Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book Leadership Agility

Q&A on the Book Leadership Agility

Key Takeaways

  • Leadership is not about being the boss, but about being able to influence others to move in a specific direction.
  • There is a variety of leadership styles, each suited to different circumstances.
  • Leadership agility is the ability to rapidly switch between different styles and add new ones in response to the specific circumstances.
  • This book describes the qualities and pitfalls of ten sets of opposite leadership styles.
  • Leadership development is about adding new styles and getting better at each, in order to be more effective under differing circumstances.

The book Leadership Agility by Ron Meyer and Ronald Meijers provides a collection of leadership styles that leaders can use to expand their repertoire and increase their leadership agility. Readers can learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the styles and find out under which circumstances styles can be effective. 

InfoQ readers can download a sample of leadership agility.

InfoQ interviewed Meyer about misconceptions on leadership, what works and doesn’t work for “controlling” people, leading self-organized teams, and how leaders can expand their repertoire of leadership styles and better exploit the leadership styles that they master.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Ron Meyer: For years I’ve worked with management teams in developing and implementing strategy. It became clear to me that leadership was essential to achieving successful strategizing, but that different styles were required under different circumstances. Yet when I turned to the leadership literature there was little mention of different styles and hardly any mention of the leader’s role in strategizing. Most books promote one best way of leading and most are written by psychologists, focusing on personal leadership, not by a business person focusing on the role of leaders in organizing and strategizing. These two missing angles - having more than one best style and understanding the different situations in which one needs to lead - form the core of this book.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Meyer: There are two key audiences. First and foremost, this book is intended for managers at any level in any organization in any country who want to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of their current repertoire of leadership styles and are interested in broadening their range of styles, so as to be more agile in responding to differing circumstances. The second audience is made up of coaches and trainers, who can make use of the conceptual framework of this book to discuss differing leadership styles with the people they are guiding. 

InfoQ: What misconceptions on leadership exist?

Meyer: In chapter 1, my co-author Ronald Meijers and I review five common misconceptions about leadership, which all have in common that leadership is seen as an exceptional capability. Many people have an exaggerated view of leadership, attributing almost superhuman characteristics to leaders - leaders need to be almost like prophets in their ability to forecast the future, like heroes to single-handedly shape an organization, like gurus to give meaning to the existence of an organization and like idols that can be worshipped as the ultimate role models. But all these misconceptions make leadership too exclusive and not something that any of us mere mortals will ever achieve. By the way, the fifth misconception is that management and leadership are interchangeable concepts, while we argue that management represents a formal position (“the boss”), while leadership is an informal role (“anyone who takes the lead and gets others to follow”).   

InfoQ: How can we "control" someone's behavior and steer people into a specific direction?

Meyer: Fundamentally, leadership is about influencing people to move in a certain direction - it is about steering. Yet there are different styles to steer people. You can directly control people’s behavior by indicating what they need to do, which we call the supervisory leadership style, but you can also indirectly control behavior by creating the conditions that will nudge people into moving in the intended direction, which we call the facilitative leadership style. In other words, you can steer by determining tasks or creating conditions. Both work, but will be more effective in different circumstances. In a “mission critical” situation you might want to keep direct control, while if you need to stimulate creativity and ownership you will only want to steer indirectly. 

InfoQ: What doesn't work for "controlling" people?

Meyer: Both of the opposite styles can be done poorly or in the wrong situation. A supervisory leadership style can easily degenerate into micromanagement and pushiness, or be imposed on people who require more empowerment to be effective. Conversely, a facilitative leadership style can become excessively high level and unsupportive, while being imposed on people requiring more guidance and feedback to be effective. So, using tight or loose control really depends on the specific circumstances.

InfoQ: How can you find out which style to use?

Meyer: That’s the key to agility - knowing when to use which style and being able to respond appropriately. Of course, you need to master the repertoire of styles, but you also need to quickly know when and where to employ which style. This is really a matter of practice. It starts with knowing the qualities and pitfalls of each set of opposite leadership styles and then experiencing how people respond to each under different circumstances. Unfortunately, there is no magic pill that will make you agile. It’s learning along the way. We do offer a range of suggestions on how to speed up this learning. 

InfoQ: How can leaders use appreciative feedback to encourage people?

Meyer: Using appreciative feedback is a specific leadership style which we call the encouraging style - leaders emphasize what is done well and spur people to build on these positive elements. Giving compliments and strengthening people’s self-confidence can be very powerful. Yet, often the opposite is required, namely the demanding leadership style, whereby people are challenged to do better. Leaders then emphasize what is not done well, spurring people to rectify the errors and do a better job. Being critical and disciplining can also bring out the best in people. Again, both styles have their benefits and potential pitfalls, and agile leaders should be able to switch between them where appropriate. The problem often is that we feel more comfortable using one or the other, or we have a strong belief that one is inherently superior to the other, leading us to get stuck in only using one style instead of switching between them. 

InfoQ: What leadership styles do you recommend when an organization wants to establish self-organizing agile teams?

Meyer: One important style dimension will be “organizational decision-making” - how the leader should ensure that decisions get made within the team. While autocratic decision-making (one person deciding) is often valuable, in a self-organizing agile team democratic decision-making (making decisions together) is often crucial. This type of decision-making needs to be made possible by the leader.

InfoQ: What are the pitfalls of a facilitative leadership style?

Meyer: In a facilitative leadership style, the leader steers by creating the right conditions, while empowering people to make their own choices.Typical pitfalls are that the leader gives people too much “freedom” to operate, making them feel deserted and lacking guidance. Another typical pitfall of someone using the facilitative leadership style is that in a crisis they are often incapable of steering more directly because they lack the knowledge of the situation to do so.   

InfoQ: How can leaders expand their repertoire of leadership styles?

Meyer: Learning new leadership styles starts with recognizing that you tend to get stuck in a different style because it feels comfortable (or morally superior). Getting out of one’s comfort zone requires an understanding of the new style and sufficient practice. It’s exactly like adding a new tongue to your repertoire of languages - it’s about openly exploring the new set of behaviors and then constantly practicing until one becomes “conversational”.

InfoQ: How can they better exploit the leadership styles that they master, thereby increasing leadership agility?

Meyer: Having a broad repertoire of leadership styles at one’s fingertips is great, but to be truly agile one needs to be “responsive” - quickly realizing which style needs to be accessed given the specific circumstance. This too is a matter of practice. The more one learns to rapidly switch between styles, the more agile one becomes.

About the Book Authors

Ron Meyer is professor of strategic leadership at Tias School for Business & Society, Tilburg University and managing director of the Center for Strategy & Leadership.



Ronald Meijers is senior partner Leadership, Transformation and Governance at Deloitte.

Rate this Article