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Should you be adapting or reinventing your leadership style?

Paul Bridle

Paul Bridle, leadership methodologist and CEO of Excellence Squared, examines the need for business leaders to re-invent their leadership style if they wish to re-calibrate their business and achieve significant changes

There was a time when an individual’s leadership style was required to adapt based on the number of employees within an organisation.  But times have changed..

Historically, 20 or 25 staff was the first benchmark that a leader arrived at. It was at this moment the leader probably started to break people into teams and appointed a team leader to oversee team operations. The next benchmark would be around 50 people, then 75 and 100 – in fact, by the time an organisation passed 75 employees, departments would start to appear with managers and in some cases more than one team and more than one team leader… and so it went on.   

Times have changed and numbers are no longer the only determining factor contributing to a leader’s need to adapt. Many organisations have remote workers, employees can be part time, sub-contractors and even secondments from joint venture activities or specific project work. The benchmarks are changing, as are the needs of the leaders involved.

Another important shift is the one seen between the entrepreneur/founder as a leader and their second generation leaders. A founder quite simply gets away with a leadership style and traits that would never be acceptable in new leaders. It is almost as if the founder earned some credibility stripes and reverence which cannot be handed on to the next generation.  

However, in both cases, the leadership style would ultimately change as they are required to lead through other individuals to other groups of people. But there is a subtle but vital difference between change and reinvention. Both can be necessary but under very different circumstances.

Style change almost certainly requires greater delegation as well as the need to adapt to the approach of one or more separate groups, each with its own personalities, priorities and goals.  Most importantly though, style change is largely focused inwardly on the people being led – it involves a more personal approach and a need to consider the individuals. Reinventing your leadership style is a very different situation!

It is usually required due to a combination of internal and external pressures on an organisation. Most importantly it requires a change of perspective from the leader as they go beyond small modifications to an organisational recalibration. It is not adapting, it is remodelling. When you recalibrate anything – from the parts in an engine to a large business – it is an exercise taking in the “whole”. It is about planning or devising carefully to ensure a precise outcome. It is about a fundamental remodel of structure or form to achieve specific goals. Ultimately a reinvention of leadership is to decide what leadership is needed to deal with the next level of development?  

Reinvention can even go as far as a review of the type of customers, the type of industry, the type of value being offered by an organisation and the subsequent remodelling needed to move forward. An organisation, for example, may need to shift from being production orientated to supply chain focused or even to being customer focused. That same manufacturer might sell to retail outlets rather than middlemen, shifting their focus to logistical quality or they might even decide to sell online requiring a customer service centred approach. These types of change cannot be achieved through the previous leadership styles, but require a re-calibration across the whole business.  

Management is processes and systems – a change therefore requires the same type of person and management style, just different processes and systems. Reinventing a leadership style is not as simple. It often means rebuilding it from the ground up. Sure, past experience is helpful, but it is not the foundation for reinvention to reinvent leadership, which looks at the type of leadership the business is going to need moving forward rather than looking back. What customers will we have and what expectations will they have?  What type of people will we need?  What challenges will we undergo?  What culture will we need?

The recent BIS research linked leadership to profitability but interestingly it refers to the ‘Practices’ needed by leaders and entrepreneurs. These practices are listed as Strategy Centralisation, Strategy Formalisation, Strategy Responsiveness and Human Resource Management Best Practices. The reference to these practices in itself shows that leadership will have to be fluid and adapt to remain profitable.

In simple terms, the skill needed to turn a ship around is not the same as sailing in a straight line, which is different again to sailing in a storm. The leadership has to adapt. However, sailing a battleship into war – that requires reinvention!

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