Leadership styles are as diverse as the leaders themselves. Finding the leadership style that works best for you is a challenge for both new and experienced leaders. Your style may change as you mature as a leader, and the emphasis you place on certain aspects of your style may change with job role or situation. Taking a purposeful approach to understanding your leadership style will not only improve your effectiveness, but allow you to adapt more quickly to a changing environment.
A quick Google search will turn up dozens of models that present different leadership approaches. A good model to start this discussion is one presented by a team lead by Kurt Lewin, published in 19391. This model lays out three basic leadership styles:
- Authoritarian leadership, in which decision-making is “top down.” The group or organization has very little input into decisions.
- Participative leadership, in which the leader offers guidance to the group and the group has significant input into decision-making.
- Delegative leadership, in which the leader gives very little structure or guidance to the group.
There are innumerable nuanced styles within these three general headings, but it is helpful to think first of these three very different styles. Your natural style will lean toward one of these three, and it’s important to note that all three have their place. There is no single perfect leadership style; there is only the style that will work best in a given company culture and under a given set of conditions.
Authoritarian leadership works best in cultures that need to maintain a strict set of procedures or when there is just not time for consensus-building. One example is a highly regulated production environment. This style is also often best during any business crisis when time is critical. In this instance, the “perfect” or “ideal” path is less important than reaching some minimal goal within a particular period of time.
Participative leadership is probably the most widely applicable style, balancing structure, boundaries, and goals provided by leadership with freedom within the group to determine the best pathway.
Delegative leadership is most appropriate with a group of independent experts or a highly creative organization where the role of the leader is focused mostly on resource procurement and general direction. Since the most effective leadership style will depend on the given situation, it is important for all leaders to know what their default style is and, most importantly, how to lead “out of type” when the situation requires it.
Finding and developing your default leadership style
Figuring out your natural or default leadership style requires a bit of introspection. There is a natural tendency to feel that one of the three high-level styles noted above is the best and to convince yourself that your instincts align with that style. Begin by thinking about the leaders you had significant exposure to over your life. Those leaders might include your parents or grandparents, a teacher, a team coach, or workplace supervisors. Think about which of those people you considered good or effective leaders (and the opposite) and most importantly, why you came to that assessment. Many of us may have been resentful of parents who imposed boundaries we didn’t like at the time or teachers who held us accountable when we didn’t want to be. As adults, we now understand and respect that approach. You may have appreciated a coach who spent extra time developing your skills and who always supported and motivated the team. You may have resented a supervisor who never took interest in your work or seemed to appreciate your contributions. This assessment will help you tease out which leadership characteristics you find most effective or important. Those characteristics will most likely reflect your default style.
While each of us has a default style, leadership skills can also be learned. If at all possible, find a few leaders in your orbit that you admire and who exhibit different styles. Talk with them about a few scenarios (perhaps one that would favor authoritarian leadership, one participative, and one delegative) and have them take you through how they would approach leading in those situations. While they may not necessarily be able to tell you why they choose different methods, comparing their choices with the ones you may make instinctively will help you define different pathways available. An important line of questions for them will be, “When did you act counter to your instincts, why did you do that, and what was the outcome?” While it may be a challenge to find a range of leaders willing to have an honest discussion with you about their leadership styles, the discussion will be as beneficial for them as it is for you.
After all of this introspection and discussion, you most likely had the time to evaluate your own leadership style, even if you don’t hold an official “leadership” position. We are all leaders and always have been—how you manage yourself, how you interact in groups of people, how you lead in unofficial situations—all give insight into your default leadership characteristics. Combined with the skills you have learned through observation of other leaders and discussion with leadership mentors, you are now ready to assess in real time which style of leadership will be most effective in your current situation.
First, recognize that each institution has its own culture that favors a given leadership approach. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to fully embrace that style. It does mean, however, that this style will be the expectation and any leadership approach counter to that style will most likely be met with a little resistance. Effective use of a different style will require consistency and persistence from you. Second, recognize any particular short-term challenges that might require a modification of your style. Is the company under short-term financial pressure? Is there a critical technical challenge that needs to be solved within a given time frame? Are there personnel issues that need to be addressed? Is there a market shift that is driving a change in business model? Any of these challenges might require a temporary or permanent change in the leadership style that will be most effective.
There is one final assessment that you must do, and this can be a difficult one. If you are honest with yourself about what your default leadership style is, then you are aware of how often you need to lead out of type to be effective or successful in your organization. Situational leadership requires leaders to use leadership styles different from their default style to be effective in a given situation. For example, a leader who defaults to a more participative style will need to switch to an authoritarian style during a period of crisis. These out of type leadership periods are usually short and are bound by the need to achieve a particular goal. However, spending a majority of your time behaving out of type is exhausting and unhealthy. If this is the case, then you have a difficult choice between two options—you either have to accept that this organization is not the place that you will thrive and move on to another organization, or you have to put in the hard work to fundamentally change your leadership default style. The latter is not necessarily a betrayal of your authentic self. Many leaders evolve their style over time as experience teaches them what is most effective and best for the organization and the people in it.
Finding and developing your leadership style is a journey you will be on throughout your career. There is no one style that is universally effective, so you will need to understand not only your default style, but how to modify your approach depending on the organizational culture and the situation at hand. What is most critical is being purposeful about this understanding each step of the way.
1. Lewin K, Lippitt R, White K. Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created “social climates”. J Soc Psychol. 1939;10(2):271-301