What is a Telling Leadership Style?

A telling leadership style is a high task behavior, low relationship behavior approach to leadership that helps followers who are both intimidated and inexperienced with the tasks they are responsible to perform. A leader who employs this style of leadership is highly focused on providing the direction necessary regarding what needs to be done, as well as a detailed account of how it needs to be accomplished.

A telling leadership style is a “short-term approach” intended to “create movement”.  If a follower lacks task specific experience or skill as well as the confidence necessary to act, the leader needs to tell them what to do; how to do it; when to do it; etc.  When the follower implements that guidance, the leader needs to be close by in order to provide recognition and reinforcement for tangible progress.

What does a telling leadership style look like?

The leader:

  • Provides specifics- who, what, where, when and how
  • Defines the action(s) to be taken
  • Does most of the talking (one-way communication)
  • Makes decisions
  • Closely supervises and asks, “clarity questions” (“do you have any questions about what we’ve just reviewed”?)

Key Indicators of when to use a telling leadership style:

The individual:

  • Is not currently performing the task at an acceptable level
  • Is noticeably intimidated by the task
  • Is unclear about what to do
  • Procrastinates
  • Avoids the task
  • Becomes defensive when asked about the task

Situational Leadership® and a telling leadership style:

Situational Leadership® refers to a telling style as S1 (or Style 1). At The Center for Leadership Studies, we believe that a leader needs to adapt their approach based on the current performance of the person they are trying to influence. Situational Leaders are constantly shifting between one of the four styles with each person they influence on a task-by-task basis.

Based on the above indicators for the individual, we would identify them as R1 (or Readiness Level 1). This means the individual is unable and insecure or unmotivated to complete the task at a sustained and acceptable level. Once a Situational Leader has assessed an individual to be R1 for a specific task, the leader should provide the necessary direction and closely supervise the follower in an effort to identify progress.

An example of using S1 or a telling leadership style correctly:

A manager approaches a recently hired employee who has yet to attend a company picnic (and is noticeably intimidated about the prospect of organizing one) and provides detailed instructions on what to do and how to proceed.

An example of using S1 or a telling leadership style incorrectly:

A manager approaches a tenured employee who has successfully organized the company picnic in the past (and truly enjoyed the responsibility) and provides detailed instructions.

Understanding the benefits of a telling style of leadership is relatively straightforward.  Knowing both how and when to use one is significantly more difficult!  In that context, the real job of any leader is to identify what style of leadership a follower needs for a given situation.  Consider Situational Leadership® as a timing mechanism that helps leaders determine when … to do what in that regard!