leadership styles

You may be aware of your leadership style, and you might have tried to change it according to something you read or experienced. Although leadership styles may adapt, you’ll have a default style. As an effective CTO, whatever your style, there’s no doubt that how you lead will impact your team. 

So, let’s dig into the different leadership styles and see how your style affects you and others and what you can do to enhance your default style.

What is a leadership style?

Kurt Lewin identified three main leadership styles when he carried out a study in the 1930s:

Authoritarian/autocratic leaders – tend to give orders to team members or tell them what to do and how. Often, they will make decisions without consultation and may create a culture of obvious hierarchy.

The benefits of this leadership style are that leaders are decisive and generally results-driven. In addition, they are likely to be good at delegating and giving direct feedback.

However, quick decisions may not be thought through and may not include knowledge or input from others. As a result, there’s a risk that crucial information is excluded and additional expertise is bypassed. In addition, by working so independently, autocratic leaders take on a lot of pressure and responsibility, and they can be prone to high-stress levels.

Executive Leadership and Culture Coach James Cook says, ‘The Autocratic style is very efficient but terrible for talent retention.’

Therefore, there is a risk that team members will resent the direct and authoritative approach and may feel unheard or overlooked. So, such leadership may also feel hostile and unfriendly and may not bring the best out of the team.

Delegative/ laissez-faire leaders – are the opposite of autocratic leadership. If you have this leadership style, you allow your team members to manage their own work and goals and give them the freedom to get on with the job.

This can be a beneficial style to give your people autonomy and promote trust. This, in turn, may increase engagement and motivation, but leaders also need to provide ongoing regular feedback to ensure that workload and projects are on track. 

One concern is that if there is an underperforming team member, work may be neglected, carried out poorly or not delivered on time. The lack of micromanagement can mean that such leaders may not know their team’s work status. In addition, some employees may not feel like they are supported adequately and may require additional guidance.

Cook adds, ‘The laissez-faire style is great for instilling ownership, but only if you have a highly motivated team that knows precisely what you want from them.’

Participative/democratic leaders – are inclusive of team members as although you, as the leader, will make final decisions, you’ll include your team members to give their input before making a decision.

Democrative leadership can benefit employees as they should feel included, respected and engaged if you ask for their thoughts. This style is also helpful if you as a leader are away and need others in the team to step up, as they will be used to being involved in the decision-making process.

The downside of this style is that decision-making may be slow, which is not necessarily effective in emergencies or high-pressure environments.

‘The democratic style is great for togetherness and engagement but very slow,’ agrees Cook.

Do CTOs fit into these three styles?

While these styles are helpful when assessing your leadership style and raising awareness of your approach and impact on others, not all leaders will fit neatly into these styles.

Cook suggests that it may not be helpful to pigeonhole leaders into limited styles. He says, ‘Leaders of any level can struggle with the question of ‘how to lead’ because it is intangible. Leadership is all about working with humans. By definition, it is almost the opposite of a CTO’s skillset.’

He adds, ‘Frameworks come with limitations. No framework can cover all bases and all scenarios. The danger of a framework is to focus too much on following the framework rather than following our intuition.’

‘For example, it’s like using a script in a sales call. The script is fine, but no conversation will follow it perfectly. So, an over-reliance on the script, rather than an intuitive approach to the call, is likely to fail.’

Other leadership differences to consider

Cook also suggests that there are other differences to consider when you are seeking to identify your leadership style:

Culture: ‘Each style will be more or less effective in different cultures. Typically, business culture in North America is more accepting of an autocratic style. In Scandinavia, everyone is expected to have their say (democratic).’

‘Start-up culture is much more laissez-faire than in the Legal sector. And older generations are more used to the autocratic style than Gen Z.’

Stress: ‘The dominant style will come through in times of stress. Although it might serve us better to call it the ‘default’ style. As Tony Robbins says – “Stress is just another word for fear”. When stressed, we are in a fearful state of “fight, flight or freeze”. This is the system that gets us out of danger and into safety. It does this by switching to our default mode. And we all have slightly different default modes.’ 

