Building an Adaptive Leadership Style

By Lisa Jasper
March 1, 2018

A s a leader, are you a motivational encourager, a morale crusher, or perhaps a combination of the two? The truth is, some days require you to be a coach, some days demand a visionary who motivates the team, and some days make you feel like a dictator instead of a skilled professional at the helm of a talented team.


There are many leadership styles, and no one style is right or wrong. Every leader has his or her own unique voice and individual approach to people and projects. Yet it’s important to realize that different styles work better in different circumstances and at different times—and to achieve different purposes.


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All leaders, even those who are highly collaborative, use a range of leadership styles, sometimes even within a single day. Being an effective leader means learning to adapt your leadership style to the business environment, your team members, and the business goals you encounter around you.


Being genuine is an essential component of good leadership, but that doesn’t mean sticking rigidly to one style. To learn how to be a more effective leader, let’s explore some basic leadership styles and how to use them to your—and your team’s—advantage.




Most leaders follow at least one (and, most likely, more) of these basic leadership styles:


Authoritative Leadership


Authoritative, or autocratic, leadership works best when a team needs strong direction. This type of leadership identifies challenges that lie ahead and focuses the team on a common goal. It allows individuals to decide how their efforts will achieve the desired end result.


Authoritative leadership doesn’t work if you aren’t the most knowledgeable member of the group because you can’t be an authority on a subject where you lack deep knowledge and experience. This style is used best when there’s little time for group decision making and when the situation demands immediate action.


Coaching Leadership


Coaching leadership is most effective when employees are receptive to change and learning because the purpose of your coaching is to help them learn and grow. This leadership style focuses on long-term personal development as well as job-related skills.


Coaching leadership isn’t effective when an employee is defiant or if you, as the leader, lack proficiency in what you’re trying to teach. It’s most effective when performance or results need improvement. Your goal when using the coaching leadership style is to help others advance their skills by providing plenty of support and guidance.


Coercive Leadership


Coercive, or transactional, leadership is the most directive leadership style. This is the “Do what I tell you right now!” style of leadership. Use this style sparingly because it stifles creativity and enthusiasm. It works well, however, if there’s imminent danger, a teammate is out of control, or the organization requires an immediate overhaul.


Coercive leadership is best applied during a crisis or period of significant change. You might also want to employ coercive leadership when a business unit isn’t operating profitably because of wasteful practices, such as excessive or unnecessary spending on travel or entertainment.


Democratic Leadership


Democratic leadership allows team members to share their ideas and provide input into decisions. Everyone has a seat at the table, discussion flows freely, and the leader gathers and evaluates all available information to make the best possible decision.


Democratic leadership works when the team needs to feel ownership of a project, plan, or goal. Because it’s time-consuming, this style should be avoided if a deadline is looming or if employees lack the experience or expertise to offer helpful advice. Among its advantages, democratic leadership offers flexibility when situations change frequently or time is available to improve processes.


Pacesetting Leadership


Pacesetting leadership is best described as leading by example. Pacesetting leaders generally set high expectations and demand quick results. This leadership style works best when a business or department needs a fast response from a team that’s already motivated and skilled at doing their jobs.


Yet pacesetting leaders can risk burning out their teams and reducing innovation when they use this style too extensively. Pacesetting leadership doesn’t work, either, when employees need training or coaching.






As you define and refine your leadership style, get into the habit of practicing it every day. The leadership decisions that you and your empowered employees make daily are critical to the success of your company. So what is everyday leadership? It’s when both leaders and employees take intentional, daily action to foster better connection, communication, and community within the organization. It’s leaders and employees working together toward one shared vision. The most effective leaders share these traits:




Effective leaders adapt quickly to changing situations. They don’t feel compelled to stick to a script or to continue doing things the way they’ve always been done. Adaptable leaders think outside the box and embrace new ideas and concepts that may be beyond their comfort zone.


Everyday leaders understand that challenges and obstacles are part of personal growth and development.


Emotional Intelligence


Emotional intelligence (EQ) includes the ability to recognize, understand, and manage your emotions. It’s also the ability to recognize, understand, and influence the emotions of others. Everyday leaders typically have a high EQ and are skilled at balancing the needs of their team and the company.


They understand the complex mix of feelings and emotions, take the time to listen to concerns of their peers, and share their own thoughts and feelings when appropriate.




Everyday leaders perform their daily tasks while keeping an eye on the company’s guiding vision. They get the big picture, and they have a firm grasp on how their role and the roles of those around them contribute to it.


They understand that when everyone’s goals are aligned with the company’s goals—and when everybody does their best to meet them—it’s a win for the entire organization.




Participation means to show up. That sounds too simple, but when everyone has more to do than time to do it, the simple act of being present and following through on commitments distinguishes excellence from mediocrity.


Everyday leaders are willing to get their hands dirty and do what it takes to get the job done. They also check in regularly with employees to put them at ease and show their support.


Coaching Ability


The ability to coach rather than tell someone what to do is an essential trait of effective leaders. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula to motivate employees to do their best while also inspiring others. It takes some fine-tuning to get the right strategy that motivates others, but effective leaders know it’s worth the time.


If you model desired behaviors, you’ll soon find others putting the same behaviors in place.


Now that you’ve learned more about becoming an effective leader, it’s essential to learn to use those skills to inspire your employees to give their best performance.




