Common Leadership Styles and how to decide which is best for you

What is leadership?

A simple definition of leadership is the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal. This occurs through many mechanisms such as decision making, inspiration, collaboration, communication and coaching.

Leaders aren’t born, they are made. History is full of examples of leaders who had no previous leadership experience but stepped forward in moments of crisis and lead their followers on to success.

Leaders aren’t born, they are made.

Leadership versus Management

The terms "leadership" and "management" tend to be used interchangeably. Often, “management” is shown as an old, outdated way of doing things while “leadership” is shown as the superior and more modern way of doing things. This really comes down to how you define the terms and you’ll notice that everyone has their own definition.

When we refer to “management”, we refer to a company's management structure as its leadership, or to individuals who are managers as the "leaders" of various management teams. As we saw above, leadership is a higher level and broader concept that encompasses any scenario where there are leaders and followers that have a common goal.

The 3 main leadership styles

In 1939, a group of researchers led by the psychologist Kurt Lewin set out to identify different styles of leadership. While further research has identified more styles of leadership, these initial three have remained highly influential. These styles focus mainly on how decisions are made by teams. The identified styles were:

Autocratic Leadership

Authoritarian leaders provide clear directions on what should be done, who should do it and how it should be done. In other words, the leader makes all the decisions without input and the followers must merely execute their orders.

This style is best applied in situations where time is short or where the team is inexperienced. It will, however, create dysfunctional teams in the long run as followers begin to see their leader as controlling or bossy. It is thus only rarely effective.

This style is often unfairly shown in a negative light. While it is not the best choice for most situations it must be stressed that it still has its place as a useful leadership style.

Democratic Leadership (or Participative Leadership)

As the name implies, this style uses a democratic approach in decision making. Leaders using this style will offer guidance to followers but will also ask the followers for input on decisions and lead debates. These leaders will encourage followers to participate but will still make the final decision.

This style makes followers feel like part of the team and there is emotional buy-in towards the group’s goals. This makes it a good choice as a default style for leaders to use.

Lassez-Fair (or Delegative Leadership)

Lassez-Fair is French for free-rein. It is a hands-off approach to leadership whereby the leader remains responsible for the decisions but lets their followers make all the decisions. This typically occurs in high trust teams where the followers are closer to the problem and can act on it faster than if the leader got involved.

This style can be very effective in certain scenarios or when used with highly developed teams.

Situational Leadership

As you have likely realised, there are no bad styles of leadership amongst these first three. They are simply to be used in the right circumstance.
As a leader consider 3 possible scenarios:

  • There is a crisis at the office, and you are at risk of losing a client. Time is short and only your junior staff are available today. The Authoritarian Style might be best here because of the lack of time and experience in the time available to you. It would be acceptable to just give orders for today to save the client. You could always do a post-mortem session with your team after the crisis is over to turn it into a learning opportunity.
  • An old product is failing in the market and needs to be reworked over the next few months with many decisions needing to be made. You have lots of time here and need lots of creative input to make this project a success, so it makes sense to use a highly collaborative style of leadership such as Democratic Leadership. You can host information-gathering sessions and debates before finally deciding on how to update the product as a leader.
  • You run a consulting business with many remote and highly experienced teams. The client of one of your remote teams contacts you about an issue they’re having with a project which they need your assistance on. In this scenario, your team is highly experienced and is closer to the client than you are. It is probably best to use the Delegative Style to let them solve the issue and make decisions with some guidance from your side.

The above thinking leads to the development of Situational Leadership which considers two concepts: Leadership itself and the development level of the followers. This leads to 4 typical substyles which the leader must master and select from based on the development level of their followers:

  • 1. Telling (S1) – Leaders make decisions and communicate them to others. They create roles and objectives and expect others to accept them.
  • 2. Selling (S2) – These leaders may create the roles and objectives for others, but they are also open to suggestions and opinions. They “sell” their ideas to others in order to gain cooperation.
  • 3. Participating (S3) – These leaders leave the decisions to their followers. Although they may participate in the decision-making process, the ultimate choice is left to their followers.
  • 4. Delegating (S4) – These leaders are still responsible for their teams and decisions but provide minimum guidance to their followers for solving problems. They trust their teams to make the decisions and are only occasionally asked for assistance.

More Leadership Styles

The first three styles we looked at (being Autocratic, Democratic and Lassez-Faire) focused primarily on who makes decisions and power distance between leaders and teams. More recently, management styles have emerged that encompass more aspects of leadership such as coaching, motivation and vision.

Charismatic Leadership

Leaders who apply charismatic leadership attract large and wide groups of people through charm and sheer charisma. They are confident, self-motivated and typically have excellent communication skills and are highly persuasive. They have attractive personalities and are excellent at articulating a captivating vision because they know how to appeal to people’s emotions.
This style has drawbacks, though. Chief among them is that the impact of such a style is only present while the leader is around. The leader is also the one driving the group forward and thus the impact of the group is lost if that guidance is removed, even in the short term.

Servant Leadership

Servant Leadership was coined by Robert Greenleaf in the 1970s. Leaders who practice this style don’t focus on managing people directly for results, they focus on designing environments that allow people to create desired results.

There are many key themes in this style such as:

  • A focus on serving others rather than self-interest.
  • Using influence instead of authority.
  • Listening rather than giving orders.
  • Long-term thinking instead of short-term thinking.
  • A focus on collaboration and respect.

Simon Sinek gave a brilliant Ted Talk on Why good leaders make you feel safe that speaks to Servant Leadership.

Transactional Leadership

This is a style in which leaders are highly focused on present conditions and being responsive to exceptions. These leaders are not looking to change things but rather to keep things operating in the same way and delivering results. They use a carrot and stick approach to reward or punish their followers. Work tasks start to feel like transactions: “If you do this, you will get that.” This is where the name comes from.

This style is contrasted against Transformational Leadership. This type of leadership is effective in crisis and emergency situations, as well as for projects that need to be carried out in a specific way.

Transformational Leadership

This style is used by leaders to identify needed change, creating a vision, guiding the change through inspiration and executing the change alongside committed followers. These leaders use a full range of mechanisms to drive change with their followers including connecting followers’ sense of identity and self to a project and to the collective identity of the organisation, being a role model for followers so as to inspire their interest in the project and understanding followers’ deeply so as best to challenge them and enhance their performance.

It is a highly effective leadership style which is extremely relevant in the modern world which faces constant change.

This style is contrasted against Transactional Leadership as part of the Full Range Leadership Model.

Final Thoughts

There is no simple answer to what leadership style you should follow because there are more variables to consider. As a leader, it is better to understand all the styles and when to apply them. Consider learning a model such as the Situational Leadership Model or the Full Range of Leadership Model which make it easier to apply your learnings in the workplace and give you a growth path for your leadership journey.

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