Why style should go out of fashion

Part of the accepted wisdom of leadership is that successful leaders vary their style according to the situation they are facing. The classic version of ‘situational leadership’ was developed by Hersey¹ and Blanchard throughout the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. The basic premise is that effective leadership is task-relevant i.e. leaders respond to the nature of the task and those that they lead by adopting a particular style. Hersey and Blanchard grouped these styles as ‘telling’, ‘selling’, ‘participating’ and ‘delegating’, chosen according to the level of skill and willingness of those required to undertake a task.

Other definitions of style exist. Daniel Goleman (2000)² draws together some of these to present six styles of leadership: authoritarian, paternalistic, democratic, laissez-faire, transactional and transformational. These styles are sometimes presented as situational – adopted in response to a particular need – but are more often considered to be a preference of an individual leader: arising from their personality and beliefs about what makes a good leader. The effectiveness of each style is often considered dependent on the context, with more authoritarian styles being suitable in high-stakes situations, whilst more paternalistic and democratic styles being more suitable for nurturing the motivation and loyalty of others, for instance.

In considering the nature of the task, problem or situation faced by a leader, a preoccupation with what style should be adopted seems to me to be somewhat of a distraction, and secondary to what the leader should be focusing on.  It is not that leadership style is unimportant, just that it is not fundamental to leadership effectiveness. Like focusing just on the flavour of food, it tells us nothing about the nutritional value. The flavour is, of course, important, but if we want nourishment we should pay attention to something of more substance.

Take the example of a critical incident. Of course decisions need to be made quickly and decisively. We can label this as ‘authoritarian’ or ‘telling’ and build this into our theory of situational leadership. But this misses the fact that if the decisions being made are bad ones, the style of leadership is irrelevant. The effectiveness of the leader depends, first and foremost, on the quality of decisions. An authoritative leader who directs others towards an ineffective response to a critical incident may have adopted an appropriate style, but choosing the correct style is not in itself enough.

Again, I am not saying that style is unimportant. We do not want a crisis situation to be met with an extended consultation process. But I would contend that becoming too distracted with simplistic notions of style risks ignoring the factor which will make the most difference to the leader’s effectiveness, which is the specifics of the problem being overcome. The style of leadership is a surface feature, not core to matters of leadership effectiveness.

In previous blogs, I have made a case for more attention on leadership expertise and the knowledge leaders possess (and build on this further in my recent book). Others have made this case too, not least Tom Rees and Jen Barker who argue for focusing leaders on the persistent problems of school leadership. These arguments have been interpreted by some as an ‘anti-charisma’ movement. I have little time for hero-heads, grand visions and inflated egos. However, personality is important – leaders need to inspire confidence, compel action and win hearts and minds. But if this is all they do – if there is little in the way of values, knowledge and expertise – then leadership becomes a soulless and superficial pursuit. The classic ‘style over substance’.

An astute question raised with me by Carly Waterman (@621carly) was whether a focus on the persistent problems of school leadership (which means tailoring the leadership response to the specifics of the context and problem to be solved) was any different to the notion of situational leadership. It has taken me awhile to think through this challenge, but I hope this blog begins to answer this question. I think it is fundamentally different. Classic situational leadership theory posits the response as a style to be adopted. Expert leadership places what leaders know, and how they use this knowledge to execute solutions, over matters of style. To go back to my food analogy, the expert leader is primarily concerned with the nutritional content. If the product doesn’t taste good then no-one will swallow it, but flavour cannot be prioritised over whether the food will nourish us. Similarly, leaders need to work out what needs to happen to take the school forward, and then decide how to make this solution palatable.

I would much rather have a leader that knows their stuff, not one that struts their stuff. Expertise first, style second.


¹ Hersey, P. (1985). The situational leader. New York, NY: Warner Books.
² Goleman, D. (2000). ‘Leadership that Gets Results’ in Harvard Business Review.


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