Understanding leadership theories and styles can help improve our self-awareness, making more adaptable leaders of us all.
Time was that the prevailing view of leadership was that leaders were exceptional people born with the innate qualities they needed to lead. These Great Men (sic) bestrode the world, set apart from others by their heroic and unwavering leadership gifts. In the words of the Victorian historian, Thomas Carlyle, the history of the whole world was considered to be “but the biography of great men”. For all its flaws, the idea that leaders are “born, not made” proved to be remarkably resilient, lasting well into the twentieth century.
Fast forward to today and – thankfully – we know better. As the science of human behaviour has grown and developed, so has our thinking around what makes a leader and how, as leaders, we no longer have to rely on certain fixed traits or qualities. Instead, we can build the skills and behaviours we need to be successful.
For Canadian academic, Henry Mintzberg, leadership is “neither a science nor a profession; it is a practice, learned primarily through experience, and rooted in context.” It turns out, then, that leaders these days really are “made, not born”; we just need to practice.
That’s good news for us ordinary mortals faced with the challenge of leading a team. But if we are to develop that practice, we also need to take on board another important Mintzberg idea, that leadership is “rooted in context”. It’s both situational – dependent on the situation we find ourselves in – and dynamic, needing to change as we learn and grow and take on new roles and challenges.
As London Business School’s Herminia Ibarra reminds us, we need to beware the authenticity paradox. Sticking too rigidly to what we consider to be authentic selves will only take us so far. The best leaders are adaptable, able to flex their styles as circumstances demand and change. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have a central, stable core of values that guide us; rather that we might bear in mind the advice that “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”
To do that, we need to improve our self-awareness around what kind of leader we are now – our preferences, biases and motivations – as well as learning when and how we need to adapt. That’s where leadership style frameworks and models can help. By improving our awareness of our default behaviours and how they impact others, they can provide a useful starting point as we develop our approach and practice.
As we’ve moved away from those Great Men of Carlyle’s imagination, our thinking about leadership has moved through several different stages and schools of thought. By the 1940s, researchers were moving away from a focus on personality traits that may or may not be associated with leadership, and instead looking at the patterns of behaviours – or styles – used by leaders when directing, motivating, guiding and managing people.
Kurt Lewin's three styles
Much thinking about leadership styles today can trace its origins to 1939, when German-American psychologist, Kurt Lewin, set out to identify different styles of leadership. His identification of three major leadership styles continues to be influential today and has formed the basis of many more distinct and defined styles ever since.
His three identified styles are: authoritarian (autocratic), participative (democratic) and delegative (laissez-faire):
Authoritarian leadership (Autocratic)
The classic command-and-control style, authoritarian (or autocratic) leaders provide clear expectations for what needs to be done, when it should be done, and how it should be done. They tend to make decisions independently, with little or no input from the rest of the team. At its extreme, this style of leadership can be seen as controlling or even dictatorial.
Participative leadership (Democratic)
Participative (or democratic) leaders offer guidance to team members, but they also participate in the group and encourage creative input from other group members. This helps people to feel engaged and motivated, an important part of the team, and a commitment to group goals. However, it’s no free-for all: participative leaders still have the final say when making decisions.
Delegative leadership (Laissez-Faire)
Delegative (or laissez-faire) leaders offer little or no guidance to group members and leave the decision-making to group members themselves. They provide support with resources and advice if needed, but otherwise they don't get involved. It’s a style that can often lead to poorly defined roles and a lack of motivation.
In his study, Lewin's observed the response of three groups of children led in a craft project by an authoritarian, democratic, or laissez-faire leader. Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that democratic leadership tended to be the most effective at inspiring followers to perform well. The group might have been less productive than the authoritarian group, but their work was more creative and of better quality. The delegative leadership group was the least productive of all, exhibiting little co-operation and less ability to work independently.
That doesn’t mean that the other styles have no place in our leadership toolkit. Lewin’s three styles show us that we may need to mix and match depending on the situation we’re facing or the context we’re working in. Each has its strengths and its weaknesses.
Delegative leadership, for example, might be motivating for groups of highly qualified people able and willing just to get on with the job. But Lewin also noted that, in other contexts, the lack of direction discouraged personal accountability and productivity.
