Leadership Primer - 7 Leadership Styles

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Apr 15, 2019
a magnetic compass where true north is 'Leadership'


While leadership has been a topic of interest since the dawn of man, leadership and management studies as a discipline were taken up in the 19th century.  The Industrial Age began the renaissance for the development of leadership theory.  As the information age explodes around us, unique and more nimble leadership paradigms are unfolding.

Learning to be a leader has never been more popular. As proof, the leadership training industry is worth approximately $50 billion per year. But what does ‘leadership’ mean to you and what kind of leader are you?  

This article will examine 7 major leadership types.  We’ll also discuss a brief history of leadership theory, examine some definitions, review leadership styles in terms of their use, show where you can assess your own leadership traits and finally, we’ll take a peek into the future of leadership.

A Brief History of Leadership Theory

Let’s take a very quick trip down the memory lane of leadership development.  The history of leadership theory can be arranged in 4 historical periods.  The first period is Prehistory which is typified by a tribal arrangement where the tribesman becomes recognized for his work as a power hunter/gatherer.  It’s the strongman’s dream.

The second period is Early Western Civilization.  We begin to see cooler heads prevail.  However, ‘cooler heads’ does not equate with logic.  This period is marked by notions of the divine right of kings to rule, as certain individuals got their power and authority directly from God.  Of course, people tended to rule because they happened to be born into the right family or because they could command the strongest armies.  These were autocratic times where orders were dispensed and followed – or else.

a leader next to some followers

The third historical period of leadership is Later Western Civilization.  This period parallels the rise of democratic norms and social compacts.  The leadership paradigm begins the shift from ‘inherited’ leader to leadership assignment based on ability and merit.

The 19th Century and Beyond is the fourth and current leadership period.  This period kicks off during the industrial revolution – leadership models evolved around management/labor and scientific studies followed by worker-needs approaches.  Later, behavioral, transactional and situational models of leadership evolved.  We presently find ourselves moving from the study of so called ‘Transformational Leadership’ – think Steve Jobs – to a concept of the ‘Agile Leader’ operating in very fluid and disruptive environments.  We discuss  current leadership trends at the conclusion of this article.

Leadership Definitions/Quotes

It turns out that it’s not very easy to come up with a conclusive definition of ‘Leadership.’  It can mean different things to different people in different circumstances.  Ultimately, there are as many definitions as there are leaders.  Let’s take a look at a few.

1.   “A leader is someone with followers” – Unknown  

Not only do I love the minimalist approach, but the selfless nature gives one pause.  Unfortunately, this is more point of fact than definition.

2.   "A good leader takes a little more than his share of the blame, a little less than his share of the credit." – Arnold Glasow  

Again, the selflessness in Glasow’s definition stands out, but it’s more of an admirable feature than a definition.

3.   "My definition of a leader... is a man who can persuade people to do what they don't want to do, or do what they're too lazy to do, and like it." – Harry S. Truman

Well, they didn’t call him ‘Give’em hell Harry’ for nothing.  Sorry Harry, woman lead, and people aren’t considered naturally lazy.  He was a man of his time.  

4.   "Leadership is not a person or a position. It is a complex moral relationship between people, based on trust, obligation, commitment, emotion, and a shared vision of the good." – Joanne Ciulla

Joanne’s Ciulla’s definition ups the ante and provides us with an altruistic view of a leader-follower concept envisioned as a combined moral imperative of the work group.  It is noteworthy that, throughout history, leadership patterns have migrated from the extreme masculine to the paternalistic and finally to the modern maternalistic.  This definition will be a primary characteristic of leadership in the future.

5.   "Leadership is the process of persuasion or example by which an individual (or leadership team) induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leader and his or her followers." – John W. Gardner

Perhaps the most realistic and contemporary of all is John W. Gardner’s view.  He identifies leadership as a process of directing group energy towards objectives, said objectives accepted and believed – or not – by the group.  Merging Ciulla’s definition with Gardner’s would be a powerful description of modern leadership.

