Many leadership experts talk about different leadership styles.  Father of Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, describes eight styles, Fast Company co-founder, Bill Taylor, describes four styles, and so it goes.

Early in my career, I would talk about six leadership styles. Two common styles that are negative in their impact, and four styles that should all be mastered. The idea is that a leader identifies the right style for the situation at hand and then slips into the appropriate style, like a Barbie doll changing outfits and inheriting a different set of skills.

Whenever I taught this content, people loved it. There’s something engaging and powerful about the idea of adapting your leadership style to the current situation.

But I was wrong.

After teaching that approach for a couple of years, I found that as appealing the idea was in the classroom, switching leadership styles rarely worked in practice.

Leadership Styles In the Real World

I believe that leadership styles do a reasonable job of describing our ‘natural’ leadership style. Our ‘default setting’ is to be authoritarian, or connective, or guiding, etc. And that’s the style of leadership that feels comfortable to us, the one that we ‘naturally’ use.

But the problem with viewing leadership styles as a set of skills to be mastered is that they are a kind of learned behavior that are incredibly difficult to internalize. We might occasionally fight against our natural style to be guiding and take a more democratic approach, but we will be doing just that – fighting against ourselves!

Fighting against our natural way of doing things, like swimming against the current, takes great effort, is exhausting, and rarely as effective as we would like.  And so, any learning we have done about leadership styles falls by the wayside as we default back to our natural leadership style.

In some rare cases, I do think that people are able to make the consistent effort to change their leadership style over time. Authoritarian leaders can learn to become more democratic, for example. The leopard can change its spots. But this is the result of a very deliberate effort over a period of years.  For most of us, this isn’t a realistic or effective strategy for improving as leaders and so seeking to master multiple styles of leadership is at best a distraction from more fruitful efforts to improve our leadership performance.