Several months ago, over a really great steak dinner, I got into a conversation about a local company that had recently replaced its long-time, universally admired CEO with a “turn-around” specialist whose mandate was to prepare the organization for a rapidly changing and uncertain future. Almost immediately he had established new work rules and procedures that left many employees both confused and concerned that they would be fired for violating policies that they really weren’t clear on. Essentially the new CEO had decided that the best way to increase performance was to have the employees constantly in fear of losing their jobs. As the dinner conversation progressed one of the other participants made the comment that while he didn’t necessarily agree with this top-down, authoritarian approach he did think it was a “very effective leadership style.” My response was that it could be a very effective, short-term “management style” but because of the lasting effects it was having employee morale it wasn’t a very good “leadership style.”
For those of us in leadership development, probably the most frequently asked question is “what is the difference between leadership and management?” For me the answer is pretty simple; management gets you through the day, leadership gets you to tomorrow. Where the confusion usually starts is that while short-term results must be a concern of every leader, if how you achieve those results negatively affects the long-term performance of the organization, and the people who report to you, then you’ve failed in your responsibilities as a leader. (Very important note: your best employees almost always have other options.) Your leadership style will ultimately determine the lasting success of your organization and the people who depend on you.
Before we start to look at the different leadership styles you need to keep a few things in mind. First, you already have a natural leadership style, the roots of which were largely beyond your control. It’s based upon your personality and emotional intelligence, your background and role models, past experience as to what worked and what didn’t, and where you are in your career and life. Secondly, there is no one style that is perfect for every situation you will encounter. Some will call for your using an “inspirational” style; others will require that you use an “authoritarian” style. While you do have your natural style that you will feel most comfortable with, you are capable of using many of the other styles. What you need to constantly keep in mind is that there are both benefits and consequences to every style. Finally, never underestimate the ability of the people you lead to detect when you are trying to be someone you are not. While you may need to adapt your leadership style to the situation, you have to make sure that you are authentic in both your words and actions.
The Four Styles
There are at least 10 generally recognized and accepted leadership styles, covering everything from “Transactional” to “Servant”. I want to focus on the four that have the potential for the greatest impact, both positively and negatively.
Autocratic – The autocratic leader has complete, or near complete power, and isn’t afraid to use it. This is the “because I said so” style of leadership. The advantages to the autocratic style are speed and efficiency. The disadvantages are the tendency to create an atmosphere of fear and passivity – autocratic leaders create compliance, they don’t develop commitment. The autocratic style is a staple of TV sitcoms and cartoons but has limited use in a world where empowerment and buy-in are crucial for success. (This style also requires more of the leader’s time and energy to be focused on day-to-day operations.) Because of the potential negative effects, the use of the autocratic style should be limited to emergencies, issues of safety, and occasionally situations where time is critical.
Bureaucratic – Leadership by the book – or policy manual. This style is the backbone of organizations where consistency is a priority and/or the time it takes to make individualized decisions is not an option. The bureaucratic style is ideal for keeping large organizations functioning but runs the risk of stifling creativity and leaving followers feeling like a number. It can also provide leaders with a convenient shield from having to make tough decisions. Every organization needs established policies and procedures. This is especially true for large and geographically spread out organizations. The question that leaders need to ask themselves is “is our bureaucracy keeping us running smoothly or keeping us from reaching our potential?”
Relationship Oriented – This style focuses on the long-term development of the organization and the individuals involved. Team building and personal development are as important as results and you are willing to let your people take risks and make mistakes (within reason.) Relationship Oriented leadership is based firmly in the belief that leadership isn’t about the leader but about providing everyone in the organization the opportunity to shine. Relationship Oriented leaders understand their followers’ strengths, goals, and challenges and use that knowledge to create the strongest team. This takes extra effort and isn’t always the fastest approach to getting things done, but ultimately it should create an organization where the leader has confidence in his follower’s ability to perform.
Transformational – Transformational leaders focus on the future, developing a vision and then making it a reality. They don’t just create the “organization of tomorrow”, they help create the organization of the next 20, 50 or 100 years. Transformational leaders not only look at what their organization is doing now, they are constantly looking at what could be, and should be doing. Transformational leaders have to understand their industry and business but they also have to keep up on trends and practices in other industries as well as cultural, demographic, and technological changes that may affect them. This style often requires a support team to help monitor day-to-day operations.
So what do you do now? I’ve put you in a seemingly impossible position by telling you that some leadership styles are better than others but that you already have a developed style and that you run the risk of creating problems if you come across as inauthentic. As with most leadership competencies the most important thing is that you are aware of your style(s) and how it is impacting your organization. If you are experiencing high employee or volunteer turnover you may need to look at whether or not you are too autocratic. If you constantly seem to be behind others in your industry are you too bureaucratic? If you are in a middle management position and responsible for making sure deadlines are met you may need to mix in the autocratic style more frequently, at least until the effects of your transformational style initiatives kick in.
Think of the styles as not only the base of your leadership ability but also a set of tools that you can use to increase your leadership effectiveness – and make sure that you’re never the topic of a negative dinner conversation.
John Rinehart has been involved in leadership development for over 15 years. He is a graduate of the Pennsylvania State University RULE Rural Leadership Program, and served as Vice President of the program’s Advisory Board. John has also worked with organizations across Pennsylvania on visioning, strategic planning, and organizational development and was recently published in “In the Company of Leaders: 40 Top leadership experts provide proven guidance for your leadership journey.”