Leadership Styles

Let’s examine the 7 major leadership styles.  For each style we’ll provide a brief description, cite the major characteristics, and identify some limitations or drawbacks of each.  To provide some insight as to merit of each style, we will use rarely effective, sometimes effective, and commonly effective as approximate indicators of each style’s performance.  

Leadership styles of the future will incorporate new notions of vision, engagement, intra-team relations, event-horizons, enterprise concept, and flexibility. Organizations will be confronted with selecting leaders distinguished by information-age adaptation or non-adaptation.

Leadership styles 1 through 3 are considered the core or ‘classic’ leadership styles.  Autocratic, Democratic, and Laissez-Faire provide course measures of leader-to-follower control that run from very high control to somewhere in the middle to a hands-off approach, respectively.  

Styles 4 through 7 are mixtures, variations or characteristic additions to the core leadership styles.  However, they are unique and should not be considered any less of a leadership discipline than those of the core set.

#1 – Autocratic

This leadership style's hallmark characteristic is a high level of control with little to no input from team members.  Employees are expected to merely comply with the decisions made, as specified by their leadership.  Autocratic leadership is considered to be rarely effective.

Major Characteristics:

  • Disciplined
  • Centralized chain of command
  • Rapid response
  • Decisive

Autocratic forms of leadership are considered anachronistic and the model cannot be sustained in a modern, professional business environment - employees would simply leave.  While autocratic leadership can provide real advantages in certain situations, it is the antithesis of employee empowerment.

#2 – Democratic Leadership

Also known as participative leadership, this style – as the name suggests – means leaders share the decision-making process with their teams.  Although the final outcome rests with the leadership, it allows lower level employees to exercise some level of participation.  Democratic leadership is considered commonly effective.

Major Characteristics:

  • Leadership distribution
  • Empowerment of subordinates
  • Power balance

The democratic model and variations on it are common in business today, and very well received by employees.  Its major drawback is that it can be somewhat slow.  This is especially true where there is an overriding emphasis on input from each team member.  

#3 – Laissez-Faire Leadership

Translated from French, laissez-faire means ‘let them do.’  As such, Laissez-Faire leaders take a hands-off approach, allowing employees a high level of autonomy.  Leaders operating with this style will remain informed and normally be making use of a relatively skilled workforce with experienced intermediaries.  This is also a common approach within creative activities.  Laissez-Faire is considered sometimes effective.

Major Characteristics:

  • Subordinate decision making
  • Relaxed
  • Team building

The major drawback of Laissez-Faire leadership is potential negative impacts due to a lack of structure.  Employee empowerment can have downsides depending on the maturity level of the team/organization.

#4 – Situational Leadership

Situational Leadership is built on the theory that the best leaders will utilize a range of leadership styles depending on the environment in which they find themselves.  This model categorized all leadership styles into four behavior styles: Directing; Coaching; Supporting; and Delegating.  Environmental factors such as team member skill level, task complexity, time constraints, risk and the nature of the business processes involved will influence the Situational Leader.  This style is considered by many to be the ‘best,’ and should be considered as commonly effective.

Major Characteristics:

  • Adaptable
  • Clear vision
  • Humility

Difficulties often arise with situational leaders working in matrixed environments as they employ various means of directing, supporting and empowering teams across multiple styles simultaneously.  It can also create issues with teams when their leader’s behavior changes during a single effort as that project’s environment changes.

#5 – Transactional Leadership

Transactional Leadership is focused on group organization – establishing a specified chain of command and implementing a ‘carrot-and-stick’ approach to management activities.  Here we have management rewarding good performance while punishing bad performance.  This leadership method is considered sometimes effective.

Major Characteristics:

  • Group reward / penalty
  • Passive management by exception
  • Focus on short term goals
  • Structured policies and procedures

Transactional leadership rewards the worker on a practical level only, such as money or perks, encouraging bare-minimum of work.  It does not appear to be a good way to develop employees.  Personal initiative is not rewarded.

