To say that there has been a lot written about leadership and leadership styles would perhaps be something of an understatement. There are literally hundreds of books written about the subject, with more and more titles added every year.
The internet too is full of advice on how to be a great leader, a digital leader, a change leader, a compassionate leader. We can read about how leaders break the rules, go from good to great, eat last, lean in, dare to be different, and even five things that the very best leaders do before their breakfast every morning.
Which leadership style is best?
Leadership is also an area that is packed with research and theories, especially when it comes to that perhaps most tricky of questions: which leadership style works best? There is a very brief – albeit somewhat unhelpful - answer to this question: it depends.
Depending on which theory you read, there are some writers that will tell you that it is the qualities and behaviour of a leader that matters most. The alternative viewpoint is that it’s what the leader actually does every day that is more important.
In truth, there is no one leadership style or set of leadership qualities that will work best in every single situation, organisation, or context. There is also no one leadership style that will work indefinitely. The single most important thing any leader can do is understand the style that works best for them and their situation and then learn to use it effectively. Adaption and flexibility are key – when the situation changes, so must the leadership style. This is true whether leading large businesses or small.
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Comparing leadership styles in business
There are many different leadership styles. There are some that focus on telling people what to do; others that are more consultative and collaborative. Here are just a few:
1. Autocratic leadership
- These leaders hold the power and make the decisions. There is usually little consultation with employees or discussion of other viewpoints.
2. Servant leadership
- The servant leader focuses on the needs of others before their own. They consider the views of others, and they believe that they are literally there to serve.
3. Democratic leadership
- This style is all about participation. Decision making is shared and everyone’s views are welcomed, regardless of status or hierarchy.
4. Transformational leadership
- These leaders aim to generate a vision for the organisation, changing and reshaping, using their charisma to inspire their employees to follow the journey.
5. Laissez-faire leadership
- These leaders focus on trust. They are hands-off and allow their people to make their own decisions, providing freedom and autonomy.
6. The coaching leader
- This leader focuses first on the development of others, helping them to be the best that they can be.
Each of these leadership styles has its benefits and drawbacks. There are some leadership styles that might instinctively feel more natural to us – or for whom we would rather work if we had a choice. There are styles in which we can recognise ourselves and our tendencies – remember, not everyone who leads has a leadership position.
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There are other styles that, while we know they exist and may even have experienced them from time to time, do not seem to make much sense when we compare them with our knowledge about what engages and motivates employees.
Deciding on a leadership style
Not all leaders pay enough attention to their leadership style. They just simply do what they do, without reflection or focus. Paying attention to how you lead and placing deliberate attention towards determining an appropriate style is good practice for every leader.
Questions leaders should ask themselves
For the leader who wants to do just that, why not begin with these questions?
- What is my normal leadership style? Which of the styles described in this blog post is the closest for me?
- What leadership qualities do I believe that I have?
- How well does my current style work for me?
- How would other people describe my leadership style? How does that make me feel?
- What style is the right style for my current role and organisation?
- How adaptable is my leadership style?
Over a long leadership career there may be a time when an autocratic approach is a necessity and other times when a democratic approach is preferable. In truth, many leaders will have elements of more than one style, employing different approaches when they are needed.
Leadership style in context
When it comes to leadership style in business, context is everything. What are the current business challenges? What is the organisation’s current vision, values and mission? What needs to be achieved, and what is currently important or urgent?
From the answers to these questions, it is possible to determine the most appropriate leadership style for both the organisation and the people that work for it. There is no perfect style, only the right one, for the right moment.
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Written by Gemma Dale
Gemma Dale is an experienced senior HR professional, CIPD Chartered Fellow, HEA Fellow, and a regular speaker and writer on a variety of HR topics. Gemma is the co-author of the book 'Flexible Working' published by Kogan Page in 2020. She is also a lecturer in the Business School at Liverpool John Moores University and runs her own business, The Work Consultancy.