The key to creating a workplace environment that motivates employees to give discretionary effort is recognizing the difference between being a manager and being a leader. A manager plans, organizes, assigns, and follows up. A leader influences, motivates, and encourages.


Ready to inspire your employees? Here are some essential tips:


Pay Attention


It’s easy to overlook, but it isn’t an overstatement to say that you must show concern for your employees as people. Take the time to ask about their holidays and families, and learn about their interests and hobbies. Give them a chance to get to know you, too.


Knowing your team members is a powerful tool to help you find the best way to encourage and influence them to be more productive. Employees who feel that the boss cares about them personally are more loyal and motivated to work harder.


Meet Them Where They Are


The workplace is full of individuals who bring something different to the table. It’s your job as a leader to recognize your style and learn to adjust to what each employee needs. Adapting your style to fit your team’s needs shows flexibility and engenders respect.


Understanding each person and playing to his or her strengths helps your team commit to the company’s business goals in a way that fits individual abilities and motivations. You’re also more likely to engage your employees, and engaged employees are less likely to hit roadblocks to the success of their projects and more likely to go the extra mile when needed.


Communicate Expectations


Your employees need to understand how they fit into the company, why their job is important, and what they need to do to help the company reach its goals. It’s your job to explain it to them and set clear expectations. Hold employees accountable by checking in weekly or monthly—not micromanaging—to see if goals are being met.


Be positive during your communications with your employees. Recognize their successes publicly, and coach them privately if there’s a problem.


Be Open and Available


Practice servant leadership by making yourself available to help your employees when needed. When you get into the trenches with them, you’re seen as a respected team leader rather than a distant tyrant. And stay open to feedback from them.


Give your employees opportunities for growth. Help them position themselves as subject-matter experts, or let them lead a project when an opportunity arises. Then get out of their way and let them shine. They’ll feel valued and appreciated when they have the opportunity to grow with you.


Recognize Generational Differences


Inspiring your employees to give their best puts you on the path of being an effective leader. But don’t let your efforts get sidetracked. You need to recognize that a multigenerational workplace presents both challenges and opportunities.


Embrace the diversity and strengths that multigenerational workers bring to your company. To lead them effectively, take the time to learn the characteristics of each and what they expect from their leaders.


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We can’t talk about leadership essentials without discussing change and how to lead employees through it. Change is never easy, but it helps to understand how people are likely to respond to something new. Most people are afraid of change because it threatens their security and forces them to step out of their comfort zone. Even positive change or self-initiated change comes with both losses and gains. The same is true for companies experiencing change.


Here are some guidelines for your change journey:


Paint a Clear Picture


People need a clear, compelling image of how a change will have a positive effect on their future. The clearer you make the image, the easier employees are able to picture how they fit into the scene you’ve painted.


Explain the Importance


To get behind a change, employees need to understand what’s driving it and why they need to embrace it. Everyone’s motivation will be different (Is my job still secure? Will this further the company mission?), and you need to give employees time and support to make sense of things for themselves.


You’ll have a better chance at achieving the desired results from the change if you engage employees closest to the affected work and get their input early in the process. You’ll help them feel invested in the change.


Make It Personal


Make the change matter to your employees in a personal way. Will they be able to serve customers better? Will the change make their jobs easier and improve the workplace? Will a new emphasis on training help them sharpen their skills to be more promotable or boost their paychecks? Focus on finding ways to explain to your employees what’s in it for them.


Give Specific Directions


When you ask people to change, you need to be able to tell them specifically what they are being asked to do differently as well as how to do it. If you’re putting new systems in place, for example, you need to not only train employees on how to use them but also to explain how these new systems will help them do their jobs better. You’ll also need to give them enough time and resources to be successful.


Provide Support


Change initiatives depend on providing support for employees. Be sure you don’t set them up for failure. Build in support structures that will help them both during and after the change.


Set an Example


Front-line leaders hold up the vision, reinforce key messages, manage conflict, and bring people together to uncover concerns and questions. They are responsible for modeling attitudes and actions that get to the desired state.


Pay close attention to your company’s culture when crafting a change initiative. If your employees view the company as risk-averse, for example, and you suddenly ask everyone to become more agile and start making quick decisions, they’re likely to resist because that isn’t how things are really done.




Remember: Leadership isn’t a popularity contest, and it isn’t about being everyone’s favorite person at work. It’s about creating harmony in an environment where people want to work together.


You shouldn’t expect to become a good leader overnight. It takes tools—like the ones described here—and it takes practice. But keep at it, and you can become a great leader for whom people really want to work.


Lisa Jasper, SPHR, CPT, is manager of performance improvement at Insperity. She has been an organizational development/HR practitioner for more than 19 years and specializes in the alignment of organizational processes and people with organizational strategy. You can reach Lisa at (281) 312-3427 or lisa.jasper@insperity.com.
3 + Show Comments

    C S Bud Kulesza CMA, CFM March 9, 2018 AT 2:00 pm

    Very comprehensive article and very informative….thanks for sharing your insights.

    RAMJIYAHOO MAHADEVAN. ACMA, FCA, CMA March 9, 2018 AT 4:04 pm

    yes very comprehensive article, but in next article, could elaborate more on cons in every style of leadership so that we could try to avoid/reduce those cons

    mr boitshwarelo motlogelwa March 16, 2018 AT 12:43 pm

    this information is very important. thank you. I have just started a business in general supply and security services. I believe I will learn a lot from your end. thanks

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