Growing your leadership style

When you change from an individual contributor to a manager, you are no longer responsible for delivering the actual work. Now, you are responsible for the people who deliver the work.

As a manager, one of your primary jobs is to foster a foundation of trust on your team. This will be the underpinning of the team's overall health. To foster trust, you've gotta start by understanding each other: each person's needs, preferences, and approaches to work.
— Lara Hogan

To do this, you need to understand your reports. Not everyone thinks or behaves like you do. Some people like public celebrations of promotion, others do not. Some people prefer to work in an office, others prefer working from home.

What motivates us?

According to Dan Pink in Drive, the three things that motivate us are:

  • Autonomy: the ability to work unsupervised. When we work autonomously, we are free to work at our own pace without someone looking over our shoulder and criticising our every move.
  • Mastery: overcoming challenges and mastering new skills feels good. We love to solve problems in creative ways.
  • Purpose: we want our work to mean something, have a purpose. Money by itself does not buy us happiness. Science has shown that being able to create or contribute to something with a good purpose makes people happier.

In Primed to Perform, Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor talk about a motive spectrum, six reasons we work. They mention direct motives, which increase our performance. Like play, which is about curiosity and experimentation. Purpose is about values, and beliefs aligned with impact of work. And potential when we work towards personal goals. They also talk about indirect motives, which decrease our performance. These include emotional pressure, which is about disappointment, guilt, or shame. Economic pressure to win a reward, avoid punishment, which is extrinsic. And inertia because we do it every day and we don't feel like changing.

Self-determination theory helps us think of motivation and well-being and argues that both are affected from internal, external and contextual factors. Self-determination theory maintains that we should consider people's innate needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy refers to a desire to self-organise, and experiencing freedom, and is equated with ideas of locus of control, independence, and individualism. Competence is the level of feeling that my actions contribute to the result, rather than feeling helpless. Lastly relatedness is about feeling that I belong, which is important to team culture and organisational performance.

Leadership styles

Many managers mistakenly assume that leadership style is a function of personality rather than strategic choice. Instead of choosing the one style that suits your temperament, you should ask which style best addresses the demands of a particular situation.

Daniel Goleman proposed that the approach the leader should employ is similar to selecting a golf club depending on the situation on the course. He introduced six situational styles of leadership:

  1. Commanding - "Do as I say!". Useful when there is a crisis and you need quick actions. But used too often will damage people's feeling of autonomy
  2. Visionary - "Come with me". Use this style to state the goal and give people the freedom to choose the way.
  3. Affiliative - "People come first". This approach is useful for team building and increasing morale.
  4. Democratic - This style gives everyone a chance to voice their opinions, and take part in the decisions. It builds flexibility, responsibility, and creativity.
  5. Pacesetting - This style sets high expectations and high performance goals and standards.
  6. Coaching - This style focuses on developing team mates rather than on immediate work tasks.

In other theories, these styles might be called: Telling, Selling, Participating, and Delegating (Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory).

We all have our natural style, one that we most identify with. But it is good to recognise and nurture all the leadership styles, so that we can use them in different situations for example coaching, giving feedback, scoping work, communicating news etc.

How to develop your leadership style?

Before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you.
— Amy J.C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger

First, it is important to understand that our leadership style is different to our personality. It requires us to be more aware, instead of just being competent with our technical skills.  

Right now, your company has 21st century Internet enabled business processes, mid-20th century management processes, all built atop 19th century management principles.
— Gary Hamel

This above quote is primarily directed at hierarchical managers to get them to rethink their approach to leadership. But I think we can all appreciate that this style of leadership does not work for agile teams. The question is: what are you optimising for?


When we talk about autonomy, we can talk about benign neglect versus macro management versus delegation. Benign neglect is when we just leave the team alone, which might be OK when everything goes smoothly or when you are leading very experienced people. But it is not OK when a neglecting manager ignores requests for help, brushes concerns aside, and never gives feedback.

Micro-management usually happens when we don't trust the team to do their job, at very stressful situations, or when we delegate a task but don't like the choices made. Autonomy is an important factor in motivation, which explains why people do not stick around micro-managers.

One of the simplest ways to do that is to stop solving people’s problems for them and to ask them to start solving them on their own. This is called delegation.
— Roy Osherove

When delegating work, we should still be involved in the process, but we are not making all the decisions. For your team to be able to self-organise and not need you, they need to learn how to solve their own problems. This means we stop solving their problems, and instead begin mentoring them and challenging them to solve their own problems. Which in return will give them a sense of achievement, autonomy, and ownership. It will also free up our time to do our job better. The question that you can ask people when they come to you with their problems, is "what are you going to do about it?"

Some things to try

  1. Set a vision and start with why. Take people on the journey with you by aligning their work to the company's vision, and by giving them autonomy and purpose.
  2. Provide frequent feedback and workplace guidance to guide conversations in a more productive way.
  3. Set clear expectations for what you expect from them and what they can expect of you.
  4. Invest in developing your team with mentoring, coaching, and sponsoring. Provide support for career growth and professional development.
  5. Schedule frequent one on ones.
  6. Master task delegation to grow your team members' leadership skills instead of micro-managing them
  7. Develop autonomous leadership where the team learns to own their work, and exercise their responsibility.
  8. Work on your empathy skills to recognise and address interpersonal issues in the team.

And the last quote that I want to leave you with is by George Bernard Shaw

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man

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