An age-old question, “what type of person makes the best leader?” Leadership styles are often discussed in a broad sense but I set-out to determine if there is an ‘ideal’ leadership style for every type of business or social setting. Using Kurt Lewin’s tried and tested leadership styles as my framework I set-out to begin my research.
The first of Lewin’s three leadership styles is authoritarian, also referred to as autocratic style. Autocratic leaders are often easy to spot; they are the leaders who apply a top-down approach to management. Kendra Cherry from About.com defines autocratic leadership’s most notable characteristic as “a clear definition between the leader and the followers”. Autocratic leaders often give orders to his/her team and allow little room for innovation from members of his/her team. A benefit to this leadership style is teams who are led by autocratic leaders are often highly productive due to clear expectations and defined goals. One drawback is in today’s multi-generational workforce this type of leadership is often challenging for Generation X and Generation Y (Millennial) staff members since both generations have been encouraged to innovate and create independently.
Lewin’s studies found this form of leadership style to be the most effective. This type of leadership style is often most appealing in today’s American work environments. I believe the desire for this type of leadership is reinforced by the two younger generations. Gen X and Gen Y have a strong belief that the ability to improve and create processes or products is the definition of success. Democratic leaders are collaborative and seek team involvement and buy-in throughout the decision making process while still maintaining the “final say”. This form of leadership sounds so ideal and appealing to me (a Gen Xer) but in doing my research there is a risk with democratic leadership – lack of movement. If a leader is not practiced in the art of collaboration it can prove challenging at times to move a team ahead toward buy-in and leader-driven decision making. A benefit to this style is team engagement, teams managed by democratic leaders are likely to feel highly engaged and bought into the decision making process. A drawback is potential a stall out in “collaboration station”.
The last style in Lewin’s leadership styles model is delegative or laissez-faire. After doing my research this is one of my personal favorites. The reason I favored this is not because I think it is the “best” but rather one that is highly dependent upon the team being led. There are many caveats to this leadership style being effective. One important caveat is team qualification. If a laissez-faire leader is leading a team of highly qualified experts this leadership style can be very effective. If the same leader is leading a team of developmental, mid-line employees this leadership style is very challenging both for the team members and the leader due to overall lack of direction and engagement. A benefit to this leadership style is ultimate empowerment of employees. A drawback is, lack of direction which can lead to low team morale and high turnover rates.
Overall I found that all three leadership styles can be effective depending on setting, who his/her team members are, level of expertise on the team and type of work being performed. As a Gen X leader myself, I find myself very attracted to recommending that all leaders should do their best to become more democratic. However, I am quick to recall the different teams I have observed and the differences each leadership style can make (positive and negative). Ken Blanchard is known for his recommendation of situational leadership. The practice of situational leadership is when a leader adapts his/her style based on the situation. I believe that situational leadership can be ideal, but also caution that it can be challenging for newer leaders who haven’t defined his/her leadership style yet; As well as experienced leaders who may find it challenging to step out of a style that has been comfortable for years.