Styles of Leadership

A couple of true stories:

  • The director of a community coalition understood her role clearly: to bring people and organizations together to work on common issues; to facilitate the work of the groups that formed; and to support those who took on responsibility for the work. Her enthusiasm and hard work pulled coalition members onto committees and task forces, and her skill at making people feel needed and valued kept them there. She sent cards of appreciation, thanking people for the work they were doing or had done, and instituted a system of annual public awards to recognize those who had put in time and effort to improve the community. She even baked muffins for each coalition meeting. The result was that task forces retained their members over long periods of time, and accomplished the work they had set out to do. The coalition was tremendously successful in successfully addressing issues vital to the community, largely because of the director’s effectiveness in bringing people together and making them feel valued.
  • The new high school principal was committed to excellence in teaching, and was convinced that the surest way to achieve it was to encourage teachers to take more control of their jobs and more ownership of the school. He wanted them to try out new ideas with students, to talk with one another about what they were doing, to establish mutual support systems, and to participate in decision-making for the school. As he set out to change the school climate to make all this possible, he was surprised and dismayed to find that most teachers wanted no part of empowerment. They saw the administration and other teachers as threats, had no desire to innovate in their classrooms, and wanted to get as far away as possible from teaching when they weren’t actively engaged in it. After five years of frustrating effort, with only very modest success, the principal took another job in the system.

Both of these stories are about styles of leadership – the ways in which leaders see leadership and carry it out. Leadership styles can influence every action and every area of an organization, from the nature of coffee breaks to the overall effectiveness of a community initiative. As a result, it’s important to understand what different styles look like, which ones are more and less effective, and how you can develop or change your style to come closer to the ideal you aspire to. This section will help you to that understanding.

What is leadership style?

According to John Gardner, in On Leadership, “Leadership is the process of persuasion or example by which an individual (or leadership team) induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leader and his or her followers.” If we accept that definition, then leadership style is the way in which that process is carried out.

Leaders’ styles encompass how they relate to others within and outside the organization, how they view themselves and their position, and – to a very large extent – whether or not they are successful as leaders. If a task needs to be accomplished, how does a particular leader set out to get it done? If an emergency arises, how does a leader handle it? If the organization needs the support of the community, how does a leader go about mobilizing it? All of these depend on leadership style.

Much of the material in this section looks at individual leaders, but leadership can be invested in a team, or in several teams, or in different people at different times. Many – perhaps most – organizations have several levels of leadership, and thus many leaders. Regardless of the actual form of leadership, however, leadership style is an issue. Whether you’re the leader of a large organization or a member of a small group that practices collective leadership, the way that leadership plays out will have a great deal to do with the effectiveness and influence of your work.


Why pay attention to leadership style?

The style of an organization’s leadership is reflected in both the nature of that organization and its relationships with the community. If a leader is suspicious and jealous of his power, others in the organization are likely to behave similarly, in dealing with both colleagues and the community. If a leader is collaborative and open, she is likely to encourage the same attitudes among staff members, and to work collaboratively with other organizations.

In many ways, the style of its leader defines an organization. If the organization is to be faithful to its philosophy and mission, its leader’s style must be consistent with them. An autocratic leader in a democratic organization can create chaos. A leader concerned only with the bottom line in an organization built on the importance of human values may undermine the purpose of its work. For that reason, being conscious of both your own style as a leader and those of others you hire as leaders can be crucial in keeping your organization on the right track.

Conceptions and methods of leadership

We’ve all known and seen different types of leaders. (We’ll look more closely at some specific styles later in this section.) One of the enduring images of the 20th century is that of hundreds of thousands of Germans wildly cheering their Fuhrer in Leni Riefenstahl’s brilliant and terrifying 1930′s Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.” Franklin Roosevelt comforted a nation paralyzed by economic depression by explaining that “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” John Kennedy electrified a generation with his exhortation to “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

All of these are representations – for various purposes – of great motivational leaders working their magic through their speeches. Our concept of leadership tends to linger on such examples, but there are other kinds of leaders as well. Gandhi sitting and spinning in a dusty Indian courtyard; John Lewis and other Freedom Riders being brutally beaten in Mississippi; Vaclav Havel refusing to take revenge on the former Communist bureaucrats of Czechoslovakia; Nelson Mandela sitting in prison on Robben Island – these also are pictures of leadership.

Conceptions of leadership

The leadership style of an organization may be concerned with less dramatic issues than these examples, but it nonetheless has profound effects on the people within that organization, and on everything the organization does. Styles have to do with a leader’s – and organization’s – ideas of what leadership is and does. Possible conceptions include:

  • Exercising power. Leadership is a matter of pursuing one’s own ends. Asserting power over others is an end in itself, and symbolizes one’s position as a leader.
  • Gaining and exercising the privileges of high status. Leadership is about getting to the top, and being recognized as having the highest status.
  • Being the boss. Leadership is overseeing the work of the organization by telling everyone what to do when, and rewarding or punishing as appropriate.
  • Task orientation. Leadership is getting the job done – that’s all that matters.
  • Taking care of people. Leadership is looking out for those you lead, and making sure they get what they need.
  • Empowerment. Leadership is helping those you lead gain power and become leaders.

Taking these last two together, we might add a conception whereby one aspect of leadership is the fostering of personal (and professional) growth in others.


  • Providing moral leadership. The leader, by force of character and her own high standards, creates expectations and pulls others up to her level.
  • Providing and working toward a vision. Leadership is the ability to envision a goal, and to motivate others to work with you toward that goal.

