What kind of leader are you – a motivator, autocrat, nurturer, one who leads by example, or do you take elements from different styles to create your own? There’s no right or wrong style as employees react differently to each style and what works for one team might not work for another. Whatever kind of leader you are, you may have already found that you don’t always get the results you want and that’s where adaptive leadership comes in.

Adapting to your employees

The most effective leaders will employ a variety of leadership styles to get the best out of each individual employee or team – they know there is no one-size-fits-all. Adaptive leadership means tweaking your default style to individuals rather than trying to be a leadership chameleon. But how do you achieve that?

A simple way is to divide them into generations before breaking it down on an individual basis for the outliers. Most businesses have a multigenerational workforce and while this brings strength, diversity and opportunity, it can also be challenging because of the differing expectations.

Baby boomers, for example, are often more competitive than their younger colleagues and define themselves based on their work ethic and flexibility but can often feel they’ve nothing to prove. They bring a lot of experience and problem-solving skills ideally suited to mentoring, if applied correctly. This generation responds best to directness, face-to-face feedback, recognition for their contributions, and being included in making decisions.

Generation Xers, the children of boomers, are fiercely independent and thrive on the opportunity to use their initiative. Culturally, they are less dyed-in-the-wool than their parents, having seen their parents bear the brunt of the economic downturn of the 1990s, so demand excellent work–life balance in return for their loyalty. This generation responds well to proactive offers of training, clearly set goals, individual praise and rewards, and autonomy.

Millennials are fast becoming the biggest generation of the workforce, and many of the changes in business practices and culture has been about adapting to them. This generation is more collaborative and team-oriented than their parents’ and values opportunities to develop and diversify their skills. Millennials work best when they feel valued, are continually learning, given specific direction and regular praise, and have scheduling flexibility.

Leadership styles

There are five main leadership styles and you’ll need to ask yourself some questions to determine which best describes your default.

  1. Autocrats are decision-makers

    They don’t have time to build consensus; they identify the challenges and set the targets to achieve the goals. This style is all about team focus and strong directional leadership.

  2. Coaches

    Are all about employee development and skill enhancement, mentoring employees to grow and learn. This style works best with settled employees and through periods of change.

  3. Commanders

    Are direct and often coercive. This style is inflexible and combative, relying on employees responding to orders to the letter, which can choke enthusiasm, creativity and initiative out of a team. Often, without meaning to, this style can come across a little dictatorial. Commanders are most effective in dealing with waste, recalcitrance or crisis situations.

  4. Democrats

    Are collaborators who get employee buy-in by taking the time to ensure all opinions and ideas are equally valued, and making a project or target ‘employee owned’. This is one of the more flexible styles and best suits experienced staff.

  5. Pacesetters

    Lead by example, setting the expectations and demanding results. This style works well with highly skilled teams that require no training to complete the job. Teams lacking in motivation or in need of skills development will struggle to keep up with pacesetter’s demands.

Adaptable leadership isn’t about being the most popular boss and everyone’s favourite person. It’s about developing styles that improve productivity and provides an environment that gives everyone a chance to grow and fulfil their potential. Adaptable leaders cease to be managers and become motivators – and a motivated workforce will always outperform a stiffly organised one.