by Alan Nelson
Most children and preteens use the same style of leading, over and over, without considering alternatives. The primary reason is that typically, no one has explained the multiple ways of leading and how certain styles fit specific situations. As young leader developers, teaching them that one size does not fit all is important, even though they assume their preferred way is the best.
A leader’s efficacy depends on his or her ability to choose the most productive style, based on the situation. One thing we teach in our young leader training curriculum is a multi-method style of empowering young leaders to make the right selection. The concept of situational leadership has been around awhile in the corporate realm, but here is an age-sized approach that will work for youth, ten years of age and up, so long as the child has an above average aptitude for leading. The four styles are Tell, Sell, Gel and Del.
Tell: The leader “tells” team members what it is he or she wants them to do, without significant interaction with the team such as gathering their ideas or feedback.
Strengths: Tell works well in situations where time is of the essence, the team may be less motivated or confident and when the leader is adequately informed and competent. As long as the leader is clear, communication is direct and to the point. During emergencies or highly urgent matters, Tell is preferred, but for short term use only.
Weaknesses: The downside of telling is that people do not like to be bossed. Therefore, when we use this style we run the risk of offending people on the team, who are less motivated to participate. Plus, leaders do not always select the best ideas. Most tellers use their ideas, limiting input from others.
Sell: The leader asks a few team members for ideas, selects the one that he or she thinks is the best, and then “sells” it to the team.
Strengths: Sell increases the support from team members who get to participate more than in Tell, improving the chances of using the best ideas, since more than one are discussed. The approach is still relatively efficient, though a bit longer than Tell.
Weaknesses: Leaders who choose this approach, but who do not use others’ ideas can be seen as insincere and manipulative. “You ask for our ideas, but never use them.” Another weakness is that the best ideas still may not come out, because of the limited time. When a majority does not participate, there is less buy in from the team and weaker commitment as a result.
Gel: The leader engages the team to participate, discuss ideas and then moves the team toward consensus. The leader helps the team “gel” toward a common strategy.
Strengths: Gel increases the likelihood that good ideas will emerge and be more thoroughly inspected. Team consensus improves. Members become owners of the process and not just renters, elevating commitment. Potential weaknesses are identified and hopefully avoided.
Weaknesses: This process takes a lot of time and can waste team effort in rabbit trails and discussing non-productive ideas. Too much time can result in lost opportunities. Another risk is that ideas can be hijacked by influential team members promoting their own agendas. Keeping Gel going in a healthy, productive manner takes good people skills.
Del: A leader may choose to “delegate,” transferring authority and sharing responsibility. Ultimate responsible still resides with the leader. Using Del to avoid leading and “dumping” responsibility should not be confused with true delegating. Expanding a leader’s influence through others and developing them is the essence of Del.
Strengths: Be careful not to overuse Del in young leader development, because it can become a scapegoat to avoid difficult work in leading. Del is a more sophisticated style that empowers a young leader to develop others and share power, authority and reward.
Weaknesses: As mentioned, Del can be a means of avoiding responsibility and a wild card to blame others, producing holes when accountability is lacking.
Here are four brief descriptions where a certain style of leadership is most appropriate. Read these to the students after introducing Sitch Leading and see if they can determine what style fits best.
- You have to come up with a presentation at a school assembly next week and there is a three-day weekend. You need to create a skit to explain what your student council does to serve others.
- You are at team practice after school and one of the members gets hit hard with a baseball and has a bloody nose. The coach is not there yet.
- You are planning a school-wide program for each class to go green. You will be working with clubs, classroom reps and even the adult staff in order to implement these policies.
- You are attending a summer retreat and are in charge of leading a session to plan student council sponsored events for the coming school year.
- Sell: Time is limited, but you want to create ownership and try to come up with good ideas for your presentation.
- Tell: There is no time to stand around and talk about what to do. Someone needs to take charge: “Kelsie, get ice.” “Jill, go call the coach!” “Who has a phone if we need to call 911?”
- Del: You have got time and you are going to need a lot of other leaders to pull off this school-wide effort.
- Gel: You have time and need to be sure that your council has consensus on what it is going to sponsor, so you can improve the chances of ongoing support.
When coaching young leaders, we have found that one of the most important training tactics is for the adult sponsor to push the “pause” button at the beginning of a new project or even a meeting. The goal of this is to provide self-awareness as to possible styles for leading before the team leader automatically launches into his or her preferred style. “Okay, Jesse, what are the four ways that you could lead this team today? Which one do you think what be most effective in this situation? What are the potential risks and benefits?” Obviously, you will need to word this according to the student’s age and experience, but we commonly do this for ages ten and up, after the student has received an orientation. A good debrief time at the end might go like this: “What leadership style did Jesse use today?” “Why do you think that?” “How was the style effective?” “Would another style have work as well?” “Why do you think that?”
While you are at it, you may even want to use this lesson for your adult leaders and church staff, since it is every bit as pertinent for them as well.
Alan E. Nelson, EdD (Monterey, CA) was a senior pastor for twenty years and is the founder of KidLead Inc. (www.kidlead.com), a non-profit providing young leader training curriculum globally. He is a lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School and the author of “Growing Great Leaders.”