When it comes to leadership styles, context is king

Reviewing the seven classic leadership styles and introducing the SOOT mnemonic to identify leadership contexts


By Derrick Phillips

Over the years, I have had many conversations with fire service professionals regarding leadership. The conversations are always animated, partly because leadership itself is ill-defined, and there are many competing schools of thought on the subject.

To simplify the subject, many leaders lock in on one leadership style. The problem here is twofold. First, leadership does not have a one-size-fits-all solution. Second, leaders are choosing a leadership style that suits them, not the people whom they are trying to lead.

How can one leadership style influence, motivate and enable people with differing characteristics?
How can one leadership style influence, motivate and enable people with differing characteristics? (Photo/Getty)

While I understand the impulse to simplify, we must recognize that people are inherently different in their knowledge, skills, abilities and motivations. This begs the question, how can one leadership style influence, motivate and enable people with differing characteristics? The simple answer is that it cannot. By focusing on a particular leadership style, many leaders overlook the more important aspect of the context in their efforts to lead.

With this as our backdrop, let’s first consider the benefits and challenges of popular leadership styles in the fire service. I’ll then review the mnemonic SOOT to identify various contexts that apply to leaders and recommend how to use the proposed contextual markers to aid in identifying appropriate leadership styles for specific circumstances.

Leadership styles

Vineet Nayar defines leadership as the “ability to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute toward [individual and] organizational success.” A leadership style refers to leaders’ methods to influence, motivate and enable their followers.

As you might expect, there are many leadership styles, all of which have benefits and challenges.

  1. Transactional leaders use extrinsic rewards for success and punishment for failure.
    • Benefits – eliminates confusion because the leader identifies tasks and expectations.
    • Challenges – may stifle creativity and innovation; fixation on short-term goals; does not motivate employees who value intrinsic rewards.
  2. Transformational leaders seek to transform their groups or organization by inspiring and empowering their followers to take ownership of organizational objectives.
    • Benefits – values personal team connections; establishes a high level of trust; rallies individuals around shared visions and goals.
    • Challenges – individual wins may go unnoticed due to organizational outlook; lack of detail; may upset those trying to maintain the status quo.
  3. Servant leaders emphasize employee morale by prioritizing the needs of others over their needs.
    • Benefits – boosts morale; improves trust; fosters positive organizational culture; improves employee development.
    • Challenges – feeling a constant need to sacrifice self for others; may have difficulty being more authoritative when the need arises; placing others over self is not second nature.
  4. Democratic leaders emphasize input from others and use a more collaborative approach to decision-making.
    • Benefits – encourages creativity and innovation; employees feel valued because they are empowered to aid in decision-making.
    • Challenges – inefficient due to the need to attain consensus; may create social pressure for members to conform to the ideas of members with strong personalities.
  5. Autocratic leaders focus squarely on results and efficiency while limiting input from others who may be affected. Autocratic leaders make decisions alone and expect their followers to follow their orders to the letter.
    • Benefits – promotes productivity; relieves employees of the burden of making decisions; works well with inexperienced employees who need more direct guidance.
    • Challenges – creates resentment from subordinate personnel because they do not have a role in making decisions.
  6. Laissez-faire leaders use a hands-off approach by delegating tasks to members with little supervision. To support their personnel, they provide the necessary resources but leave the problem-solving and decision-making to the members.
    • Benefits – empowers personnel who are self-motivated; creates a more relaxed work environment; fosters creativity and innovation.
    • Challenges – does not work well with inexperienced employees; creates confusion and chaos due to a lack of structure; may limit team development.
  7. Situational leaders adapt their leadership styles to reflect the context of the situation and to meet the needs of the team on an individual basis.
    • Benefits – effective motivator; consistent feedback; can adapt to changing contexts and individual talent and motivation; encompasses several leadership styles in one.
    • Challenges – leaders need a high level of understanding of departmental processes and functions; may be stressful to the followers due to constantly changing styles; must balance the immediate and long-term needs of the organization.

Leadership context – SOOT

The mnemonic SOOT is an easy way to remember the top four contexts that fire service leaders may have to use to identify appropriate leadership styles. SOOT stands for Self, One-to-One, Organizational, and Team contexts.