Likewise, authoritarian leadership can be effective in situations when people need a clear sense of direction, where rules or standards need to be carefully followed or when a situation calls for quick decisions and decisive action. But, used routinely, it can create demoralising and even hostile environments and us-and-them cultures.
There can even be drawbacks to the participative style. It can too time-consuming in certain situations, and it can falter if group roles are unclear or badly communicated.
Democratic leadership may well be the best default, but, as we’ll find out, there are times when a bit of flexing might get the job done better for all concerned.
Very few of us would recognise the world of work of Lewin’s 1930s. Since then, it’s changed beyond recognition, and thinking about leadership behaviours and styles has evolved accordingly.
Lewin’s styles have been criticised for being too simplistic and for lacking a proper appreciation of situation and context. But his focus on patterns of behaviour remains an underpinning for the many, more finessed, frameworks that have evolved to help us make sense of the different styles leaders might deploy and when.
Here are some examples:
Situational leadership: Hershey and Blanchard
In the 1960’s Paul Hershey and Kenneth Blanchard published The Situational Leader in which they reinforced the idea that the most effective leaders are those that are able to adapt their style to the situation they face. They identified four primary leadership styles, broadly on a similar continuum to Lewin, from more directive to less directive:
Telling – Selling – Participating – Delegating.
Situational leadership requires leaders to adapt their style depending on their situation, taking their lead from the task at hand and the level of “maturity” (knowledge, competence and willingness) of the people involved. For example, for a relatively simple task tackled by a keen new recruit, leaders might be able to move quickly from telling to delegating. It might take longer if that new recruit is less keen, or the task more complex.
Situational theories, therefore, recognise the complexity of dynamic social situations at work and how different people in different roles (and doing different things) can affect outcomes. Leaders are most effective when we recognise this and flex accordingly.
Hersey and Blanchard later updated their framework to focus on two key leadership behaviours: supporting (more enabling) and directing (more directive). They suggest that leaders need to deploy different levels of support or direction depending on people’s competence and commitment (a version of their original maturity), while the task still needs to be taken into account. In the situational leadership II model, the four styles become:
Directing: High on directing; low on supporting
Coaching: High on both directing and supporting
Supporting: Low on directing and high on supporting
Delegating: Low on both directing and supporting
The point, of course, is not one of these four leadership styles is best; we need to match behaviours to the developmental skill of the people involved in the task at hand.
Contingency Theory: Fiedler
Psychologist Fred Fiedler also added his contribution to the leadership styles debate in the 1960s. Like Hershey and Blanchard, he concluded that there was no one best style of leadership. Instead, a leader’s effectiveness is based (contingent) on matching two factors: "leadership style" and "situational favourableness" (later called "situational control").
Unlike Hershey and Blanchard, Fiedler’s contingency theory suggests that leadership style is fixed. His framework uses a tool known as the Least-Preferred Co-Worker (LPC) Scale to establish which style we have, based on whether we’re a more relationship-oriented leader or more task-oriented.
For Fiedler, task-oriented leaders usually have lower LPC scores, which makes them very effective at completing tasks. They're quick to organise a group to get tasks and projects done, but, for them, relationship-building is not a priority.
Relationship-oriented leaders usually higher LPC scores. They focus more on personal connections, and they're good at managing conflict. They're also better at making complex decisions.
Once we’ve established which style we are, then we consider how best to match it to a situation that matches that style, based on three factors:
- Are leader-team member relations and levels of trust good or poor (member relations)?
- Are tasks vague or clear-cut and well understood (task structure)?
- Do you have strong or weak power over your team (position power)?
For example, imagine if we were stepping up to lead a team following the retirement of a much-admired and long-standing colleague. The team is understandably wary about the change (i.e. lead-member relations are poor). But the team’s task is well defined (structured) and our position of power is high because we have positional authority as the boss. In this situation, the most effective leader in this situation would be high LPC, someone who can focus on building relationships.
Fiedler’s model has been criticised for its lack of flexibility, and it has certainly aged less well than other leadership styles frameworks, especially as relationship-building is now seen as such a fundamental leadership skill, whatever our natural style. The LPC scale is also viewed as something of a blunt tool. But it’s an interesting insight into a model that seems to fly in the face of the thinking at the time that leaders can and should adapt as the people and situation around them changes. Instead, it suggests that leaders do best when they play to their strengths.
