Leadership Styles

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify leadership styles

We’ve already talked about how personality traits, behaviors and situations (and response to those situations) affect leadership. But what about style? Every leader has their own personal approach. In fact, one might assume that there are as many leadership styles as there are leaders.

Traditional Leadership Styles

Leadership style is a leader’s approach to providing direction, implementing plans, and motivating people. In 1939, psychologist Kurt Lewin and a team of researchers determined that there were three basic leadership styles: Authoritarian (Autocratic), Participative (Democratic) and Delegative (Laissez-Faire). They put these three leadership styles into action with a group of school children charged with the completion of a craft project to determine responses to the leadership styles.

Authoritarian (Autocratic) Leadership

decorative imageA leader who adopts the authoritarian style dictates policy and procedure, and directs the work done by the group without looking for any meaningful input from them. The group led by an authoritarian would be expected to complete their tasks under close supervision.

Researchers found there was less creativity under an authoritarian leadership style, but the children were still productive.

While authoritarian leadership sounds stifling, it has its place: it’s best applied to situations where there is little time for group decision making, or when the leader has expertise that the rest of the group does not. When authoritarian leadership strays into areas where it’s not needed, it can create dysfunctional environments where followers are the “good guys” and domineering leaders the “bad guys.”

Participative (Democratic) Leadership

Group members feel engaged in the decision making process when they have a participative leader. Those leaders practicing the participative leadership style offer guidance to the group, as for their input in decision making but retain final say. Participative leaders make their group feel like they’re part of a team, which creates commitment within the group.

Lewin’s researchers found that the participative style of leadership yielded the most desirable results with the school children and their craft project. They weren’t quite as productive as the children in the authoritarian group, but their work was a higher quality.

There are drawbacks to the participative style. If roles within the group are unclear, participative leadership can lead to communication failures. If the group is not skilled in the area in which they’re making decisions, poor decisions could be the result.

Delegative (Laissez-Faire) Leadership

Leaders practicing the delegative leadership style are very hands-off. They offer little or no guidance to their group and leave decision making up to the group. A delegative leader will provide the necessary tools and resources to complete a project and will take responsibility for the group’s decisions and actions, but power is basically handed over to the group.

Lewin and his team found that the group of children trying to complete the craft project under the delegative leader were the least productive. They also made more demands of their leader, were unable to work independently and showed little cooperation.

The delegative style is particularly appropriate for a group of highly skilled workers, and creative teams often value this kind of freedom. On the other hand, this style does not work well for a group that lacks the needed skills, motivation or adherence to deadlines, and that can lead to poor performance.

As you might have guessed, further research has yielded more leadership styles than the original three that Lewin and his team identified in 1939. Still, Lewin’s studies were influential in establishing a starting point for this kind of research. Let’s take a look at some additional leadership styles proposed by researchers since Lewin developed his original framework.

Transactional Leadership

Transactional leadership is a set of activities that involve an exchange between followers and leader and deal with daily tasks (Bass, 1990). Transactional leadership deals with those day-to-day tasks that get the job done. The majority of models we talked about in the last section—Fiedler’s Contingency Theory, Path-Goal among them—are based on the concept of this exchange between leaders and followers. The leader provides followers with direction, resources and rewards in exchange for productivity and task accomplishment.

Charismatic Leadership

Illustration of a man in a suit holding a cell phoneCharismatic leaders don’t doubt their own decisions, they move forward unwaveringly and believe that the decisions they make are the correct ones. They move through a crowd of their followers shaking hands and lending an encouraging word. They are undeniably clear on their expectations and where they see the company going. They have mastered the art of developing images for themselves that others want to emulate. Charismatic leaders have four common personality traits (Conger, Kanungo, 1998):

  • High degree of confidence and lack of internal conflict
  • High energy and enthusiasm
  • Good communication skills
  • Good image and role model

The relationship between charismatic leader and followers is an emotional one (this can sometimes go awry—just think about the relationship between the leaders and followers in a cult). In order for a charismatic leader to be effective, the situation has to be right. There are four situations required for a charismatic leader to have success:

  • Organization is in a time of crisis or stress.
  • Organization is in need of change.
  • There is opportunity for the organization to have new goals or direction.
  • Availability of dramatic symbols (like the CEO taking a pay cut or donating his salary to charity)

Culturally speaking, those cultures with a tradition of prophetic salvation (e.g., Christianity, Islam) are more welcoming of the charismatic leader, while cultures without prophetic tradition are less likely to embrace them.

In spite of a limited amount of scientific study where charismatic leaders are concerned, researchers agree there are applications and lessons to be learned out of this type of leadership. Leaders should have belief in their own actions. They should seek to develop bonds with their followers. And they must be able to communicate their messages clearly.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership takes a chapter out of the book of charismatic leadership. (Bass, 1990) Followers admire and are inspired to act. But the transformational leadership concept takes that one step further and expects intellectual stimulation from a leader, as well as individual consideration, in which a leader singles out followers and provides them with additional motivation.

Transformational leaders motivate and teach with a shared vision of the future. They communicate well. They inspire their group because they expect the best from everyone and hold themselves accountable as well. Transformational leaders usually exhibit the following traits:

  • Integrity
  • Self-awareness
  • Authenticity
  • Empathy

Measuring a leader’s ability to inspire and enable is a challenge, so researchers rely on anecdotes to supply data. This makes scientific study difficult. And even though this theory emphasize leadership behavior, it’s difficult to determine how a leader can learn to be charismatic and transformational.

Servant Leadership

If you’ve read up on the Southwest Airlines organization, then you already understand the concept of servant leadership – they profess to practice it daily. A “servant leader” is someone, regardless of their level on the corporate hierarchy, who leads by meeting the needs of the team. (Greenleaf, 1970)

Values are important in the world of servant leadership, and those that lead within this network do so with generosity of spirit. Servant leaders can achieve power because of their ideals and ethics.

Practice Question

Learn More

There are many more leadership styles out there to be studied. Daniel Goleman, et. al., has written extensively about the concept of emotional intelligence in business, and he and his team review six emotional leadership styles in their book Primal Leadership. Flamholtz and Randle proposed a leadership style matrix in 2007 which measures the quality of people on a team versus the quality of the task to determine which leadership style is most appropriate.

By understanding various frameworks of leadership and how they work, those who are stepping up to lead can develop their own approaches to leadership and be more effective.


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