Different leadership styles


Leadership stylesThinking about different leadership styles, developed as a leadership study area following the earlier emphasis on trait theory of leadership. Trait theory had been unable to agree on a list of qualities that differentiated leaders and the idea tended to be centred only on the leader. Concern grew that the trait theory didn’t take into account the followers or the environment in which leadership is performed. This led to  the study of leadership behaviour. How should a leader behave in order to be successful? One such study was the well-known Michigan and Ohio State leadership studies which identified two major dimensions to leadership behaviour:

  • Consideration – the extent to which leaders establish trust and mutual respect
  • Structure – the extent to which leaders define and structure group interactions towards attaining goals.

This led to the broader notion of leadership including both people-oriented and task-oriented behaviours.

Different Leadership Styles – the early work of Kurt Lewin

One avenue of research looked at grouping behaviours together into patterns and identifed as styles. One of the early studies that identified different leadership styles was that of Kurt Lewin in the late 1930’s. (Lewin was a Polish Jew had fled Nazi Germany to the US and as well as leadership research is well-known for developing some of the foundational change theories.)

Lewin and his colleagues studies youth leaders at activity groups. They proposed three main styles of leadership:

  • Autocratic style – leads take control and make decisions
  • Democratic style – consultative approach involving people
  • laissez-faire style – Stepping back and not interfering

With the youth groups Lewin found that there was most dis-satifaction with the autocratic style. The style that engaged the young people most was the democratic style. Finally the Laissez-faire style was neutral, although the groups didn’t tend to achieve much.

A Continuum of Leadership Styles

The basic continuum of leadership styles from a directive style at one end of the spectrum to a laissez-faire or delegative style at the other is reflected in most of the models of leadership styles. The diagram below illustrates the range of different leadership styles:

Different leadership styles


One of the major steps forward that styles research brought was the introduction of the idea that leadership skills could be learned. Leaders could develop the skills to behave in a certain manner and develop their own style of leadership. The theory also recognised that leadership was more complex and had to take into account not just the leader but other people as well.

We will all probably have a preference for a particular style of leadership, one that we feel more comfortable adopting. Think about how you can develop your leadership style:

  • Think about which is your preferred style of leadership.
  • How can you develop a wider range of leadership styles?
  • What leadership styles are most likely to have the best impact on your colleagues?

What the different leaders styles theory didn’t do was take into account how leaders should react to different situations. That is the subject of our article on situational leadership.

To find out more about this subject see our section devoted to  thinking more about leadership styles.