Action-centred leadership: John Adair
As its title suggests, John Adair’s action-centred leadership (ACL) framework focuses on what leaders actually do rather than the characteristics they display.
First published in 1973, instead at looking at leadership styles, it identifies three key areas that leaders need to focus on to lead a team effectively, and offers a framework for keeping them in balance:
- Task: the actions we take to achieve a goal
- Team: our actions at the group level that enable effective teamwork and cohesion
- Individual: actions that support each team member's unique needs
usually represented by three interlocking circles:
The model contains a useful list of “functions” that the action-centred leader must perform within each of the three circles. For example, under task, we might be planning how to get the job done or how to allocate resources. Under team, we might be setting expectations about team behaviours and standards or recruiting a new team member. Under individual, we’ll be coaching and mentoring them on a one-to-one basis, helping individual team members to develop their skills and capabilities.
The framework reminds us that it’s easy to focus on one or two areas more than others, but the overlap between the three circles shows that each area relies on the other for success. To be an effective leader, we need to balance the time and energy we expend on all three.
For example, if we are setting objectives, we need to have an eye not just to the tasks that need to be completed but also make sure the team understands the goals being set and each individual knows how their contribution will fit in to the bigger picture.
There may, of course, be times when we won’t be able to balance all three areas equally. We may, for example, have to prioritise getting tasks done if we’re up against a tight deadline, or a more junior team member might need more individual support until she’s up to speed. But the circles can help us to remember that we should strive to re-balance our focus when the situation allows.
Transformational leadership: Burns and Bass
When, in 1978, James MacGregor Burns defined leadership as a process where "leaders and their followers raise one another to higher levels of morality and motivation", he introduced a new concept that has come to embody much thinking about leadership ever since.
By 1985, Bernard M. Bass was building on Burns’ work to round out the theory of transformational leadership. In essence, it’s a leadership theory that focuses on a leader’s ability to inspire loyalty and trust in their followers. These leaders tend to be emotionally intelligent, energetic and passionate, committed not only to meeting organisational goals, but also to helping their people to fulfil their potential. This focus, the theory goes, improves the motivation levels and morale of team members, leading in turn to more creativity and better team outcomes.
And it’s not just a theory. Research shows that it’s a style characterised by higher performance and more improved group satisfaction than other styles; it’s also proven to be good for team well-being. Transformational leaders model integrity and fairness, are encouraging and enabling, but that doesn’t mean they’re not concerned with success. The style is based on clarity around goals and high expectations, creating can-do, accountable cultures where teams work together to look beyond self-interest towards shared goals and excellent performance.
Bass suggests that there are four different components of transformational leadership, known as the four Is of leadership:
As leaders, people need a good reason to follow our lead. Transformational leaders have a clear vision and are able to communicate it in ways that motivate people to get on board with what we’re trying to achieve and how.
Transformational leaders not only challenge the status quo; they also encourage creativity across the board, inviting people to explore new ways of doing things and to keep learning. This creates psychologically safe cultures where people are prepared to innovate rather than playing it safe.
The foundation of influence is trust and respect. When we serve as role models for followers, modelling ethical behaviours and positivity, this builds our trustworthiness. In turn, this encourages people to emulate us and to commit to team vision and goals.
Transformational leadership also involves offering support and encouragement to team members as individuals. That means we have to work constantly to build relationships, develop our trustworthiness and help our people to learn and grow. We need to keep an eye to everyone’s personal development and goals, acting as a coach and mentor to help them build their capabilities and expertise.
As with FT Learning’s own transformational leadership programme, it’s a leadership style that also requires us to work on our own self-awareness and skills, making sure that we make time and space for our own learning and development.
Leadership styles in practice: Mintzberg and Goleman
So much for the theory. But how can we use it to help us make sense of the kind of leaders we are today and the kind of leaders we might want to become?
What’s beyond doubt is that our behaviours as leaders have the potential to make or break a team’s performance. That’s why it’s helpful to understand the preferences, motivations, habits, defaults and biases that make us behave the way we do. Two more recent leadership styles frameworks can help us to plot a way forward. Say hello again to our old friends, Henry Mintzberg and Daniel Goleman.
