Leadership is a tricky subject. It is easy to recognise good leadership, yet it is elusive when you try to define it. Over the past century many have attempted to understand what makes a successful leader. The resulting plethora of theories and frameworks both complement and contradict one another. We have further explored some of these different theories in our article Theories and Frameworks of Leadership. While the variety of theories helps build a greater appreciation of what successful leadership means, it can become overwhelming and confusing. This article aims to help you cut through the mass of theories by identifying some of the commonly proposed leadership styles.
A Spectrum of Five Leadership Styles
We have taken Kurt Lewin’s theory on leadership and separated the democratic leadership style into three separate styles. The result is a spectrum of leadership styles that range from authoritarian leadership at one end to laissez-faire at the other extreme. Note that this is not an official theory, rather a compilation of theories.
As described in the articles Emotional Intelligence and Adaptive Leadership, it is both unlikely and undesirable that a leader will fit firmly into one style. Use these broad definitions to help your understanding of leadership, but do not let them define or limit it.
Description: Commands are issued in a top-down fashion from a leader with full control over workload and responsibility. Decisions are made without the input of subordinates. Everyone is expected to adhere to commands and the timelines imposed. Leaders should not be questioned, but they may occasionally explain their thinking.
Advantages: Useful in crisis where quick and assertive decisions are needed.
Limitations: Usually counterproductive and will quickly foster dissent. Honest and open communication is not encouraged, while responsibility, autonomy, creativity and innovation are removed from individuals.
Procedural (Bureaucratic or Managerial)
Description: Leaders place faith in rules and regulations. Found in organisations with strongly established policies and procedures that have been built up over time. They thrive where the policies are sensible and open to refinement. Leaders may be thought of as managers.
Advantages: Works well if strict processes must be carefully followed in order to achieve desired results.
Limitations Ineffective where procedures are out-dated or not open to examination and refinement. Defined roles limit freedom to innovate while suggestions for improvement may be ignored if they conflict with current policies. These limitations may lead to disillusionment, particularly when individuals are aware of them.
Transformational (Facilitating or Charismatic)
Description Leaders present a strong vision for the organisation and set goals to make it a reality. They keep individuals just beyond their comfort zone and encourage continuous progress (transformation). They achieve this by using goals that become more challenging or using increasingly tight deadlines. Leaders and team members motivate one another towards higher levels of performance, while constant course correction ensures the vision remains on path to becoming a reality.
Advantages Individuals have a large amount of freedom to achieve their goals and leaders will help them perform at levels suited to their individual capabilities. Leaders also motivate their team by showing them what they are capable of. Teams are both happy and engaged.
Limitations Leaders risk losing sight of individual learning curves resulting in lost training opportunities and stressed or demotivated team members. A level of vigilance is required to ensure bespoke goals and deadlines remain on track. This style is ineffective if tasks are inappropriately easy or too difficult. Leaders may also get caught up in the big picture and neglect smaller details.
Description Leaders involve team members in the decision-making process before making the final decision. Decisions may be unilaterally taken by the leader or may follow from a vote. Final tasks are delegated downwards after evaluation from the leadership. This style works well when expertise is distributed throughout an organisation.
Advantages Individuals feel trusted within an environment that fosters shared ownership of the organisation and its achievements. Team members are able to strengthen their participatory skills and can exercise authority.
Limitations Difficulties arise if the leadership is unable to maintain effective control of discussions or if individuals do not engage in a meaningful way.
Laissez-Faire (Delegative or Servant)
Description Leaders provide the overall direction of decisions and create an environment suited to achievement of goals. Individuals have the authority to decide the most efficient way to work and are empowered to make their own decisions. The underlying processes and decisions are largely determined by the ideas and skills of the team. This style requires continual monitoring of team performance and the use of regular feedback.
Advantages Works well where team members are motivated, capable and willing or within non-hierarchical organisations where expertise is widely distributed. It allows individuals to contribute to the direction of the organisation.
Limitations Leaders may appear uninvolved and aloof. Productivity can quickly breakdown into malaise when motivation wanes and strategic critical growth opportunities may be overlooked. Team members may unwittingly drift away from critical organisational goals.
