Good leaders prepare for the worst, but no one saw a global pandemic coming. Here, our organisational psychologist, Heather Bingham, assesses the success of different leadership styles during the coronavirus crisis
In this strange post-apocalyptic world that is half “normal” and half stubbornly unreal, I find myself looking back on how BOOST&Co was led during lockdown. I certainly consider that we had a “good lockdown”, but we cannot allow ourselves to fade into semi-retirement, so I have been looking a number of factors to ensure we continue to succeed. One area I’ve been assessing is our leadership and how we must adapt as a different level of “normal” is regained.
Some leaders are going to be basking in success. BOOST&Co – part of the Growth Lending Group, along with fellow lenders GapCap and KX Media Capital – has had a successful lockdown. We kept our team busy throughout, for the most part working towards achieving Growth Lending’s accreditation as a lender for the government’s Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS). This has taken hours and days of additional work in many areas of the business, even running to weekend working, which is usually a real no-no. We have actively managed morale and have revamped all our processes as we’ve gone on, not just for CBILS, but for post-CBILS as well. We’ve been relentless.
Other leaders may be feeling that they have failed. They may have scraped by and may even have had to furlough loyal staff. They will be looking at how they handled lockdown and will be experiencing disappointment, even shame, that they did not get their organisations through the crisis with greater success. The truth, however, is that not all styles of leadership are good in a crisis, just as not all types are great at the day-to-day. It’s important to know what you are, so that you can accept where you’re weaker and make the most of where you’re stronger.
The seven common leadership styles
During lockdown, I have become quite a fan of Fairy God Boss. It’s like LinkedIn but for women in business, and provides a lot of useful insight into business psychology that isn’t always gender-biased. It provides this list of common leadership styles:
- Autocratic: rigid, but excellent when speed of decision-making and execution is needed.
- Charismatic: has vision and can influence and inspire others.
- Transformational: often focuses on productivity and influencing people to work harder.
- Laissez-faire: allows a high level of autonomy and encourages team members to solve problems themselves.
- Transactional: roles are well-defined and structure enables progression in employees.
- Supportive: provides employees with the skills, support and coaching to succeed.
- Democratic: does everything by committee, involving everyone.
These types are very broad, but most leaders will feel that they fall into one description more than others. If you have joint leadership of an organisation, this may also mean that you have two types of leader at the top, as we have at BOOST&Co (Charismatic and Supportive). For the purposes of this exercise, it is important to consider the style of the predominant leadership during lockdown and not worry about shades of grey.
Which approaches worked during lockdown?
Almost regardless of whether your market segment fell off a cliff or if new opportunities presented themselves during lockdown, the leadership styles that will have better thrived during the crisis are:
The Charismatic leader will be the one to find new opportunities and inspire a team to work hard to chase them down. Although he doesn’t like the term, BOOST&Co’s Lance Mysyrowicz falls into this camp. He will find five opportunities, get his team to follow them all and then really hunt down the two with the most potential to be successful.
If opportunities are solidly there, a Transformational leader is likely to be able to drive an organisation forward, by encouraging hard work and focus. They don’t have the same risk profile as Charismatic leaders, so are most likely to follow one path in a dogged way, but productivity is the name of their game, once they know where they’re going.
A Supportive leader will take a different tack to the Transformational leader. However, the end result is the same: an appropriately skilled team working towards a common goal. BOOST&Co’s Sonia Powar sits firmly in this camp and has worked with Lance every step of the way towards Growth Lending’s CBILS accreditation, focusing on how everyone can maximise the opportunities created by Lance. She also ensures that our People team is taking care of the professional and personal needs of the company’s staff, with a focus on their mental wellbeing.
A great many organisations are led by leadership groups and may think they are Democratic. However, because the group does not present a united front, the team is as disparate and unfocused in its goals as the group is. But where a true Democratic leader or leadership is functioning, this will probably have resulted in a successful lockdown, with the team fully involved in the response to the crisis.
The leaders who can struggle in a crisis
The remaining leadership styles are not generally so well suited to crises such as lockdowns. However, the good news is that other types of leader are likely to come into their own, now that we are beginning to find the edge of the forest.
This almost sounds like no leadership, but it isn’t so. It’s a brave leader who looks at their team and decides that they are more than capable of solving their own problems. This may have been less helpful during lockdown, especially if an organisation’s client base and/or market segment suffered, but if clarity of purpose is returning, the Laissez-faire leader’s teams will be rested, energised and ready to get stuck in once more, because their people feel as though they are in charge of their own destiny.
It seems these days that Autocratic leadership is very much out of place, but it isn’t. In organisations where big decisions must be made often, it is often the only way to ensure speed. Where the lockdown was undefined, the need for speed dissipated, but now things are picking up. This type of leader or leadership is ideal for some organisations and will help them respond quickly to new opportunities as they come.
Again, the notion of Transactional leadership can seem quite outmoded in newer areas of the economy, but many employees – probably more than 50% – feel safest in organisations where their steps to progression are clear and their remuneration is firmly on a grid. There has been a great deal of furloughing in organisations with Transactional leadership: think of the retail banks as a prime example. However, once they have climbed over the hump of bringing back furloughed staff, they will be able to prosper again, with renewed energy coming from those returning to work.
Beware this style – it doesn’t work and never will
This shows that there is a place for each of Fairy God Boss‘s leaders, whether during lockdown or after it. What it doesn’t show, but should, that there is a type of leader or leadership that doesn’t work, because it never works under any circumstances. This is the leadership group or leader that is so full of internal comings and goings that it doesn’t present any clear leadership style to the team. I’m going to call this Muddy leadership.
Muddy leadership won’t have worked during lockdown and it definitely won’t work as we emerge. You may be an Autocratic leader at heart and, because you don’t like the idea, you’re trying to be something different. Don’t. What everyone needs at the moment is clear leadership of whatever kidney. That’s what will get us out of this economic slump. There is a time to try out other types of leadership, but now is the time to be clear.
Rest, recovery and pressing ahead
When I watch BOOST&Co and Growth Lending emerging from lockdown, with our eyes set firmly on making CBILS a success, I see an organisation that is ready. We have achieved accreditation and we have made many upgrades internally to ensure that we will meet our targets. We have had a “good lockdown”, but we are also tired, having used even more energy than normal during lockdown to follow our Charismatic and Supportive leaders. We are all grabbing holidays now, while we can, to ensure that we can give the next six months the focus required.
Other organisations may feel bruised by lockdown, but they must take solace in being poised to make the most of the next six months with people who are rested. In the same way that we must not take for granted the lockdown experiences of our team members, some leaders will have found lockdown easier than others and they must be honest with themselves. Some leaders will have struggled, along with their entire organisation, but they may well find this next transition easier than others, making this a time for them to shine once more.