What is formative leadership?
Formative leaders help their employees identify their unique strengths and weaknesses and link them to their personal and professional aspirations. They encourage employees to set long-term development goals and help them devise a plan to achieve them. They reach agreements with them about their role and responsibility in executing the development plans, and provide them with instruction and feedback. Those who practice the concept of formative leadership are excellent at delegating; they give employees challenging assignments, even if that means the tasks will not be accomplished immediately. In other words, the formative leader is willing to put up with short term failures if it will enhance people’s learning and growth in the long term.
How to use formative leadership?
Let’s look at the following case as an example in which a supervisor used the formative leadership style to recompose a situation in which a conflict of interest developed within the company.
A production line of an electronics components company had been affected by low sales of the product it manufactured. As a result, the company decided to close that line and reassign its employees to other lines. Armando, the supervisor in charge of the entire area, reinstated the shift leader and the five operators of the recently closed line among the other six lines in the same area. Luis, the leader, was incorporated into a line where a totally different product was being manufactured. For this reason, he was reassigned as an operator and not as a team leader. Upon hearing the news, Luis decided to go over his boss’s head and plead his case with the union and the Human Resources department. Instead of becoming furious with Luis, he sat down with his rebellious direct subordinate and discussed with him not only the decision to close the line but Luis’ own future.
Armando explained how moving to a new process could help him develop new skills, make him a better leader and teach him more about the company’s products. He acted more like an advisor than a traditional boss. He listened to Luis’ concerns and motivations, and shared with him his own. He told her that he believed Luis had stopped growing stagnant in his current position; after all, it was the only place he had worked within the company. He predicted that Luis would flourish in the new role and help him continue to grow.
Then the conversation took a practical turn. Luis had not yet had the meeting with the union and the HR department, which he had impetuously requested when he learned that he would be moved to another area, not as a leader but as a production operator. With that knowledge – and also knowing that the union and Human Resources were resolutely supportive of passing him on as an operator – Armando took the time to coach Luis on how to present his case at that meeting. He advised him not to state his personal case, but to focus on the training he would need to support the new line. “If they think you’re there for your personal interests, they’ll fire you faster than you can walk through the door.” What was Armando’s reason for mentoring instead of scolding? “Luis is a good guy, very talented and promising”- thought Armando- “and I don’t want this to derail his career; I want him to stay in the company, to learn, to benefit and grow; even if he made a mistake, that doesn’t mean he is bad”.
Armando’s actions illustrate the concept of formative leadership par excellence. Many leaders say they do not have the time, in the fast pace of work, for the slow and tedious work of instructing people and helping them grow. But they are unaware that they are overlooking not only one of their main responsibilities, but also a powerful tool as they its impact on performance and productivity is markedly positive. Although it focuses primarily on personal development rather than training, it improves results because it requires constant dialogue that brings constructive and rapid feedback. Likewise, the constant dialogue inherent in this style ensures that people know what is expected of them and how their work fits into a broader vision or strategy. This affects accountability and clarity.
In terms of commitment, formative leadership is also helpful, because the implicit message of this style is “I believe in you, I am investing in you and I expect your best efforts”. Employees often rise to this challenge with heart, mind and soul.
Formative leadership, like any leadership style, has advantages and disadvantages . It works well in many situations, but is perhaps most effective when the people receiving it are willing to grow. For example, this style works particularly well when employees are already aware of their weaknesses and want to improve their performance. Similarly, it works well when employees realize that cultivating new skills can help them advance. In short, it works best with employees who want to be trained. In contrast, the formative style makes little sense when employees, for whatever reasons, are resistant to learning or changing their ways of working. It fails if the leader lacks the expertise to help the employee. The fact is that many leaders and supervisors are unfamiliar with this style, or are simply incapable of applying it, particularly when it comes to providing consistent performance feedback that motivates rather than creates fear or apathy.
In the book How to be a Leader, Daniel Golema makes a magnificent comparison between the six most effective leadership styles based on Emotional Intelligence skills, and teaches us how to use them to generate a positive impact on the emotional climate of the organization. It is one of the best leadership books of all time.
Summary of formative leadership
The leader’s modus operandi.
Develops people for the future.
Which phrase defines an affiliative leader?
Development of others, empathy, self-awareness, achievement orientation, initiative.
When does it work best?
To help someone improve performance or long-term strengths.
When does it not work?
When employees are resistant to learning and when the leader lacks the experience to provide coaching.
Overall impact on climate
|Introduction to the six leadership styles
|Coercive leadership style
|Democratic leadership style
|Guiding leadership style
|Affiliative leadership style
|Formative leadership style
|Exemplary leadership style
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Success and leadership belong to you by right. No matter where you are on the organizational chart or what your personal circumstances are, these books teach you how to take hold of your extraordinary strength. Be‧Líder recommends the 10 best books on leadership:
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- Leadership: the power of emotional intelligence
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