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The Way I See It… Leadership: Visionary, Popular or Sledgehammer?


Fraser Murray of Fairplace categorises different styles of leadership and assesses when each style is most successful.

I have observed some common patterns in ‘leadership styles’ and, before you ask, no my views are not statistically tested or validated - but I’m sure you’ll have come across these people in your company.

When a company is considering major change they often choose a trusted senior manager to lead the change or scour the external market for a mover and shaker to work their magic.

‘The Visionary’ is often hired to initiate a major change initiative. The process usually starts well and the doubters are won over as progress is made. ‘The Visionary’ often joined by individuals whose responsibility it is to understand, buy-in and translate strategy into everyday language while motivating all to embrace the vision.

This strategy involves working alongside team members, colleagues and customers to ensure the new vision is implemented successfully while maximizing the benefits and minimizing the downsides, particularly for the customer. If successful, ‘The Visionary’ is often moved to the next project. However, if the visionary stays they may be perceived as too strategic, not close enough to the reality of the change and get frustrated by rules, barriers, headcount restrictions, limiting processes and petty politics.

Mr/Ms Popular
‘Mr or Ms Popular’ the communicative leader brings clarity and focus to teams and often takes over the reigns from ‘The Visionary’ when the change initiative moves to the next phase. Such individuals see themselves as good leaders and people managers able to develop individuals and teams. This is often not far from the mark and teams would do almost anything to support them.

However, sometimes ‘M. Popular’ likes to be liked and does what feels best or what looks right, rather than what is right. They involve others, communicate well and expect others to trust them as they place an immense amount of trust in others including the relationship with their boss. Usually a useful characteristic but sometimes this trust can be misplaced. The weakness of this strategy shows itself when more analysis and challenge would bring better results.

‘The Sledgehammer’ comes into his or her own when the organisation forgets many of the improvements that have been delivered and the significant progress that has been made. Time to reflect is rare and even rarer in senior circles of power. New people, such as ‘The Sledgehammer’ come in and can quickly see how things could be better casting a critical eye over some of the existing practices without any knowledge or appreciation of where the team has come from.

If listened to our new turbo charged leader persuades senior managers that the period of change could have been managed better and that all is not well. Whilst usually right to some degree changes and restructures are usually considered essential this process also ensures the individual makes a mark in the organisation.

The decision makers decide that neither ‘The Visionary’ nor ‘Mr or Ms. Popular’ have followed through on the detailed implementation, so the old brigade exits and the decision makers turn to ‘The Sledgehammer’. This straight talking leader is far more detail conscious than their predecessors and consequently uncover all the things that are going wrong.

With extraordinary customer focus, processes are ruthlessly fixed, service improves, and savings often follow. The Board is usually impressed and so more power is given to the individual. However, eventually, the lack of charm, charisma and genuine caring for the team takes its toll and morale goes through the floor and eventually lots of new hires and long serving talent goes out the door. As opinion surveys and 360s highlight the weaknesses, the decision makers feel compelled to take action and, once again, the end of an era prevails.

At this point the whole cycle may start again as the feeling is that hiring a Visionary is the only way forward.

So, what are the options open to companies?

The truth is that I have yet to see ‘The Visionary’ who is a fantastic strategic thinker, with the charm and exceptional communication skills of ‘M.Popular’, together with the detail conscious pragmatic implementation of ‘Sledgehammer’. Perhaps this could be the focus for the next ‘X Factor’ talent search!

However there are some steps that can be taken to maximise on strengths while minimising on limitations.

Options include:
(a) Finding a candidate who, if challenged, will accept the weaknesses in their personal style
(b) Accepting the cycles and planning the necessary skills for each phase
(c) Finding ways to access the strengths of each type of leader throughout the whole change initiative - from initial inception, through to detailed implementation

Coaching is a tool that can assist in such situations, as the Coach is able to add value and challenge where the individual is weak. The team can remain focused, motivated, the vision is kept alive, the stakeholders and sponsors are kept on-side and the right stones are overturned earlier in the process. Where possible companies would benefit from considering some form of “Transition Coaching” to help leaders settle into new roles. Coaching assists individuals develop additional skills as well as building on individual strengths.

All of the leadership types can benefit from coaching and each brings considerable value to any organisation if the individual is positioned in the right place at the right time and offered the right kind of support.


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