Other Leadership Styles
The spectrum of leadership styles described above provides a basis from which to understand leadership. However, it neglects to include features found in other proposed leadership styles. Below are listed four additional styles which have also been used to describe leaders.
Description Leaders base decisions upon team member input and work hard to build consensus before choosing a course of action. Leaders make the final decision and will share any information that affects an individuals’ work or responsibilities. This has been separated into procedural, transformational and participative leadership above.
Advantages Lower-level team members are able to exercise authority they may require in later roles. Team members are encouraged to grow and develop while the democratic style promotes trust, cooperation, team spirit and creativity.
Limitations Decisions may take time as achieving consensus is time-consuming. Team members may pick sides and entrench themselves into opposing factions.
Description Leaders use rewards and/or punishments to shape the actions of team members toward the completion of pre-determined goals. Individuals are rewarded for the precise work they do and are punished for mistakes or undesirable actions.
Advantages Achievable goals are created for team members of all capabilities and individuals are motivated to maximise their productivity. It fosters a clear structure in which everyone knows their role. The resultant system is easy to understand and motivation is easily enforced.
Disadvantages Individuals are encouraged to do only what they are compensated for, thus only complete the bare-minimum work. They are afraid of being punished for mistakes and will therefore take fewer risks. This limits innovation and reduces opportunities to develop new skills or promote individuality. Disciplinary action places blame on individuals and leads to high levels of dissatisfaction. This leadership style does not create leaders from within the team.
Description Leaders value results more than anything else. They set an example of high performance, high pace and high quality. Leaders will push their team to work hard to achieve these expectations. It works well with small like-minded teams and promotes self-regulation.
Advantages Goals are quickly achieved, and issues swiftly addressed. Highly skilled teams operate to the best of their abilities.
Limitations Work may become boring and repetitive, while feedback is reduced, and engagement can wither. Ultimately team members can become stressed and risk burnout in the long run.
Description Individuals are viewed as a reservoir of talent to be developed and nurtured. Leaders help team members realise their full potential while building supportive relationships that promote autonomy. They focus on helping individuals succeed in achieving their own long-term personal development goals. Leaders will identify the strengths and weaknesses of team members and offer guidance, provide bespoke tasks or give constructive feedback to promote individual development. Teamwork is strongly encouraged.
Advantages Creates a team where each individual has expertise in different skillsets and individuals are able to combine their unique skillsets in order to get the work done. Teams are engaged, strong relationships are established, and the future productivity of the team is improved.
Limitations Coaching requires a lot of time and patience. Coaches must be confident and suitably experienced to give meaningful advice. It requires commitment from individuals to self-development and they must be open to feedback.
Identify your Leadership Style
This is a bit of a misnomer. In the past, theorists postulated that a leader has a defined leadership style that is intrinsic to their nature. Modern theories dispute this and propose that a single leader can change their leadership style dependent upon the situation at hand in order to maximise efficacy. Thus, leadership should be viewed as a river which flows along the most natural path taking itself around obstacles and responding to situations as and when they occur.
Individuals often show a natural tendency to one or more leadership style; however, they are able to learn to use different styles effectively. The style you choose will determine how you are perceived by your team and therefore how they will respond to you. So how do you know what leadership style to use and when should you use it?
Begin by understanding your own strengths and weaknesses. Use the Johari Window tool to help gain a greater appreciation of yourself. Think about the qualities you display and the different skills you possess. Consider how they impact on your work as a leader and then ask yourself what is your preferred leadership style(s)? You may also consider taking a leadership style assessment which may be found online.
Understand Leadership Theories and Styles
Read our articles on Leadership Theories, Adaptive Leadership, Emotional Intelligence, Transformational Leadership and Power and Influence. Try to make sense of how the different theories complement one another and work to identify which parts resonate with you. Which theories or styles do your current skills predispose you towards? What skills do you need to develop?
Practice Leadership Styles
Leadership is a learned skill. The more you practice new behaviours, the more natural they become. Experiment and see what works well for you.
Practice Leadership Agility
As you familiarise yourself with different leadership styles, practice switching between styles in different settings. Emotional Intelligence is instrumental in knowing when and how to switch. You may use multiple styles across the course of a day. Reflect on your successes and failures. With time you will begin to appreciate the subtle nuances each style brings and when they might be best used.