In 1939, a group of researchers led by psychologist Kurt Lewin set out to identify different styles of leadership. While further research has identified more specific types of leadership, the originally, 3 leadership styles were identified: autocratic, participative and laissez-faire.
Authoritarian Leadership (Autocratic)
Authoritarian leaders, also known as autocratic leaders, provide clear expectations for what needs to be done, when it should be done, and how it should be done. There is also a clear division between the leader and the followers. Authoritarian leaders make decisions independently with little or no input from the rest of the group.
Researchers found that decision-making was less creative under authoritarian leadership. Lewin also found that it is more difficult to move from an authoritarian style to a democratic style than vice versa. Abuse of this style is usually viewed as controlling, bossy, and dictatorial.
Authoritarian leadership is best applied to situations where there is little time for group decision-making or where the leader is the most knowledgeable member of the group.
Participative Leadership (Democratic)
Lewin’s study found that participative leadership, also known as democratic leadership, is generally the most effective leadership style. Democratic leaders offer guidance to group members, but they also participate in the group and allow input from other group members. In Lewin’s study, children in this group were less productive than the members of the authoritarian group, but their contributions were of a much higher quality.
Participative leaders encourage group members to participate, but retain the final say over the decision-making process. Group members feel engaged in the process and are more motivated and creative.
Delegative (Laissez-Faire) Leadership
Researchers found that children under delegative leadership, also known as laissez-fair leadership, were the least productive of all three groups. The children in this group also made more demands on the leader, showed little cooperation and were unable to work independently.
Delegative leaders offer little or no guidance to group members and leave decision-making up to group members. While this style can be effective in situations where group members are highly qualified in an area of expertise, it often leads to poorly defined roles and a lack of motivation.
A good leader uses all three styles, depending on what forces are involved between the followers, the leader, and the situation. Some examples include:
- Using an authoritarian style on a new employee who is just learning the job. The leader is competent and a good coach. The employee is motivated to learn a new skill. The situation is a new environment for the employee.
- Using a participative style with a team of workers who know their job. The leader knows the problem, but does not have all the information. The employees know their jobs and want to become part of the team.
- Using a delegative style with a worker who knows more about the job than you. You cannot do everything and the employee needs to take ownership of her job! In addition, this allows you to be at other places, doing other things.
- Using all three: Telling your employees that a procedure is not working correctly and a new one must be established (authoritarian). Asking for their ideas and input on creating a new procedure (participative). Delegating tasks in order to implement the new procedure (delegative).
Newer Leadership Styles
Today the three classic leadership styles seem too basic. They are still relevant, but leaders also need to know how to influence subordinates to exert extra effort or rally around a difficult mission. Such styles include being charismatic, transformational, visionary, transactional, offering hard evidence and leading by example.
Leadership is less about your needs, and more about the needs of the people and the organization you are leading. Leadership styles are not something to be tried on like so many suits, to see which fits. Rather, they should be adapted to the particular demands of the situation, the particular requirements of the people involved and the particular challenges facing the organization.
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