Matching one’s leadership style to the environment

Posted in Leading an Organization
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leadership style

One’s leadership style many seem relatively unchangeable. It should not be. David Maister wrote a short but insightful chapter on “Partnership Governance.” He sets up the discussion about one’s leadership style by noting that:

Democracies flourish when the nation is at peace and the harvest is bountiful—as, historically, was the environment of the professions in the post-World War II era. However, when war is declared or the crops fail, even the most ardent democracy selects a government that will direct the troops and tell factories what to produce. The style, if not the structure, of government changes. The national purpose calls for more centralized power, more authoritative (if not authoritarian) behavior. 

David Maister. (2007). Managing the Professional Service Organization. Free Press.

At the national level

On 9/11/2001, a terrorist attack changed the USA. Americans were quite willing to suspend due process. The use of extreme methods of interrogation seemed acceptable. Many felt that all was fine as long as authorities “kept us safe.”

The same is true in all organizations. When members perceive they are under attack, they want strong leaders who will take charge. All resources must be marshaled toward acceptable objectives. And when there is no threat, we want inclusion in all discussions. And when at peace, we want our opinions to weigh heavily in the deliberations.

Here is another sad example: Suspending the right of due process: Japanese-American Relocation during World War II.

We need to shift

Leadership styles need to change. And sometimes perhaps governance structures must change too. This requires leaders to accurately read how the organization’s members are perceiving threats. Then we need to appropriately adjust based on those perceptions. To underestimate or overestimate a perceived threat is to risk members’ discontent. Grumbling or even rebellion against the leader’s direction is not uncommon. And in severe situations, members will leave the organization.

This need for adjustments presents us with three challenges: how to stay attuned to members’ perceptions of threat, how to accurately adjust one’s style to fit the perceived threat level, then how to keep others up to speed.

Staying attuned to staff

There were long periods of my leadership where I miserably failed to stay attuned to my staff. There were “good reasons” or so they seemed to me at the time. I was busy producing therapy, marketing, and running a practice. And the staff was very competent. I rationalized that they did not need my guidance, understanding, or support, a convenient self-deception. The result was that I did not take the time to know my staff.

I know that I hurt many of my employees by my neglect. My leadership style failed them. In the worst cases, my neglect led to painful separations. Some were hurt when I would give direction without having adequately listening. I now see that, had we invested the time to understand each other, many of these tensions might have been solved with far less disappointment and pain.

A painful experience

Our leadership team had a painful experience that changed us. The situation was this. We failed to provide adequate guidance. We did not yet have a regular meeting with each new person. Sadly a new hire was making mistakes with clients and with referrers. We were not monitoring. We did not catch it to correct the errors. Eight months passed and we chose to fire this person. But of course, not all the errors were on this employee’s part. We had not set things up well.

Not long after that, we began planning for what became our Associate Staff program. In essence, this is a structured way for every new clinician who was joining us to have a monthly two-hour meeting with the owner of the practice. These meetings happen in a group setting for a minimum of a year. The meetings center on laying out who we are, how we do things, and why we do things that way. Eventually, we developed criteria for what was required to be promoted to Senior Staff.

Leading through meetings

Additionally, we realized that every clinician needed a clinical and administrative supervisor, often the same person but not always. We instituted regular weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly supervision meetings. The frequency was negotiated with each clinician and usually based on their experience level and length of time with the organization. These meetings assured us that each clinician had an individual relationship with one of our leaders and vice versa.

Our individual meetings serve many functions–clinical supervision and case consultation as well as a place for sorting out schedule changes, hearing any grievances, or for coaching on how to make the system work. Most importantly these provided space for developing mutual support. We found we needed the relationships that grew out of the regular meetings to lay the foundation for dealing with the ripples that might develop over time. No matter how well a relationship begins, the wear and tear needs to be monitored and worked on. These provided a place for that work.

And of course, it was in these meetings that the leadership team had its chance to take stock of the degree to which clinicians’ anxieties might be growing. This is where the first conversations occurred concerning what appropriate responses might be helpful. Sometimes information might be shared that would help ease the anxiety being expressed. Sometimes the concern was large enough to be brought to the leadership team for consideration. I cannot overestimate how important these one-on-one meetings have been in guiding our leaders to better decisions that are good for all. (For more on how we use meetings to build community see: How we use regular meetings to build our culture.)

Adjusting leadership styles

I once used the analogy of our organization as a giant city bus, one driving through hazardous terrain. Not everyone on the bus had equal awareness of the hazards. But as the driver of the bus, my job was to find a way through the hazards.

Actually I was quite proud of the analogy until someone said, “Yes, but sometimes it seems like a herky-jerky ride.” Crestfallen I had to admit to myself that it was a pretty bumpy ride at times. Between the road’s bumpiness and my “swerving” around things, it had to be a pretty tough ride.


I still think the analogy still works pretty well. As leaders, we should be constantly adjusting. But I also needed to be good at communicating why the adjustments are occurring. My failure was as much about not communicating as my driving. Failing to communicate makes me seem like their ride seems out-of-control and erratic. And for no apparent reason. 

But if I listen to my staff well, have a good relationship with them, and do a good job of communicating why I am making the changes I am, then my staff will follow and give me quite a bit of leeway. But if I fail at any of these three, the ride will feel bumpy and I will hear more complaints. 


Change is necessary in an organization and no two days are the same. Staying attuned to staff, building good relationships with staff, that is mandatory no matter what our leadership style is. And then communicate clearly, directly, and with honesty. Your leadership style will provide the best ride for them on the bus you are driving. 

Also read:

Recruiting the best employees for your mental health practice

Conducting excellent job interview for clinical staff

The training we never had— Managing

Managing leadership

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