Elevating Leadership Series: Leadership Styles

A leadership style refers to a leader’s characteristic behaviors when directing, motivating, guiding, and managing groups of people to perform, create, and innovate. Practically-speaking, leadership styles literally are the approaches leaders use to lead personnel. With myriad styles available, deciding which style to use can often be a difficult task all its own. Fortunately, leadership scholars, psychologists, and professionals have established frameworks that encapsulate and categorize approaches and discuss the strengths and criticisms of each.

Which one is the right one? The answer is: that depends. In choosing a style, a leader factors things like environment, objectives, timeline, capability of subordinates, needs, and personality into the calculus. A style may be popularized by scholars or industry influencers, but one-size does not fit all. For example, in academia and business right now, transformational leadership is all the rage. But, a leader must understand when a transformational style is appropriate and when it’s not despite the social pressure to use the style.

All that said, here are ten leadership styles:

  1. Autocratic Leadership: An approach that relies on the leader to make decisions, accepting little in the way of input from subordinates. This style lays out clear expectations and respects timelines, presenting little debate or deliberation to make a decision. What it gains in timeliness, it loses in subordinate autonomy. Widely considered a contributor to low morale, high turnover, and absenteeism.
  2. Democratic Leadership: As the name implies, an approach that relies on collaborative input from team members to reach decisions, leaving the final decision to the leader. This style respects the perspective, creativity, and expertise of personnel and factors their inputs to make the best decisions. What it gains in collaboration though, it loses in timeliness of decision-making. Academia asserts this approach to be the ‘right’ style.
  3. Laissez-faire Leadership: An approach that leaves subordinates to their own devices, requiring them to make the decisions and receiving little input from the leader. This style respects autonomy, affording resources and support when requested. What it gains in autonomy, it loses in ownership, accountability, and timeliness. Highly productive subordinates may feel great job satisfaction. Less productive subordinates may flounder and stagnate.
  4. Authentic Leadership: Less a style and more of a descriptive theory in my opinion. Authentic leadership asserts that a leader’s value increases in the eyes of subordinates based on interaction, something inside the leader, and the leader’s growth or experience. A more authentic leader can, therefore, command more authority than a less authentic leader.
  5. Servant Leadership: An approach that departs from the traditional view that followers work for the leader, suggesting that the leader, in fact, works for the followers. The leader, as the name implies, works to break down roadblocks for his or her subordinates and ensures resources are readily available. In servant leadership, leaders are resources to followers rather than the focus.
  6. Adaptive Leadership: A style that concerns itself primarily with the leader preparing subordinates to deal with myriad circumstances by encouraging adaptation. Since obstacles are common when working toward a goal, the adaptive leader equips followers to adapt to obstacles rather than knocking down obstacles for them. Adaptive leadership believes in the capabilities of the followers and seeks to improve their adaptability.
  7. Situational Leader®: An approach developed by Ken Blanchard that suggests that a leader must adjust to the capabilities of the subordinates. Unlike the previous styles, this style examines the followers’ needs for support and direction before selecting one of four modes of leading: delegating, supporting, coaching, and directing. Blanchard’s approach implies that a leader will adjust his approach along a continuum from directing to delegating as subordinates’ needs and experience change.
  8. Transactional Leadership: The transactional approach uses cause and effect in its employment. Leaders using transactional styles use positive and negative reinforcement, rewarding personnel for obeying direction and meeting objectives or punishing for disobeying and failing to meet objectives. Transactional leadership is critical to indoctrination, but overuse can have a diminishing effect on the growth of subordinates. Additionally, overuse can result in transactional debt – a condition in which personnel expect to receive a reward for obeying direction and meeting objectives. When the expectation is not met, personnel may decrease effort or disobey in the future. The debt, therefore, is the resulting delta in productivity and performance.
  9. Transformational Leadership: An approach that endeavors to motivate change, either in an organization, in a person, or both. A transformational leader inspires personnel with vision, possibility, and communication. The leader grasps the current situation and can see the desired outcome, laying out the plan to personnel and leading them to the goal. Transformational leaders are hailed as the best leaders by scholars, being viewed as more desirable than transactional leaders. Unlike transactional styles, transformational leadership has less traction in indoctrination since subordinates must be ready for transformation in order to buy-in to vision.
  10. Charismatic Leadership: This approach shares the inspiring influence of transformational leadership but lacks the altruistic goal of change. Charismatic leaders simply seek to motivate personnel to action. Literature suggests that charismatic approaches are inherently selfish, but I disagree. Charismatic approaches simply rely on charisma to influence personnel and may or may not have selfish intent.

Hey, Kenny, what’s the best mix?

That depends on you and your team. I recommend one part democratic and one part adaptive with a splash of situational, servant, and transformational. Shaken, not stirred. That’s my go-to, anyway. My democratic style may lean more toward autocratic in time-sensitive situations or more toward laissez-faire when I have experienced team members whose productivity increases with autonomy and creative freedom. As a personal predilection, I prefer to lead with a laissez-faire style, and I especially enjoy working in a laissez-faire environment—the more freedom I have, the more productive I am.

Which styles work best for you? Feel free to comment.

Up next:

We’ll dive into authentic leadership. After that, we’ll discuss how poor leadership affects revenue using a case study about a Quick Service restaurant.

Until next time! Keep leading!


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