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What kind of COVID leader are you?

By Alicia Rollo, CHRL, Director, Education and International Affairs, at the CIA

I am a self-professed leadership book junkie. I still prefer “real” books, but e-readers and audio books have their uses, particularly when commuting, long flights, and layovers were still a thing (and hopefully will be again someday!).

Either way, summer is the ideal time for catching up on that stack of books that has accumulated on the bedside table, home office floor, coffee table, or e-reader queue. This summer I re-explored my stack of leadership books, and I was reminded how some of them hit the mark while others miss. Some are faddish, but others truly stand the test of time, making me return to them when I need a reset, some re-inspiration, or re-motivation. One I return to again and again is an article by Daniel Goleman in the Harvard Business Review (HBR): “Leadership that Gets Results.”

One of HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Managing People, the article reminds me to be more conscious of how I might (for good or bad) dip in and out of leadership styles and emotional intelligence (EI) capabilities. It allows me to reflect on how well I have managed through various situations in direct relation to my own levels of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and social skill. EI also happens to be the subject of another favourite book of mine, Primal Leadershipwritten by Goleman with Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee as a follow-up to the HBR article.

I have been thinking about leadership styles because of COVID-19. COVID has turned upside down the way we lead and manage ourselves and others – from re-thinking how we maintain our basic team interactions in this virtual world, to, in some cases, completely re-engineering product or service delivery and the jobs of those involved. It has required radical changes to operational and performance objectives and for some, changing their very core job function. Leading and being led during these times is a whole new world that brings new challenges.

Pandemic or not, we all need and want to achieve results. The evidence provided by Goleman suggests that leaders who get the best results understand what styles work best in which situation. He emphasizes that – while we all have personality traits that might influence our go-to leadership style – rather than defaulting to one, it’s better to consciously build a leadership toolkit. This toolkit will help you identify what style best suits the situation and instinctively pull out the appropriate one.

Like any exercise, the more you use a muscle, the more you can rely on it to be there when you really need it. Goleman uses the analogy of a golf bag – knowing which club to use in what situation. I am not much of a golfer, but I do like to cook. I do not use a whisk to knead bread dough, nor use a paring knife to spatchcock a chicken, so, similarly, I want to use the right leadership style to fit the situation.

There are six main leadership styles according to Goleman, and situations best to use them in. Four of the six prove consistently to have positive results.

  1. Authoritative: The “come with me approach” best used when a change in vision is required and people need clear direction. It can mobilize people towards the vision by clearly stating the goal but leaving people with the flexibility and means to achieve it. EI traits are self-confidence and empathy. It has a positive effect in most situations; however, if leading a team of experienced professionals, it might come across as pompous or out of touch.
  2. Pace setting: This type of leader sets high standards for themselves and others. It works well with a team of professionals who are self-motivated and highly competent but can be overwhelming for individuals who are either not confident in their role or who are under-performing. In terms of EI, it is very high on self-management.
  3. Coercive: This is a “do what I say approach” that works best in situations where drastic action or a turnaround is needed. It is appropriate in the case of a genuine emergency or when dealing with specific problematic situations. The EI capabilities that support it are motivation, drive to achieve, and initiative. The downside is that it has a negative effect in most normal day-to-day operations and should be used with caution. It is the least effective style in most situations.
  4. Affiliative: A “people come first” approach that focuses on creating emotional bonds, belonging, and team harmony, and that values individuals and their emotions more than tasks. Affiliative leaders tend to focus on praise but often leave poor performance uncorrected and don’t provide much practical advice. It can leave people wondering what to do or how they fit into the bigger picture. EI traits are empathy, social skills, and building relationships. It has a positive effect in most cases.
  5. Democratic: The “build consensus approach” helps generate ideas, but constantly asking what others think can result in lack of direction, confusion, and lost time. It is helpful, however, when the leader really doesn’t know what direction or decision is best. EI traits are social awareness and social skills.
  6. Coaching: The “personal development” approach works well when those being led recognize where they need help and want to improve. It is not necessarily effective when individuals are resistant to change. This style is not about immediately getting results but rather about developing people over the longer term. It has a positive effect but is not useful for immediate change or results.

While all these styles have appropriate uses, Goleman says that no style should be relied on exclusively. The good news is that leadership styles and EI capabilities can be consciously and continuously developed. Try to be mindful of the leadership styles that you use in various situations – particularly the more difficult ones – and, more importantly, what kind of results they achieve. Asking for feedback, though sometimes difficult, is also invaluable, and, of course, look for professional development opportunities to build EI and leadership capabilities wherever you can.

So, whether it’s working on your short game or that crusty, yet chewy, French loaf, practice makes perfect, and in the time of COVID, flexing your leadership muscles and practicing different styles is more important than ever. This is the time when your employees need you to be flexible, adaptable, and conscious of their needs. Get your leadership toolbox filled now so that it’s ready when you need it most.

This article originally appeared in the CIA (e)Bulletin.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and does not represent an official statement of the CIA.

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