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Beyond Leadership Style

The concept of leadership style is a usurper. It seized the territory once occupied by management style. It's time to give it back.

Japanese commercial success in the West during the 1970's and 80's launched an emotional tsunami. Western business pundits blew their tops, leading to a hue and cry to replace managers with leaders. This caused a lot of confusion over the differences between leadership and management that still plague us today. To put leadership style in its place, we need to review a bit of its history, show how we can give it back to management, then explore what is left of leadership style. Briefly, it disappears, becoming influencing style. Thus there's really no leadership style at all.

Conventional Leadership Style

Early thinking about leadership style talked about whether to focus on the task or on people. Hence 2 leadership styles: task-orientated and people oriented. A similar idea talks about providing structure versus showing consideration for people.

Either way, it's a question of whether the best way to get work done through employees is to offer them clear direction, structure and task-related guidance or whether to focus on their needs to be motivated, recognized, valued and included. This leadership style discussion didn't get much beyond the obvious conclusion that a bit of both was probably the best idea, except in a crisis where you needed to be more task-oriented. Leaders could also flex their style depending on their objectives. If they just needed a job done quickly, then a task-oriented style was best. However, if you needed your team to accept a potentially unpopular decision or feel some ownership and commitment to a difficult goal, then a focus on their needs is important.

Participative vs Autocratic

These two leadership styles are variations on the themes we have already discussed. The main difference is that the focus now is not so much on how to get work done through employees but the best way of making decisions. Being participative has also been called consultative or democratic, although there are fine differences. Consultative leaders ask employees for input but make their own decisions, while democratic leaders seek consensus as far as possible.

The autocratic style is also sometimes referred to as dictatorial. While this style is again about decision making, where leaders make their own decisions unilaterally, it's clearly more task-oriented than the participative, consultative or democratic styles. As with the other styles discussed above, it makes sense to use a participative style when you need employees to feel committed to the decision or to boost employee morale, to develop employees or foster a sense of shared ownership. Of course, this style takes more time, so a more autocratic approach is reasonable when time is of the essence.

There are other, more complicated leadership styles, that rarely make it out of academic discussions. Pick up an academic leadership textbook if you want to delve into these intricacies.

Theory X and Y

This is another variation on the task versus people theme, but here the focus is on the leader's attitude toward people. A theory X leader thinks that people can't be trusted, that they are lazy and have to be pushed to work and closely monitored. This outlook then generates a task-oriented leadership style where the leader focuses on making sure the job gets done without paying much attention to people's needs or caring about their feelings. Conversely, the theory Y leader thinks that people are responsible, naturally motivated to work hard and trustworthy. Here, the focus is on helping, coaching and developing people, paying attention to their needs and feelings.

To some extent the theory X outlook is self-fulfilling because, when people are treated as if they weren't responsible, they are likely to behave as expected, not caring about their work. This is also true of the theory Y style. People given responsibility and trusted are likely to work harder to prove that they are indeed responsible. Like most leadership style theories, this one is a little simplistic. The truth is that there are both types of people in the world (motivated and unmotivated) and they should be managed differently. Still, people are more likely to rise to the challenge if you start by assuming them to be responsible.

Daniel Goleman's Leadership Styles

The author of the popular emotional intelligence books has written a book called Primal Leadership in which he offers the following leadership styles:

  • Visionary - useful when an organization needs to overcome a massive challenge, achieve a difficult long term goal or needs to move in a completely fresh direction. This is a variation on the old style of providing structure.
  • Coaching - where the leader coaches individual employees on how to develop and be more effective at work - this is a novel twist on the old people-oriented style.
  • Affiliative - here the leader stresses team spirit and collaboration, building on people's needs to belong and be accepted, another variant on the old people-oriented style.
  • Democratic - this is the same style we called participative or democratic above, useful when you need to gain commitment to unpopular decisions.
  • Pacesetting - this is another task-oriented style in which the leader sets a hard working, fast paced example.
  • Commanding - this style is just another label for autocratic or dictatorial.

On the whole, Goleman introduces a few novel twists to conventional leadership style theory, but the basic underlying themes are the same - task and structure versus people.

