As companies become flatter with blurred boundaries, there is a greater push toward authentic leadership. As a result, a lot of unconventional leadership styles are emerging.
This is different than when large, bureaucratic organizations ruled and leadership styles were pretty conventional across the board. Today, we expect leadership at multiple levels.
"It’s no longer just about your emotional intelligence," says Deborah Ancona, a professor at MIT Sloan Executive Education. "It’s about your ability to understand complexities, solve problems, and get things done"—no matter what leadership style that comes in.
Below are a few common styles that have emerged, and the benefits and problems of each.
What it is: In contrast to the top-down leadership styles of the past, servant leadership is a popular one where the leader serves their employees.
Mike DeFrino, CEO of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, flips the hierarchy upside down to empower employees so that they’re happy and, in turn, they keep guests happy. He defines servant leadership as "the ability to both serve and lead and to do so without expecting anything back." This often means you’ll see DeFrino taking on any job, from carrying guests’ bags to working behind the counter. Servant leadership, according to DeFrino, also means a lot less talking and lot more listening.
The pros: "There’s a lot more to learn and gain by listening to your employees and stop thinking that you have all the great suggestions and the answers to the questions," he says. "Most of the intelligence in the organization is much closer to the ground than the corner office."
The cons: While servant leadership, when done right, has been shown to engage and empower employees, if the leader stays in the "servant" role and isn’t able to switch back, things can get problematic, says Ancona. For instance, in an emergency situation where speed is of the essence, the servant leader needs to be able to make decisions quickly. And in times when the organization’s global success is dependent on local support, the servant leader needs to give top-down instructions—but the local units should always understand why their support is needed.
What it is: Today’s employees want transparent, authentic leaders, not the tightly controlled ones of the past. That often means someone who is emotionally reactive and says what they feel, no matter what the consequences.
While this kind of leadership may not sound like it would work, sometimes it does, says Karen West, a psychologist and partner at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles, because employees feel like they know their leader, and this can create a deeper trust.
The pros: This leadership style can work because some employees want immediate direction and guidance. People gravitate to transparent leaders because they know exactly where they stand, says West.
The cons: The downside is when these leaders don’t know how to modulate their emotions, things can go "very, very bad," says West. If they get stressed out, "it can bleed over everyone else. If this particular person is in a bad mood, it ends up being emotionally transmitted through the rest of the organization."
What it is: In flat organizational structures, leaders are often seen as peers who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. Stephanie Horbaczewski, CEO of StyleHaul, is this kind of leader. Since she founded the company in 2009, Horbaczewski has never had a formal office, often migrating from desk to desk to get to know her team. She’s so close to her employees that she allows them to stay in her Los Angeles and New York apartments when they’re traveling for business. Horbaczewski says she considers a lot of her employees friends and her leadership style hasn’t negatively affected the business. The company was acquired by RTL Group in 2014 for an overall valuation of more than $200 million.
The pros:According to Ancona, some people, like Horbaczewski, can handle the switch between friend and boss well.
The cons: The company suffers when you can't easily make that switch. For instance, if you can’t talk to employees about issues that exist, then you’re going to have to pull back from your peer-based relationships with employees.
"This is friendship in the context of an organization. There is work that needs to be done. There are responsibilities that you have with getting your job done that may conflict with your friendships," says Ancona. "You need to go in with eyes open that there are other conflicting roles."
No matter what leadership style you have, West says to also think about the teams you put together, and how your style meshes with theirs. After all, a leader’s success is only as good as the effectiveness of their teams.