Best leaders use a broad range of approaches

10th April 2009 at 01:00

Is it better to be brilliant at one thing or capable at lots of things? When it comes to leadership, the answer is, firmly, the latter.

Leaders with a broad repertoire of approaches are better motivators than those who do things one way. This effect outweighs even the impact of leadership experience when predicting highly-motivated workplaces.

A recent Hay Group study of 300 UK heads analysed feedback from colleagues on the head's style of leadership, and staff motivation and engagement. We found that, after three years, length of service was not a significant factor in creating better climates. However, different styles of leadership strongly motivated staff. It was the most powerful factor we saw.

We used our diagnostic tools to identify six leadership styles: visionary, directive, democratic, affiliative, coaching and pace-setting. A leader needs to use at least three regularly to produce a highly motivational atmosphere.

Climate encourages people to go the extra mile. Several intangible elements make it up: clarity of direction, fairness of recognition, ambition, freedom to act and pride. Schools with stronger climates (as seen by their staff) tend to get better inspection results. They are nicer to work in, so recruitment and retention is easier.

The quality of the leadership is the most powerful force driving the climate of a school. Up to 70 per cent of the differences between organisations can be linked to the way they are led. Climate is a choice; it is inspiring and within everyone's reach.

For each head, once the basics are mastered, the most important development task is to become aware of what approaches are used most - then stretch beyond them. Feedback is powerful: often what we think we're doing is not what others perceive. Some leaders may feel they are being democratic and consultative by calling plenty of meetings. Those present, however, may feel it is just the leader talking about his or her vision.

We may think we are being fair by considering circumstances when dealing with staff; others may cry favouritism. Leadership is in the eye of the beholder.

Different styles work best in different circumstances - with other cultures or people, at different points in the school's cycle. In a turnaround situation, a leader may need to be directive. With talented, confident staff, the leader may need to role-model excellence. A coasting school may need an injection of vision.

Some approaches may feel uncomfortable. Sometimes we will need to apply them anyway, but recruiting a senior leadership team that complements our strengths and weaknesses might help. We may be strong on vision, but lack attention to detail and delivery, so a deputy with opposite skills might work well.

The message is clear: adaptability, founded on empathy and reflection, is the defining characteristic of leaders who inspire and strengthen colleagues.

Lesley Garrick, is associate director of the Hay Group Scotland.

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