The mnemonic SOOT is an easy way to remember the top four contexts that fire service leaders may have to use to identify appropriate leadership styles. SOOT stands for Self, One-to-One, Organizational, and Team contexts.
The mnemonic SOOT is an easy way to remember the top four contexts that fire service leaders may have to use to identify appropriate leadership styles. SOOT stands for Self, One-to-One, Organizational, and Team contexts.

S: Self-leadership context: Andrew Bryant writes in “Self-Leadership: How to Become a More Successful, Efficient, and Effective Leader from the Inside Out,” “Self-leadership is the practice of intentionally influencing your thinking, feelings, and actions toward your objective/s.” Obviously, this context revolves around leading yourself, and in turn, being a model for others to emulate. One cannot be an effective leader of others if one cannot lead themselves.

To master this context, leaders should aspire to develop the following qualities:

  • Leading by example
  • Maintaining credibility by doing what you say you will do
  • Developing a shared vision and values
  • Losing the ego so you may empower others
  • Maintaining competency

This aligns with the perspective of James Kouzes and Barry Posner, who write in “The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations,” “The instrument of leadership is the self, and mastery of the art of leadership comes from mastery of the self.”

O: One-to-one leadership context: In the one-to-one context, leaders seek to help individual followers reach their peak performance, which also improves organizational performance. Operating in this context requires the leader to understand the needs and motivations of the individual. Everyone has different knowledge, skills and abilities. At the same time, they present different motivations for achievement. Consequently, the leader cannot rely on a single leadership style to lead their followers. In some situations, the leader may need to be more authoritative; in others, they may be more empowering or hands-off. Ultimately, understanding the individual dictates the leadership style.

In one-to-one situations, a leader may choose from transactional, servant, democratic, laissez-faire, autocratic or situational leadership styles. My personal preference is situational because it allows you to exploit further contexts and individual abilities to determine the best leadership approach.

O: Organizational leadership context: At the organizational level, leaders strive to shape the environment for the people working in an organization to achieve organizational goals. In this context, the leader must balance organizational goals with the happiness and motivations of the workers in mind. Any time there is a major change in an organization, it requires effective leadership. With that said, the leader needs to develop a shared vision, promote organizational values, and gain buy-in at every level of the organization.

The organizational leadership context is very complex and requires effective organizational leadership. Therefore, a transformational leadership style works best in this context.

T: Team leadership context: At the team level, leaders have the challenge of motivating and leading individuals with differing abilities to rely on each other to achieve team goals. In this context, leaders need to understand team dynamics, such as the four stages of psychological development every team goes through: forming, storming, norming and performing. In addition, the leader must consider the varying personalities of team members. Such personalities include dominant, compliant, influential or agreeable. With that understanding, and allowing the team dynamics to work their course, the leader can identify the best method for leading the team.

Team dynamics are complex and may be time-consuming at the outset of team development. Therefore, the leader may have to switch between many leadership styles to achieve team and organizational goals. On one hand, the leader may need to entice the team with rewards as in the transactional leadership style. On the other hand, the leader may be more hands-off (laissez-faire) once the team reaches the performing stage. Ultimately, the ability of the team dictates the leadership style. Therefore. In this context, a leader may use transactional, transformational, servant, democratic, laissez-faire or situational leadership styles.

Final thoughts

In the final analysis, leaders who focus on a singular leadership style are essentially trying (consciously or unconsciously) to force followers to conform to how they want to lead. This flawed concept fails to consider the motivations and readiness of the individual followers and fails to take into account the context in which they are leading. I urge you as leaders to reevaluate your thoughts on leadership, as context is more important than identifying with a specific leadership style that works for you alone.

About the Author

Deputy Chief Derrick Phillips is a 28-year veteran of the St. Louis Fire Department, where he serves as Operations Chief for the A-Shift, Administrative Chief, and the Commander of the Office of Homeland Security. He holds a Master of Arts in Security Studies from the Center for Homeland Defense & Security at the Naval Postgraduate School, and a Master of Public Administration from Arkansas State University.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are my own and are not of the official position of my agency.

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