From small business ventures to mighty empires, success depends on having a great leadership style. But more than that, it depends on having the right leadership style. One of the early theories regarding leadership stems from Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, whose Great Man theory insists that leaders are born, that leadership cannot be taught and that these great leaders will arise when there is an equally great need.
By Cara Fielder. Published 20 September 2018. Last updated 5 June 2023.
We’ve moved on a little since then and it’s generally understood that leadership is not a one-size-fits-all deal. But what are the different sizes? And how do they benefit different situations? We’ve teamed up with InterActivePro – the providers of our online courses – to take a look at some of the prevalent theories of leadership out there.
From the top
Authoritative leadership styles fixate on autocratic leaders – like in the military – with decisions coming from one person at the top. It’s a good model for quick decisions but runs the risk of team members feeling undervalued. Characteristic leadership relies on the charm of a leader, and success depends on their presence. Compared to other models which prepare teams to continue in their absence, the removal of a charismatic leader often creates a power vacuum. A bureaucratic leadership style, meanwhile, uses strict procedures - not a great model for businesses requiring out-of-the-box thinking but may suit routine-based roles where members would benefit from clearly defined rules. However, many jobs typically employ a transactional leadership model which sees subordinates – motivated by rewards and punishment – cede all authority to their manager, with the sole purpose to fulfil their commands. Relying on a clear command structure, it rewards success, punishes failure, and uses ‘management by exception’, only praising that which exceeds expectations, and correcting that which falls short.
You’ve been served
On the flip side, servant leadership links to a charismatic style, in which compelling and generous leaders work to meet overall team needs. Suited to collaborative environments, it often results in higher satisfaction, as staff feel valued and heard. The drawback to this style is that it can lead to difficulties in speedier decision-making.
Similarly, democratic leadership models invite subordinates to contribute to the decision-making process by having their thoughts and opinions considered – however, the final responsibility for the decision still resides with their leader. In general, participative models often yield better results, functioning by giving members involvement in the decision-making process and improving their understanding and commitment to tasks.
For leaders who have a great deal of trust in their subordinates, the laissez-faire model gives staff greater freedom; rather than micromanaging team members, they provide support only when necessary. This works for coordinated, experienced teams, but it may be ineffective for newer team members.
Transforming the outcome
Using the transformational style is often effective; those who incorporate it are typically seen as authentic and empathetic. They share their vision, encourage cohesion, and aim to see the team constantly improve. However, this requires constant energy and enthusiasm from the leader which, paradoxically, can wear on the followers, and cause them to leave.
Great leadership often depends on a range of variables: the situation itself; the leader; the followers. Situational leadership does not follow one model devoutly, staying dynamic in the face of change. Contingency theories support this by showing that a management style which is successful in one situation may fail in another.
So, are leaders simply born, as Carlyle suggests? These leadership models have arisen in recent years to argue many different styles exist and can indeed be taught. The success of any venture – business in particular – depends on the style and quality of leadership.
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