Blake & Mouton's Managerial Grid

Leaders, on this model, can be high on one axis and high or low on another. Here is an explanation of the 4 extreme points plus what it means to be in the middle.

1,1: Apathetic leaders exert minimal effort and show little concern for either employee motivation or task results.

1,9: Country Club leaders care a great deal about people's needs while neglecting results. They are nice and helpful but not very task oriented.

5,5: Middle of the Road leaders try to be all things to all people, not a balance that can be struck consistently. They also put too much emphasis on compromise.

9,1 Dictatorial leaders have a very strong focus on the task and results with little concern for people's needs, hence they can be dictatorial.

9,9 Team leaders balance a strong focus on results with an equal concern for people.

Blake & Mouton did not claim that any one style was best, but rather that different styles were appropriate in different situations.

Directive versus Inclusive Leadership Styles

This is a modern way of capturing the older autocratic versus participative style distinction. Directive leaders aren't necessarily dictatorial or autocratic but they like to think for themselves, make their own decisions and direct the efforts of others. Such leaders see their teams as there to execute their decisions. This may work in factories but less so for knowledge work and creative thinking where employees want to have more of a say in what gets done as well as how it gets done. Inclusive leaders take a very active part in fostering teamwork. Their decision making style is participative but not just in the narrow sense of generating better solutions and fostering shared ownership but in the full sense of making employees feel valued for their input.

Inclusive leaders ask team members for their input before proposing their own solutions. Leaders who are partly directive and partly inclusive might suggest their own ideas first and then ask for feedback while the more strongly inclusive leaders first ask what team members think. They act more as catalysts, facilitators, coaches and developers of people than as authoritative decision makers.

Giving Back to Management

If we redefine leadership as an influence process: showing the way for others, then we need to reinstate management to its rightful place at the head of affairs. We need to redefine leadership to account for how it can be shown bottom-up and by outsiders, like green leaders who aren't in charge of those who follow.

Notice that Blake and Mouton's grid is called the Managerial Grid. That's because, when their grid was launched, the focus hadn't shifted to leaders yet. The bottom line is that before the 1980's managers could exhibit BOTH styles: people AND task focused. It's only been since the Japanese commercial tsunami that we started assigning leaders the good guy styles and condemning managers to the bad guy roles.

If we are to limit leadership to influencing changes in direction, then we need to put management back in its rightful place, defining it simply as achieving goals in a way that makes the best use of all pertinent resources. This definition includes self-management: managing your time, finances and career, which clearly isn't bureaucratic or controlling by definition.

Particular managers can, of course, be controlling. But they can also be facilitative, engaging, nurturing, developmental and empowering. Management, as here defined, is style-neutral. What style they use is a function of their personalities and the situation. Style isn't part of the definition of management. Actually, we shouldn't be defining leadership in style terms either - as inspiring, nuturing, considerate of people, because doing so rules out other styles and we know that there have been leaders throughout history with every style under the sun.

Notice also that all of our discussion of conventional leadership style has been about getting work done through people or making decisions. But these things are what managers do. Green leaders, for example, simply promote a better way and leave it up to followers to implement their proposals on their own. Same with leading by example. Thus leadership can't be defined in a way that implies being in charge of people, making decisions for them or getting things done through them.

Beyond Leadership Style

If leadership is defined as an influence process, where it need not be a role in charge of people, then there is only influencing style, the techniques you use to influence people to change direction. This can range from a grand vision to leading by example, from an emotional appeal to a hard-hitting presentation of facts. A consequence of this move is that there can be autocratic or democratic management but there can't be autocratic or participative leadership. Managers make decisions and facilitate action but leaders can only influence.

Management and leadership are both processes, but management can be a role; leadership can't. Being autocratic just isn't a form of leadership influence, but neither is being democratic. People are either influenced to act differently or they have an equal say, in which case no leadership is shown.

Why it Matters

We are still stuck with the fallout from a 1980's emotional reaction. As a result we have a bloated concept of leadership and no place for management. Worse, we overlook kinds of leadership that don't entail being in charge of people. As a result, we can't reap the full benefits that leadership has to offer.

It's time to see the 1980s distortions of leadership and management for what they are: an emotional overreaction to a crisis of confidence. Instead, we need to upgrade management and carve out a less bloated concept of leadership.

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