Leadership – Practice vs. Style

In Leadership by Lisa Selzler

Leadership practices are those things all leaders do – the very things that make those individuals leaders. While a variety of opinions exist regarding what qualifies as a leadership practice, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, respected researchers, writers, and teachers in the field of leadership, have identified these as the five common practices of great leaders:

  1. Challenge the process
  2. Inspire a shared vision
  3. Enable others to act
  4. Model the way
  5. Encourage the heart

(Source: The Leadership Challenge by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner)

According to Kouzes and Posner, these are the practices that should be done by all leaders (and done well!). But how you do these five things can vary greatly – depending upon your personal leadership style. Your personal leadership style dictates how these leadership practices look in your world.

How Style Affects Practice

For example, challenging the process looks very different when done by a leader whose style is charismatic than when done by one who is more democratic. The charismatic leader might publicly call organizational rules into question in a large meeting while more democratic leader might begin by talking to those most affected by the rules and gradually convene small groups to discuss these ideas before finally presenting an alternative. Both styles can be effective, but they look and feel very different.

When enabling others to act, a coaching leader would discover what motivates a staff person and connect that motivation to the person’s daily activities to help them see their work in new and more fulfilling ways. Meanwhile, a more authoritarian leader might analyze lines of reporting and change the organizational structure in order to better enable communication as a way to enable others to act. Again, both styles certainly have an effect and provide leadership, but the results are not the same.

Adapting Your Leadership Style

Daniel Goleman researched leadership styles and their effectiveness for his article “Leadership that gets Results,” (Harvard Business Review, March 1, 2000). One of his important conclusions is that leaders can choose to alternate between styles. Everyone has a default leadership style that we can understand from our own experience or through tools like the Myers-Briggs personality test or the StrengthsFinder analysis.

However, learning to adapt your personal leadership style to best match the situation is a powerful way to increase your effectiveness as a leader. Consider how much more affected a democratic leader is during a crisis if they temporarily adapt their style to be more authoritarian.

Leadership is one of the most written about and discussed issues in organizations today. While it is important to learn from research and other’s experience, the most crucial aspect of being an effective leader is knowing yourself – understanding your unique strengths and style. And that is work no one else can do for you.

Spend some time reflecting on how your own leadership style applies to Kouzes and Posner’s list of leadership practices.

Where might you want to adapt your style to better fit a situation? Is there a leadership practice that you’d like to improve?