We all have things we do well. We all have things we prefer. In fact, every so often someone writes a book about finding your inner strength and exploiting it. This might help some folks, but it's just about the worst advice you can give anyone leading a company.

See, peak performance leaders give up the right to play to their strength. They have discovered, usually painfully, the truth about leadership styles. They know that leadership styles cross a spectrum bounded on one side by "collaborative leadership" and on the other by "command and control leadership." They know that there styles in the middle of the extremes that blend to two at different levels.

More than knowing that the spectrum exists, peak performance leaders know that to lead anything, they have to be committed to mastering the leadership styles across the spectrum. Perhaps they are more comfortable with one style than the others, but they also know that any strength taken to an extreme becomes a weakness.

The Leadership Spectrum

This distinction was delivered bluntly to me one afternoon at the headquarters of the United States Marine Corps. I had the privilege of working with leaders on strategic direction when the Assistant Commandant stood up, grabbed a marker, drew an arch (the spectrum), labeled the extremes, and put five dashes evenly spaced between the ends.

He turned to the generals and said, "Our problem is that we are really good at war." He explained that when the president says to take the beach, they ask him "What time do you want it?" When they are running landing crafts up on the beach, they don't sit down and say, "Hey, let's brainstorm the best way to attack this beach." Rather, they tell their people what they are going to do. They give commands, and no one does it better.

The problem is that because they are so good at command and control, they try to apply that same leadership style to creating their strategy for the future. That task doesn't need command and control leaders -- it needs leaders on the collaborative side of the spectrum. They weren't matching their leadership style to the specific needs of the situation.

Leadership Styles in Your Pocket

The Assistant Commandant went on to give us a mental model. He said his generals were waking up in the morning, putting one leadership style in their pocket, and walking out the door. He instructed them to wake up every day and put all of the leadership styles in their pocket.

Then he charged those in the room to enter every situation asking, "Of all of the leadership styles in my pocket, which one should I become in this situation?"

I walked away from that experience a changed person. I surrendered my right to play to my strength. I knew I owed those I led to master the spectrum of leadership styles and quickly discern not how I wanted to lead, but rather how my company needed me to lead.

Leadership Styles

How do you know which leadership style to use in which situation? Here are some leadership styles to use in the four primary decision-making processes.

  • Command and Control - Use this style in urgent, high-stakes situations when you need to make a quick decision.
  • Informed Command and Control - Use this style for lower-stakes, but still urgent decisions. An example is if your company needs a meeting venue and you have hours to make the decision. You need some input, but ultimately you need to make a decision quickly.
  • Limited Consensus - This style is appropriate in low-stakes strategic planning, like when you're deciding on your company's benefits package for the year.
  • Consensus - This is when collaborative leadership comes into play. Use this style for high-stakes strategic planning and visioning when you need the group to come to an agreement on a long-term idea.

Tomorrow when you are getting dressed, put all of the leadership styles in your pocket, and be prepared to use several as you move through your day. Be the leader your team needs rather than the one you are most comfortable being.