He adds, ‘The ‘default mode’ makes us (feel) safer. If we are wired to believe that fighting is what will help us survive, we’ll always do that. If running away is our instinct, we’ll always do that. Your leadership style will be nuanced, personal and intuitive. It is not practical to simplify this to just one of three boxes.’

How can you identify your leadership style?

Cook suggests that a framework (such as Lewin’s) can be valuable because, ‘It can offer clarity where there can easily be confusion. This is particularly true for something opaque, abstract and ‘fuzzy’ as leadership. A framework can help a leader clarify their starting position and to build and refine their particular leadership style.’

‘What the Lewin framework does beautifully is offer leaders a spice cupboard. It gives the ingredients to create the right blend to suit their own personalities, situations and teams because there are pros and cons to all three styles.’

‘Since all have advantages and disadvantages, there can be no “right” style. So, whilst it might be tempting for a leader to ‘pick a style’ to begin with, pigeonholing oneself into a single style is limiting in the long run.’

Can you adapt your leadership style?

As Cook mentioned earlier, your default leadership style will likely come into play in times of stress.

He adds, ‘Some leaders get aggressive and autocratic when stressed. Some get indecisive. Others become difficult to reach. The bad news is that we can’t solve this altogether. This is evolution, and evolution always wins. The good news is that we can manage this. In short – know ourselves better.’

So, self-awareness is key to being mindful of your default style and traits and raising awareness of what might cause stress or impact you in a CTO role.

Cook says, ‘The most effective leaders I know are self-aware. They know how they act under stress and – crucially – what stresses them the most. I always recommend that leaders do some profile work. For this type of work, I like the DiSC profile ((D)ominance, (i)nfluence, (S)teadiness and (C)onscientiousness) because it shows how you change under pressure.

The next step is, reflecting on what kinds of situations ‘trigger’ you and make you stressed,’ he adds. ‘Once identified, you can work on ‘plays’ to help you manage your responses more effectively. This is where coaching and/or mentoring are most effective.’

Adapting your style as a CTO

Changing your leadership style for good is a significant challenge, especially under stress or pressure. So, perhaps, in addition to being aware of your default style, it’s about adapting it to specific situations rather than trying to achieve complete change. 

Cook says it’s essential to adjust your style as you move up the technical leader ladder to CTO, ‘Being a leader is like being an orchestra conductor. You may have played the violin beautifully once upon a time, but you have a different role now. You need to stand up and stand apart from the team to be effective. You can’t do what you did before. You must evolve. If not, you become an impediment to the group playing in sync with each other.’

You ideally need a toolkit of styles you can draw upon in different situations and use for team members. For example, although you can’t constantly flip from one style to another, you may have some team members who require direction and transparent decisions and others to whom you can give more autonomy. Likewise, some situations require clear and prompt decisions from you to the team, and others may allow you to delegate.

Or, as Harvard Business Review suggest, ‘Learn, adapt, practice. The goal is to develop a portfolio of micro-behaviours you can employ when the situation demands you use a different style.’

Cook outlines the following two principles he uses as a coach:

Imperfection – Cook says, ‘CTOs are very busy people. Making proactive change seems overwhelming. Not only that but if leadership is not something that comes naturally, changing can seem even more threatening. A lot of the overwhelm comes from the idea that everything needs to change. And it doesn’t.’

‘One of the first devices we used was the idea of progress over perfection. Find just one opportunity every day to try the new concept and build on it from there.’ 

Timing – ‘Similar to the above point, but more to do with deciding when to try the skill change. One leader’s dispassion is useful in stressful/emotional times. So why would they ignore that in such cases? Another’s democratic style is great when there is a real need for team buy-in. So, we wouldn’t want them to be more authoritative in such cases. Therefore, identify specific contexts in which an adaptation of leadership style would be most useful to make it easier to put such changes into practice,’ says Cook.

Although awareness of different leadership styles is important for a CTO, it’s not healthy to get hung up on what should or shouldn’t be; there is no ideal fit. Over time, awareness of your style will help you to adapt as you’ll require different styles for varying situations and team members. Focus on having a flexible mindset to try different approaches at different times, and don’t forget to ask for feedback.


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