Leadership Style to Leadership Practice

What is your leadership style? Does it stay constant, or vary depending on the context and motivation of your employees /team?

Leadership books and leadership blogs are fond of listing leadership traits, but to be an effective leader you need awareness of your default leadership style and behavioral flexibility depending on the context and level of employee motivation. That is going to take some practice.

Leadership Blog to Leadership Practice

Before we explore your leadership style, we must address the fact that there are about as many definitions of leadership as there are authors on the topic. This leadership blog is more focused on practice than theory, so a practical definition, from The Social Psychology of Leadership, is:

"Leadership is the process of influencing others in a manner that enhances their contribution to the realization of group goals."

I like this leadership definition because it speaks to a ‘process’ that requires ‘influence’. Leadership, in practice, is not a fixed thing, it’s not ‘one style fits all’. The effective leader must adjust their behavior depending on followers' needs, and they must support subordinates to clarify the path to specified goals and support them in overcoming obstacles on the way to getting there.

Leadership is therefore a practice and you can practice flexibility in your leadership style.

Path Goal Leadership Theory

Path-Goal Theory, introduced by Martin Evans in 1971 and developed by Robert House (1974), looks at the interaction between Leadership Style, Environmental Factors, and Employee Motivation.

Path-Goal Theory is not a detailed process it follows these three basic steps:

  1. Determine the employee and environmental characteristics
  2. Select a leadership style
  3. Focus on motivational factors that will help the employee succeed

People, Motivation, and Environment

In a previous leadership blog I talked about how motivation is driven by different values. The Path-Goal theory considers motivation in terms of needs. Typical employee needs include:

  1. The need for control
  2. The need for structure
  3. The need for competence
  4. The need for affiliation

The environment in which people work varies, as does the type of task or goal. So, when setting a goal, the leader needs to ask themselves:

  • Does this task/goal require high or low autonomy?
  • Does this task/ goal require a high or low structure?
  • Do the people have the required ability/competence?
  • Are the people working together and feeling supported?

By answering these questions, the leader will understand what is required, for example:

  • If the sub-ordinates have low control (autonomy) and the task has low structure or high ambiguity, the leaders will need to offer greater support for the goal to be reached effectively.
  • If the followers lack the ability/competence, the leader will need to offer training or coaching for them to reach the goal.
  • If the work group or team is not supporting each other, the leaders will need to provide some alignment to the task, build trust, and show how achieving the goal is mutually beneficial.


Leadership Style & Behavior

Understanding the Employees and Environment means that the leader can adjust their style and behavior. Off course, this assumes some self-awareness and flexibility.

With modern psychometrics, we can now predict a leader's preferred leadership style based on personality, and with this feedback develop the requisite flexibility.

House and Mitchell (1974) defined four types of leadership behaviors or styles: Directive, Supportive, Participative, and Achievement (explained in detail below). They are based on two factors Relationship and Task Orientation. 

The four path-goal leadership styles are:

  1.  Directive: The Directive Leader is task-oriented and typically tells followers what is expected of them, how to perform a task, and schedule and coordinate work. It is most effective when people are unsure about the task or there is low structure or ambiguity within the environment.
  2. Supportive: The Supportive Leader is relationship-oriented and aims to make work pleasant for the workers by showing concern for them and by being friendly and approachable. It is most effective when tasks and relationships are physically or psychologically challenging.
  3. Participative: The Participative Leader is also relationship oriented and tends to consult with employees before making decisions. This style is most effective when subordinates are competent with high autonomy (control).
  4. Achievement: The Achievement Leader sets challenging goals (task-oriented) expects them to perform at their highest level and shows confidence in their ability to meet these expectations (relationship-oriented). This style is most effective in professional work environments, such as technical, scientific; or achievement environments, such as sales.

These four styles are not exclusive, and further research shows the benefits of facilitation and coaching.

Application & Practice

This theory is highly applicable for leadership development and coaching, as it reinforces the need for self-awareness, situational awareness, and flexibility of leaders.

As a Global Leadership Speaker, I share this model along with practical tools from my latest work, The New Leadership playbook, because:

"Leadership takes Practice"






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