. This personal attention to each follower is a key element in bringing out their very best efforts.

Intellectual stimulation (IS): The leader challenges followers to be innovative and creative. A common misunderstanding is that transformational leaders are “soft,” but the truth is that they constantly challenge followers to higher levels of performance (Riggio 2009).

Yukl (1994) builds on the 4Is with tips for transformational leaders:

  1. Develop an inspirational and exciting vision, together with your team.
  2. Tie the vision to a strategy for its achievement.
  3. Develop the vision, specify and translate it to actions.
  4. Express confidence, decisiveness, and optimism about the vision and its implementation.
  5. Realize the vision through small planned steps and small successes in the path for its full implementation.

Transformational leadership feeds from strengths-oriented communication (Chapter 4), intrinsic motivational techniques (Chapter 5), shared vision and purpose (Chapter 2), and reward mode in the brain ­(Chapter 8), and has been shown by numerous studies to increase employee engagement, innovation. and productivity (Dong, Chow, and Wu, 2003; Gumusluoglu and Ilsev 2009; Wang et al. 2011; Pieterse et al. 2010; Anderson, Potočnik, and Zhou 2014).

However, it is important that you think of these two leadership styles as being interconnected, not distinct from one another. You may instinctively favor one style over the other, but that does not mean that you cannot employ both at different moments. Your challenge will be to find the mix of styles and adapt and adjust according to the situation at hand. On some occasions, you will require a more transactional tack, while at other times, you will be better served by leading transformationally.

Situational Leadership

Which leadership style I apply to any given situation is dependent on:

  • The experience of the associate;
  • The knowledge of the associate;
  • The complexity of the task at hand;
  • The timing with regards to other projects;
  • Previous transactions with this associate;
  • Future, desired dynamic in the team;
  • Type and complexity of task;
  • The culture in the organization,… and countless other factors.

In other words, to lead effectively, you will need to lead situationally. If you try and fix every problem with a hammer, you will break a lot of wood. Some situations require hammers, but many call for other tools. The term situational leadership was coined by management researchers Hersey and Blanchard (1977) and in their approachable and easy-to-­remember leadership styles model, they suggest four approaches by the leader, each situationally applicable to specific cases.

Situational leadership places the leader’s behavior onto two axes: directive and supportive. Directive behavior describes the extent to which the leader spells out the role of the associate; tells the associate what to do, how to do it, where to do it, and by when; uses one-way communication; and supervises performance attentively. A leader engaging in strongly directive behavior sets the goals and objectives alone, plans and structures associate workload, checks on progress, sets and reviews scheduling, determines how success will be evaluated, clarifies both his or her and the associates’ rules and roles, and regularly communicates priorities.

Supportive behavior can be defined as the extent to which the leader engages in two-way communication, facilitates associate interaction, involves the associate in decision making, listens, and offers help and motivation. A supportive leader invites ideas and suggestions, praises success, shares information, listens to associates’ issues (private or professional), keeps the associates up to date regarding the organization’s operations, and encourages problem-solving attitudes (Graeff 1983).

When we place the directive behavior on the X axis (from low to high) and the supportive behavior on the Y axis (low to high) (Figure 8.1), we can identify four key areas of leadership style: telling (known as S1), guiding (S2), anticipating (S3), and delegating (S4).

Figure 8.1 Situational leadership model

The situational leader applies the fitting leadership style and adjusts when necessary. Situational leadership requires patience, and you will need to finely tune your antenna to quickly and adeptly assess which manner is the most apt. Situational leadership is fair, strengths-oriented, and transformational.

Leading Teams

A phenomenon that many leaders note is that leading teams is far more complex than leading individuals. In the current chapter, we have looked in detail at different leadership styles and the skill of situationally applying them, but we have yet to refer those leadership skills to teams.

In his now seminal work, Bruce Tuckman (1965), looked at 55 studies into group development and noticed a pattern in the ways the teams grew, collaborated, and developed together. On the back of that study, Tuckman (1965) developed a solid four-stage model,3 which has been substantially used to describe typical phases of team development, ever since. According to Tuckman (1965), the stages are:

  1. Forming phase: Roles and responsibilities are often unclear, and the team uses a large amount of energy getting to know one another. People use this phase as orientation. Behavior is usually well-mannered, but many team members act individually and for their own best interests. Most of the focus is on understanding the task at hand and on developing the beginnings of an approach strategy.

