What is true leadership? Delegating, collaborating or directing?


What leadership and management styles should you be adopting and which should you be unlearning? Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey are the minds behind the Situational Leadership model, which argues that a leader should adapt their style of leadership according to the people they are trying to influence. In this post, we examine three types of leadership – directing, collaborating and delegating – and evaluate which styles are useful.


The misapplied leadership style: Direction


 “Yet too many of us are in a constant state of overextension, which fuels an instinctive reaction to ‘protect’ work. This survival instinct ultimately dilutes our impact through an ongoing, limited effect on others.” – Jesse Sostrin, HBR, To Be A Great Leader You Have To Delegate


The most basic leadership style defined by the Situational Leadership model – directing – is as plain and simple as telling people what to do. In this mode, the leader is taking control of the process and ensuring everything is done by the book, or at least how the leader prefers it to be done.


For the most part, directing has been used as a patronising form of people management that stifles creative thinking. However, before we overcorrect the excess of directing as a leadership style, it is worth noting that it still has a place. If a team member is in a low-stage of development, or is starting in a role that requires a different approach to how they have worked in the past, a certain amount of directing can be helpful to acclimatise them to their responsibilities. Alternatively, directing can be useful if a leader is offering specific expertise to deal with a technical problem.


The error of some leaders is they maintain that same level of direction beyond the point of helpfulness, and end up damaging the confidence and stunting growth. Generally, directing should be a temporary style, adopted along with a recognition that the leader’s way of doing things is imperfect, and that the one being directed should be on the lookout for better ways of working.


The smarter leadership style: Collaborative leadership


“Leading from good to great… means having the humility to grasp the fact that you do not yet understand enough to have the answers and then to ask the questions that will lead to the best possible insights.” – Jim Collins, Good to Great


If a leader is ever going to have access to ideas that are better than their own, they need to adopt collaborative leadership. It involves sharing control of a project, a process or even a vision. It means paying attention to whoever has the most relevant knowledge, rather than the highest position – and often that knowledge resides with those closest to the groundwork of the organisation.


Leaders can be reluctant to adopt collaborative leadership because they fear weakening their power base. But innovation, breakthrough and even success cannot reliably occur when a leader is the one holding the cards. They simply don’t have enough perspective. When leaders truly realise that, it is a relief, not a diminishment. A leader is only as good as they allow their team to be.


Collaborative leadership is even more essential now that workforces span three, four, sometimes five generations (read our thoughts on whether reverse mentoring can bridge the divide). Each generation desperately needs the strengths and perspectives of the others. The youngest are not ill-equipped and the oldest are not losing touch. Everyone has their finger on the pulse of something and if we don’t pay attention to that something, we will be blind to it.


Leadership actualisation = delegation


“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.” – Lao Tzu


The final stage of the Situational Leadership model is delegating, which is arguably the hardest leadership style of all, requiring a significant level of emotional intelligence to truly pull off.


In the Harvard Business Review article,To Be A Great Leader, You Have To Be Able To Delegate Well, Jesse Sostrin says, “elevating your impact requires you to embrace an unavoidable leadership paradox: You need to be more essential and less involved. When you justify your hold on work, you’re confusing being involved with being essential.”


In their purest forms, leadership and delegation are inseparable. Until you are challenging the way people think rather than dictating their movements, you are only a check and balance, not a true influencer. True delegation requires detaching yourself from the survival instinct that suffocates your ability to trust. It is not abstaining responsibility and removing yourself entirely from the equation, but does mean redefining what your responsibility looks like so you can see your vision – and more than your vision – come to life around you.


As Jessie Sostrin challenges us, “To know if you’re guilty of holding on to too much, answer this simple question: If you had to take an unexpected week off work, would your initiatives and priorities advance in your absence?” If your answer is no (and to varying degrees, it is a no for most leaders), then you have work to do.


TPC Leadership has been growing leaders since 2000, working with clients across over 110 countries, from 14 country offices. We are rightly considered to be pioneers in the field of human potential and have taken our expertise to craft tailored made programmes.

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