Dynamic balance: Mintzberg’s art-science-craft triangle
Back in 1973, Mintzberg’s book, The Nature of Managerial Work, made a significant contribution to the literature by focusing for the first time on what managers actually do. [it’s useful to note that Mintzberg is not one to overplay the distinction between management and leadership. He acknowledges that they are different, but they’re often carried out by the same person, suggesting that the best leaders have an eye to “the plumbing as well as the poetry”]
By tracking the working lives of executives, he identified his famous management ‘roles’, a blueprint for how managers and leaders operate by moving between the 10 roles summarised below. For example, if we’re recruiting and mentoring a new staff member, we’re in leader mode; if we’re at an industry conference, we’re a monitor; if we’re knocking heads together, a disturbance handler. The trick is to have the self-awareness to understand the roles, what they mean and to balance their deployment in the right time at the right place.
Mintzberg’s 10 roles are grouped into three categories:
- Interpersonal: roles that involve coordination and interaction with employees
- Informational: roles that involve handling, sharing, and analysing information
- Decisional: roles that require decision-making
Thirty years and a lifetime’s work later, he decided to retrace his steps, acting once again as a fly on the wall in organisations of all sizes and types, and across sectors and continents, to test his original thesis. As well as revisiting the roles – defined this time around as competencies which need to be deployed in dynamic balance – Mintzberg also shared a new vision for practice-based management: his art-craft-science triangle.
Mintzberg’s triangle builds on his idea of leadership is a practice that takes place where art, craft and applied science meet:
- Art produces ideas, insights and vision based on intuition;
- Craft is about learning from experience, working things out as we go along;
- Science provides order through the analysis of knowledge and data.
He also realised that different combinations of these three categories are a means of identifying different management styles. He points out that there are myriad combinations of styles; he’s not especially enamoured of his predecessors for attempting to pigeonhole managers into specific categories when, in truth, one size doesn’t always fit all.
But he does acknowledge that looking at our personal styles in this way allows us to consider the effects of how we behave at work. The key for Mintzberg is that balance: no one style should be dominant, and there are definite disadvantages to relying on one (or even two) to the exclusion of the others.
Too much focus on applying the science? Then being cerebral might tip over into the calculating.
Too much art? A focus on insight, the creative and insightful to the exclusion of all else can become narcissistic.
Too much craft? Those among us who are stuck in the engaging style, finding it hard to beyond their own personal experience, can become tedious.
Even a combination of two styles, without the third, can be problematic.
- Styles excluding craft result in disconnected managing.
- Styles ignoring science result in disorganised managing.
- Styles excluding art result in dispirited managing.
The best place to be is inside the triangle, aware of our default management styles and the influence they might have on others, and able to flex that style as needed.
Mintzberg also created a diagnostic which can help us to identify which bit(s) of the triangle we might naturally prefer – the aim being that this awareness will help us to re-balance and adjust.
Six leadership styles: Daniel Goleman
Mintzberg also strikes a note of caution about context. Understanding our personal styles cannot be done in the abstract: as other thinkers have taught us, we need to be alert to the situation and context in which we’re operating. While he’s wary of leaders who try to stray too far from who they are and what they know, he also sees a degree of flexibility and adaptability as a leadership fact of life.
It’s an idea taken even further by emotional intelligence guru, Daniel Goleman, with the six leadership styles he outlines in his classic Harvard Business Review article, Leadership that Gets Results and his book, Primal Leadership.
The styles are based on components of Goleman’s emotional intelligence framework. His research reinforces the idea that the best leaders use most of the styles “in any given week”. Like Lewin’s styles, each has its pros and cons. The trick, of course, is to know which style is best suited to different situations and to understand that we may need to work at deploying styles that are less natural to us. Goleman uses the analogy of golf clubs in a golf bag, with more experienced leaders reaching automatically for the right style when they need it.
Goleman also found that each style also has a different impact on the working culture of teams and organisations, and that four of them have a more positive, long-term impact than the others – not just in terms of wellbeing but also financial performance. He describes the four most positive styles as resonant (able to create a positive emotional impact) while, if used inappropriately or too routinely, the other two can become dissonant, leading to cultures characterised by a lack of trust and safety.
The six styles are: coercive (or commanding); visionary; affiliative; democratic; pacesetting and coaching.
Coercive or commanding leaders demand immediate compliance.
Like Lewin’s authoritarianism, it’s a style that relies on issuing orders and exerting control. It can be useful in a crisis, when rapid change is needed or with underperformers. But if misused it can damage morale and productivity.
