Are you using the most appropriate leadership style?  - SmartBrief

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Are you using the most appropriate leadership style? 

The leadership style you should use -- discussing, directing or delegating -- depends on the situation, writes Paul Thornton.

4 min read


leadership style

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Leaders influence and inspire people to make positive changes. They diagnose each situation and determine which leadership style will be most effective.    

There are three basic leadership styles:

  • Directing Style — Tell people what changes are required and what they need to do. This approach is appropriate in emergencies and when people have limited experience. People learn to listen, pay attention, ask questions and follow directions.       
  • Discussing Style — Ask questions to solicit people’s ideas on problems and opportunities. This approach is appropriate when people have some experience and expertise, and you want to increase their buy-in and commitment to decisions. People learn to think, collaborate, negotiate, compromise and make decisions.        
  • Delegating Style — Empower people to work independently and implement the desired changes. This approach is appropriate when people have specific interests, experience and skills and are committed to doing what’s needed. People learn to define problems, establish goals, formulate plans and work through obstacles.       

Using the appropriate leadership style motivates people to be fully engaged and motivated. Each leadership style also builds people’s knowledge and skills, making them more effective employees. 

Here are several examples of leaders in different professions using the three leadership styles.  

John P. Murphy: Scituate Fire Department, Chief of Department and Emergency Management Director

Directing Style — In all emergencies, I use a directing style. There is no time for discussion and collaboration. Decisions must be made quickly.  

Discussing Style — I think it is essential to utilize the strengths of all my employees. I discuss problems and issues with the people who have the appropriate expertise. My approach is to seek the experts’ input before making any decisions.   

Delegating Style — People have different goals and interests. I try to delegate projects that align with people’s interests. People are more motivated to excel in areas that interest them. 

Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh: Professor, Engineering and Physical Sciences at Springfield Technical Community College

I use the three Ds to create meaningful learning experiences. At the course level, directing offers students clear goals, expectations and pathways to success.

Open and authentic discussions allow me to connect with students and ask questions that force them to challenge their beliefs and think independently and creatively. Through discussion, I try to establish a safe, collaborative, and welcoming environment that promotes strong relationships and interactions.

Delegating requires students to take charge of their learning and performance. This approach teaches students how to advocate for themselves, ask for help, communicate, seek needed resources and work independently.

Bob Emery, former Head Hockey Coach, Plattsburg State University 

I coach hockey, but I’m really teaching leadership, life skills, and teamwork. In the old days, I used a lot of directing when coaching. ‘Do this. Don’t do that.‘ Today, I do a lot more discussing and delegating. I ask a lot of questions to see what the player is thinking. I delegate when I want the players to do self-reflection and self-analysis. For example, players must critique their play after each game by watching videotapes. Each player discusses their self-analysis with one of the coaches to ensure we are all on the same page. Coaching is productive when real learning occurs. This happens best when the player is engaged and takes ownership of his performance on and off the ice.

David Hurst, Minister

Part of my job as a minister involves helping people with problems or conflicts. The issues run the gamut from alcohol, drugs, marital issues, financial and interpersonal. Their problem is usually impacting several other people.  I start by meeting with the person one-on-one in a private setting. We always start with a prayer. That helps people relax and talk more truthfully about what’s happening. 

Discussing Style — I start by asking questions to unpack the problem. Probing questions are focused on identifying the reasons behind the behavior. Once the problem is clarified, I ask questions about what they have tried and the results. 

Directing Style — In some situations, I tell them what to do. You need to go to AA meetings starting tonight. 

Delegating Style — In some cases, I have made arrangements for the person to speak with someone in the congregation who has dealt with a similar problem. I would schedule the meeting and make the introductions. 

In all cases, follow-up is essential. You have to make sure people do what they committed to do.

Using the right leadership style gives people what they need to succeed in their assigned tasks. It also develops their knowledge and skills for future challenges.


Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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