#6 – Transformational Leadership

At its core, Transformational leadership is where leaders encourage, inspire and motivate employees to innovate and create change that will help grow and shape the future success of the company. Work is specified and dedicated to this – leadership pushes the employees above and beyond, outside of their comfort zone. Transformational Leadership is considered as sometimes effective.

Major Characteristics:

  • Develop followers into leadership
  • Inspired motivation
  • Fosters creativity

This form of leadership is considered highly desirable among growth minded companies.  The style tends to enlighten employees as to what they are capable of. Unfortunately, the trees can be lost for the forest as individuals are lost as management attention is focused on bigger things.

#7 – Strategic Leadership

Strategic Leadership sits at the intersection of continuing operations and corporate strategic design (growth opportunities).  In essence, a strategic leader influences the organization by aligning their systems, culture, and organizational structure to ensure consistency with the strategic business goals.  Strategic Leadership is considered to be commonly effective.

Major Characteristics:

  • Distributed responsibility
  • Transformative
  • Future focused / change oriented

Difficulties can arise for Strategic Leaders when the operational and strategic considerations of a company are at odds with each other.  Keeping everyone happy in terms of keeping the lights on and building next generation business is a taxing proposition.  For the most part, leaders in the strategic spectrum are ‘seasoned.’  They are highly experienced in corporate operations and have demonstrated insight into strategic direction setting.

Quick and Easy (and free) Self-Assessments

Not only fun, but very enlightening, these two online leadership quizzes provide insight into your leadership style and to some degree, your personality.  Your Leadership Legacy by the company of the same name is a 30-question quiz which assesses you in a weighted fashion across 6 characteristic components of leadership:  Ambassador; Advocate; People Mover; Truth-Seeker; Creative Builder; and Experienced Guide.  The quiz provides a detailed description or each attribute upon completion

What’s Your Leadership Style? is “LeadershipIQ’s” 12-question quiz which provides a leadership type with a detailed explanation and some famous but like-minded managers.  This one is more condensed and moves a little faster but provides good information for a small investment in your time.

Leadership Outlook

The period that we are living in is characterized by rapidity, dissolution, reinvention, and transition for all.  While leadership in this environment shares attributes of leadership in more conventional settings, the notion of an Agile Leader is evolving – this is a leader who thrives in volatile circumstances.  In “Redefining Leadership for a Digital Age,” the characteristics distinguishing stable and volatile leadership are examined more closely and detailed.

The digital age is fomenting developments across the leadership discipline.  Doug Strycharczyk, CEO of AQR International – a highly recognized organizational and personal development and assessment company – writes the following in regard to information-age leadership:

“Leadership Development which only addresses behavior can have limited impact. There is a need to understand and develop the mindset of individuals – how they think – in order to develop intelligent leadership practice.”

Mr. Strycharczyk indicates that in this new age, leadership theory requires adaptation to the nature of the human brain, not the adaptation of the human brain to leadership models.

He also writes:

“Leadership behavior and development applies to everyone – not just those who have the word manager or leader in their job title. We can all make a difference to the motivation of those with whom we interact.”

As written, Strycharczyk implies that leadership will evolve from a condensed ‘leader’ role focus to a networked team archetype where the leadership function is distributed.  This would be a significant break with conventional thought and require serious rethinking of the entire intra-team operation.  It is also reminiscent of Joanne’s Ciulla’s leadership definition discussed earlier.

As such, the management environment is fraught with ever increasing levels of risk and opportunity.  Leadership styles of the future will incorporate new notions of vision, engagement, intra-team relations, event-horizons, enterprise concept, and flexibility.  Organizations will be confronted with selecting leaders distinguished by information-age adaptation or non-adaptation.

Regardless of our genetics and the notions of ‘natural born leaders,’ human nature is not a static proposition. Those leaders who are self-aware and willing to work at developing themselves over time will have the true makings of transformational leaders – and reap the rewards for their organizations and themselves.

Written By:
Kerrie Gill, PMP, ITIL

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