Style in a phrase: “Do what I tell you”
Emotional intelligence strengths: drive to achieve; initiative; self-management
Overall impact on climate: Negative
Visionary leaders can mobilise people towards a vision.
They are able to articulate a clear vision and push people to use their initiative. It can be a real positive when organisations or teams need a new direction or are undergoing change. However, it’s less effective if we’re leading experienced teams (democracy and consensus might be a better choice) and can be overbearing if overused.
Style in a phrase: “Come with me”
Emotional intelligence strengths: self-confidence; empathy; change catalyst
Overall impact on climate: Most strongly positive
Affiliative leaders create emotional bonds and harmony.
The affiliative style promotes harmony within the team, and emphasizes emotional connections, bringing people together by encouraging inclusion and resolving conflict. It’s a style best used when bridges need to be built and trust and relationships improved. It can also motivate people if they’re going through tough times. We need to beware, though, that we’re not preferencing relationship building at the expense of clear direction, getting things done or avoiding conflict at costs.
Style in a phrase: “People come first”
Emotional intelligence strengths: empathy; relationship-building; communication
Overall impact on climate: Positive
Democratic leaders build consensus through participation.
The democratic style focuses on collaboration, with leaders actively seek input from their teams, and listening more than directing. It works well with more experienced colleagues, when we need input from our people or when we need to build team consensus. It’s less effective with more inexperienced, less motivated or less knowledgeable colleagues.
Style in a phrase: “What do you think?”
Emotional intelligence strengths: collaboration; team leadership; communication
Overall impact on climate: Positive
Pacesetting leaders expect excellence and self-direction.
Pacesetters focuses on performance and achieving goals. They expect excellence from their teams, and everyone is held to a high standard. It’s best suited to getting quick results from highly motivated and competent teams. But it can also be a real negative, associated if overused with stress, burnout and high staff turnover.
Style in a phrase: “Do as I do, now”
Emotional intelligence strengths: conscientiousness; drive to achieve; initiative
Overall impact on climate: Negative
Coaching leaders develop people for the future.
Coaches are empathic and encouraging, and help people to develop and learn. It’s a positive because it stablishes rapport and trust and boosts motivation, and helps people to link their own values and goals to organisational priorities. It is, though, time-consuming and is less effective if a team member is reluctant or needs more direction.
Style in a phrase: “Try this”
Emotional intelligence strengths: developing others, empathy, self-awareness
Overall impact on climate: Positive
For Goleman, because his styles are based on emotional intelligence, and because emotional intelligence competencies can be learnt, we can develop styles that feel more alien to us by focussing on the EI strengths of each style.
So, if we are natural pacesetter, driving our people mad with our relentless pursuit of high standards, we might want to temper this with the empathy, relationship-building and high-end communication skills associated with being more affiliative. Or, if we are a coach, there may be times when we need to work on being more coercive with an uncooperative team member, focussing more on our drive and self-management.
As with Mintzberg’s triangle, the starting point is knowing our own defaults; try the diagnostic based on Goleman’s styles here. We need to consider the leadership style we most identify with, its benefits and drawbacks, and reflect on how confident we are about flexing as circumstances demand. If we can plan for how to expand our repertoire, we can then experiment (ethically) with trying on different styles to see how they fit, how we might use them in combination and how we can keep building our practice to become the leaders we want to be.
We’ve come a long way from Carlyle and his Great Men. But the (much-needed) finesse that behavioural science has given us also means that leadership can never be a precise science. Fortunately, we have a wealth of frameworks and models to help us understand what is takes to lead effectively. With self-awareness – and a healthy dose of Mintzberg’s practice – we can be just like those golf pros, selecting the right style at the right time for the right outcomes.
Test your understanding
- Identify Kurt Lewin’s three leadership styles.
- Describe John Adair’s action-centred leadership framework.
- Outline a situation where Goleman’s affiliative leadership style might be appropriate.
What does it mean for you?
- Consider the leadership styles that come more or less naturally to you. Create a plan for what you might you do to improve your dynamic balance, or to build a better golf bag of Goleman styles.
- Think of a recent situation where, in hindsight, it might have been better to be more or less directive when dealing with a colleague. What might you do to improve your style choice next time?
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