Leadership Styles

I have read over a hundred books on leadership and am half way through my Leadership Degree at Northeastern University. The one consistent message that has been present throughout all of this information is that there is not one set leadership style. There are a variety of styles, and each style works best when paired with the idea situation to match it.

To start with, you need to objectively understand your own strengths. Take the Big Five Personality Test and look at the results. What are the traits of your style?

Next, you find how those strengths pair up with situation. This requires both a short term and a long term view. For example, an office might generally do well with a leader who is democratic and builds decisions through consensus. However, if an emergency strikes and a project absolutely must get done within 24 hours, the leader needs to be able to shift into a parental role, to get everyone organized, heading in a common direction, and taking on the task.

Here are the main three styles agreed on by most books and courses. There are of course shades of grey within each main category.

Parental / Autocratic

Some books call this "Paternalistic" but that has a male-female bias that I want to avoid. The idea here is that the leader makes the decisions and then requires the others to accept what has been decided. Feedback might be asked for, but it's done in a way that consolidates the view of the manager. For example, questions are asked in public or in a leading way so the employee is drawn into following the opinion provided by the leader. In general it is thought that the leader knows best and whatever they decide will be good enough for the diverse needs of the employees.

Parental organizations are generally thought to be an "old / to be avoided" management style. They frustrate employees who feel as if their wishes or goals are not being paid attention to. Since alternate points of view are not encouraged, management becomes stagnant in its ways and even more resistant to being open to suggestions in the future. Opportunities to grow and take on new skill sets are lost.

On the up side, a Parental style can be absolutely critical in a crisis or emergency. If a tornado is bearing down on the work place, that is not the time to sit down with the group and discuss what types of options might exist. If a client's order is lost in a shipping disaster, and they need it in two days, that's the time for the parental leader to leap into action, figure out the best course of decision, and get the team organized and in gear. There are definitely times that the "I've chosen, now move forward with my choice" style is necessary.

In terms of the Big Five Personality traits, the paternal style tends to fit individuals who are low on Emotional Stability, because the stress and uncertainty involved with the other two styles is avoided. It also fits individuals who are low on Openness, because what the leader decides is what is done - there is no need to consider or worry about opposing points of view.

Democratic / Consensus

The vast majority of my books and courses have focused on the democratic, or consensus building, leadership style as the most productive and the most rewarding for employees. Employees feel empowered when their point of view is considered and their voice is heard. They feel more a part of the team if the team is heading in a direction they helped to choose.

As an example, say a small store is normally open from 8-4pm. If the owner just walks in one day and says "I decided we should now open from 6am to 10pm - here are your new schedules everyone!" there is likely to be great outrage and resistance to the change. Employees would be discouraged about the change, not put in their full effort, and not feel a connection with the organization.

Let's say instead that the owner calls a team meeting and has everyone sit down together. He explains that sales are low and that he is seeking ways to avoid laying people off. One idea is to open the store for more hours, to make it convenient for more buyers. This also means employees can slide schedules to work around family commitments and other chores. He asks the employees what their suggestions are and if they have any other ideas.

Not only does this help employees feel like the path being chosen is one they had a part in forming, but the feedback process allows new, even more interesting ideas and paths to become an option. The more people feel as if their voice matters and their feedback is listened to, the more opportunity there is for great ideas to be brought up which might have otherwise never been heard.

One down side is definitely that this process takes time, and it requires the leader to have the ability to enjoyably hear opposing points of view. Individuals might come up with ideas which go against the leader's general bent. In our example, it might be that leader is enthusiastic about being open 24 hours a day - but in the discussions with the employees, the employees think the shop would do best having hours of 12 to 6. The leader needs to be able to hear that "different message", and consider if it really does make sense. For example, maybe employees have observed that no customers ever come in before 12, but that visitors are often trying to race in when the store is closing at 4. So by listening to the employees and their observations, the store owner can have a much better end result that suits both the organization and the employees alike.

It's also important that employees are actually listened to. For example, it's not healthy to pretend to have a consensus style when really the aim is to be parentalistic with a show of asking for feedback. If a leader asks for feedback from everyone on a topic, and then ignores them all to do what he personally wants to do, this is far more discouraging to employees than if he had never asked in the first place.

For the Big Five Personality traits, this style works with most styles. It does not work well with low Emotional Stability individuals, who would be upset by hearing that their idea is not the one that works well for others. Similarly, those low in Openness will feel resistance to the alternate ideas that are presented.

Laissez-Faire / Hands Off

Laissez-Faire is not so much a management style as it is a lack of management or leadership. The manager rarely interacts with the employees. The workers do what they feel is best without any feedback or constructive support. They are not mentored or encouraged. For some very creative types - especially ones who came from previous parental environments - this "do anything you want" atmosphere can be quite freeing, at least for a while. However, over the long term even the most creative employees are interested in feedback and support, and encouragement that they are on the right path. Therefore laissez-faire is not recommended by any books or courses I have taken.

The one time it is considered an adequate solution is when work has become so chaotic or backlogged that the leader cannot tend to all of her responsibilities and needs to focus on those of the highest priority. However, even then it needs to be a short term solution while other tasks are caught up. It cannot be allowed to drag out to become the new status quo. Employees quickly become discouraged when they feel abandoned by those who are supposed to be looking out for their interests.

The laissez-faire style can sometimes be adopted by those who are low on extraversion, because they are happiest on their own and not interacting with others. It can also sometimes be adopted by those who are low on Smooth Waters, because dealing with others is challenging for them.

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Big Five Personality Test

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