Defining the Appropriate Leadership Style

The art of leadership includes the skill of constantly adapting the leadership style to the situation and circumstances. David Gilbert-Smith tells a wonderful story in his book, Winning Hearts and Minds.

“I appreciated the onus was always on the leader to adopt the right approaches/style in order to gain the right responses from his followers. So the first questions to ask are:

1. What are the right responses that are required?

2. What behaviours, attitudes and performance are needed to succeed?

When these have been defined, a look at the followers’ side of things will tell us the other questions that need to be asked and answered: What are people thinking and feeling? What’s the cause? What do they need to be thinking to succeed? What do they need to be feeling – guilty? ashamed? pleased? ecstatic? calm? in control? fearful in the right way? challenged? And finally, how do I best approach them to accomplish this?

I remember the problems I encountered when I was first commissioned into the regular army, trying to adjust my own style of leadership to the needs of my followers and the situation. I felt ill at ease with the military style and culture, as I had been used to captaining teams on the sports field, not ‘ordering’ regimented, obedient soldiers around the place. It took me some time to relate and adjust to the army culture, its philosophy and style. I had to realise it was I who was out of step, not them! My ‘wrong’ style grated on them; it was ineffective. But after a hard struggle, I managed to adapt and soon became inured into it.

Some eight years later I asked to transfer to Special Forces. On my arrival there I was immediately bowled over by the huge differences in their style, standards, values and methods. The first day I joined my new troop became a watershed of learning for me. When my Troop Sergeant greeted me, his words became indelibly etched on my heart:

‘You come walking in here with your three shiny stars on your shoulders, your medal ribbons dangling on your chest, and you think we’re going to follow you. Well, we’re not!’

To say I was taken aback is a masterpiece of understatement! No-one had ever spoken to me like that before, certainly not in the army! I looked up and saw the challenging glint in his eye.

I caught my breath. ‘Go on, Geordie, don’t stop! If you’ve got something to say then say it,’ I said, and I saw him relax and smile. The new ‘flat hat’ that had joined ‘his’ troop would at least listen to what he had to say.

‘Well, that’s a start at least! If you come down off your pedestal and learn a bit of humility perhaps we can continue?’

I grinned and nodded. For the next two hours I had the most rewarding experience of leadership I had ever encountered. I quickly realised that now I had the least knowledge and experience of anyone in the troop, not the most, as previously. Whatever my potential, I was at that time the ‘worst player’ in the team. This gave Geordie a good opening to expound on his equivalent of ‘situational leadership’, which was all part of this style.

He explained that the team member with the greatest experience and expertise in a particular subject or situation always took command in that particular setting. All team members, irrespective of rank, supported and responded to this situational leader. Responsibility for a project’s overall success was, however, still carried by the senior in authority – that is, myself! As Geordie so eloquently explained, I had to learn to lead my men through their situational leaders, to project my leadership through them, not to compete with or patronise them, as this would only lessen their authority and mine. To be accepted as their leader I would first have to win their trust, respect and confidence.

They did not know me. They were not going to accept me simply because I held rank over them, even if I did have a successful track record with my parent regiment. It was not the same thing. I realised that they had all the power and control, while I was left with all the responsibility!

How could I win their hearts and minds?

It had all been so easy before. In the regular army, I’d simply had to tell an obedient soldiery what I wanted done. Now I had to explain to my men the rationale behind my ideas and my methods of accomplishing them. It all had to make sense. Not only that, but it had to ‘feel’ right as well. Suddenly I appreciated what it was like to be a non-executive chairman, yet carry the can!

I had to learn to speak ‘across’ to my ‘team’, not, as in my other culture, ‘down’ to my ‘juniors’ and ‘up’ to my ‘seniors’. ‘You can be friendly and warm without ever getting too close, too familiar,’ Geordie warned. He explained that I would lose the men’s respect, trust and confidence if I failed to make judgements and decisions that not everybody agreed with, provided I defended these on the grounds of soundness rather than superior authority; that I accepted their questioning and examined their criticism with endless patience. He warned me never to be afraid of it but to welcome it. Only that way would they accept it when I needed to put my foot down without question.

The need to be liked on either side never entered into their calculation – the need to be right was absolute.

I learned fast. I had to.

After some nine months, the troop started to call me ‘Boss’. Before that they had called me nothing. They had at last begun to accept me in some degree.

After two tours totalling eight years, I returned to my parent regiment, but found I could not go back to the old way of doing things. I was out of kilter, so I left the army. But I carried within me those two very opposite styles of leadership, and over the subsequent years I was to discover several more.”


David Gilbert-Smith, the Leadership Trust founder

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