     The team depends greatly, in this first phase, on their leader for guidance and direction. There is usually little agreement on aims, apart from those set by the leader. In the forming phase, the leader often has to apply a directive, transactional leadership style.

      Leader directs and coordinates.

  2. Storming phase: As the title suggests, this can be a turbulent period in team development. As the following image shows (Figure 8.2), teams in the storming phase often experience a perceived drop in ­measurable, immediate performance as focus is distracted away from executing and toward challenging the status quo and into discussion. Members of teams in the storming phase raise contrasting ideas, and this difference of opinion can lead to conflict as colleagues vie for position and often compete with one another. Cliques and sub-groups develop as people struggle for power and control. However, the storming phase can be described as cathartic for many.

     The leader has to tread carefully in this phase to ensure that the team members do not get distracted from their goals by relationship issues or conflicts. A challenge of the leader will be to assist the group in finding compromises. The leader will have to solve emotional issues before the group can progress to its next level of team development. Tuckman did note, though, that only around half of the groups experience a storming phase at all, with the other 50 percent jumping straight to phase 3. If the leadership motto in phase 1 is direct, then it is coach in stage 2.

      Leader coaches and supports.

  3. Norming phase: Once teams can get over the potential hurdle of the storming phase, they are rewarded with the norming phase, where performance levels explode and teams find their feet. Whims and idiosyncrasies of team members are appreciated and accepted. A new-found consensus allows teams to focus on its goals and processes, with little need for leadership directive and without the baggage of interpersonal disputes. The team develops autonomy. Smaller decisions and tasks might be delegated to small groups, but major accord is achieved by the whole.

      The leader often experiences respect from his or her team in the norming phase. With team members aware of the roles and responsibilities, the feeling of affiliation grows and teams often engage in social activities together. As direction is steered by the group, the leader employs a more transformational approach in this phase and delegates to individuals or groups.

      Leader empowers, facilitates, and enables.

  4. Performing phase: Teams in the 4th stage are knowledgeable, experienced, and energized by successes in the forming phase. Team members are more strategically informed; each knows their role, and a vision is shared. The autonomy levels are high which facilitates solving disagreements, with ease and with little disruption to overall goals. Decisions can be made without leadership involvement, which speeds up process and strengthens the feeling of achievement and self-worth. This in turn, leads to greater quality of performance.

Figure 8.2 The phases of team development according to Tuckman

  Leaders in the performing stage can reduce their leadership to such a level that they often merely participate with the team. The leader need only delegate tasks and might be asked for assistance from the team, but goals are understood and need not be ­re­communicated by the leader.

  Leader delegates and assists, where required.

What becomes obvious is that both works from Tuckman (1965) and Hershey and Blanchard (1977) are four-stage models, and they can, indeed (Table 8.1), be combined to provide helpful guidance to the young leader on which leadership style to situationally apply to teams at each stage of their development.

Table 8.1 Team phases and leadership styles. Adapted from Manges et al. (2017)

Team development stage

Leadership strategies

Keys to success





Coordinating behaviors (Telling S1)

Coaching behaviors (Guiding S2)

Empowering behaviors (Participating S3)

Supporting behaviors (Delegating S4)

-Purposefully picking the team

-Facilitate team to identify goals

-Ensure the team development of a shared mental model

-Act as a resource person to the team

-Develop mutual trust

-Calm the work environment

-Get feedback from staff

-Allow for the transfer of leadership

-Set aside time for planning and ­engaging the team

-Allow for flexibility in team roles

-Assist in the timing and selection of new member

-Create future leadership opportunities

Chapter Leadership Challenge

Sit down and reflect on where you stand on the 4Is. What do you do to act as a role model? How do you inspire the people around you? Do you treat people individually and manage situationally? Do you delegate appropriate to intellectual ability, or do you give the guy with the MBA the most menial of tasks? What areas of the 4Is could you work on? Set yourself some targets, and try to develop your transformational leadership.

Take a snapshot in your mind, or on paper, as to where your team currently is with regards to the team phases (forming, storming, norming, and performing). Once you have done that, consider what your team would need and how you as a leader can facilitate moving them onto the next phase.

1 My thanks to Michael Knieling for his contribution to this collection of quotes.

2 C, e, f, g, h, i cited by Kruse (2012).

3 With a 5th phase—adjourning—added in 1977 (Tuckman and Jensen).