Methods of leadership

In many, or perhaps most, organizations, more than one of these conceptions may define leadership. Each implies particular ways of leading, and leaders may use a number of different methods.

  • Pure exercise of power. “My way or the highway.” If you don’t do what the leader demands, no matter how unreasonable, you’re gone. The leader’s decisions are not open to question or discussion, and no one else gets to make decisions.
  • Political scheming. The leader plays people off against one another, creates factions within the organization, cultivates “allies” and isolates “enemies,” and builds up (through favors or overlooking poor performance) personal debt which can be cashed in when needed, in order to manipulate people and events as he wishes.

A school superintendent bragged to voters about how little was spent on the school system, and then explained to teachers how they couldn’t have raises because the community was too cheap to invest in education. He set principals at odds with one another and with teachers, played favorites among system administrators, postured in public, did his best to charm particular school committee members, and generally kept everyone off balance. He did it so well that, for most of his long term of employment, almost no one noticed that he exercised no educational leadership whatsoever, and that the schools deteriorated both physically and educationally under his administration.


  • Using relationships. The leader develops strong positive relationships with all or most of the people in the organization, and uses these relationships to steer people in particular directions. People do what they’re asked because of their relationships with the leader, rather than for reasons connected to the tasks themselves.
  • Setting an example. The leader may or may not demand or request particular behavior or actions, but she will demonstrate them, and expect or imply that others will follow.

In Sicily, a young archeologist was the dig supervisor, given the task of negotiating with and organizing local workmen for a dig. The workmen, most of them nearly twice the supervisor’s age, saw the job as an opportunity to make some money without doing much work (and had been given to understand as much by the local mafioso who recruited them).

The supervisor surprised them by speaking their dialect, and by treating them with respect. But the biggest surprise was that, after explaining carefully what needed to be done and how, he didn’t stand over them or tell each person what to do. Instead, he simply turned away and went to work. The older men, impressed and embarrassed, started to work as well. They were surprised once more when they realized that the young archeologist was willing to do any job, no matter how hard or dirty, and that – although they were farmers, accustomed to labor – they couldn’t outwork him no matter how they tried. Contrary to their original expectations, they worked hard for the time they were employed…without the supervisor ever giving orders.


  • Persuasion. The leader convinces people through argument, reasoning, selling techniques, or other persuasive methods that what the leader wants is, in fact, the best course, or in line with what they want to do.
  • Sharing power. Some leaders choose to exercise at least some leadership through the other stakeholders in the organization. In this situation they may give up some personal power in return for what they see as more ownership of decisions, goals, and the organization itself by those involved in the decision-making process.
  • Charisma. Some leaders are charismatic enough to simply pull others along by the power of their personalities alone. They may, in fact, advocate and accomplish wonderful things, but they do it through people’s loyalty to and awe of them.

Alexander the Great was only 18 when he succeeded his murdered father as King of Macedonia, and only 32 when he died, but he was able in the short time in between to conquer much of the known world. His personal magnetism was such that his soldiers – who knew him well, and fought beside him – thought him immortal, and followed him for years through battle after battle, and through one unknown country after another. As he lay dying, his whole army – 50,000 men – filed past to say goodbye personally to the leader they loved and revered. That’s charisma.


  • Involving followers in the goal. The leader gets others to buy into her vision for the organization, and to make it their own. She may accomplish this through charisma, through the force of her own belief in the power and rightness of the vision, or through the nature of the vision itself.
  • Various combinations of these and other methods.

The combination of the leader’s and organization’s conception of leadership and the leader’s way of leading does much to define leadership style. In addition, the characteristics of the leadership are almost always reflected in the relationships within and among the staff, participants, Board, and others related to the organization, as well as in its policies, procedures, and program. We’ll return to this idea in more detail when we examine specific styles later in this section.

There are also other factors that come into play in defining leadership style. In some organizations, for instance, leaders are expected to shake things up, and to foster and support change. In others, they are expected to sustain the status quo. In some, they are expected to be proactive, and assertive; in others, more passive. All of these elements – concepts of leadership, methods of leading, attitude toward change, assertiveness – combine with personalities and individual experience in different ways to create different styles of leaders.

Some ways of looking at leadership style, and their effects on an organization

There are a number of theories about leadership style, many involving a continuum – two opposite styles with a number of intermediate stops between them. We’ll try here to present four styles that summarize many of the existing theories, and to show how they interact with another, all-embracing way of looking at leadership style.

Four leadership styles:

Keep in mind that each of the styles below is a stereotype that actually fits very few real people. Each is meant to outline the characteristics of a style in very simple and one-sided terms. Hardly anyone actually sees or exercises leadership as inflexibly as laid out here. Most leaders combine some of the characteristics of two or more of these styles, and have other characteristics that don’t match any of those below. You can find many descriptions of other leadership styles as well. What this list really provides is some useful ways to think about your own and others ‘ leadership.

It’s also important to remember that people can be either effective or ineffective in any of these categories. An autocratic leader might simply, through his behavior, serve to strengthen the very forces that he’s trying to squash. A managerial leader may be an excellent or a terrible manager. Adopting a certain style doesn’t necessarily imply carrying it off well.

There are also some styles that are by their nature less effective than others. One which appears in the literature, for instance, is laissez-faire, which means letting things happen as they might, and providing neither vision nor direction nor structure. This may work for a short time in an organization that has already devised successful ways of working, but it won’t suit even the best organization over a long period of time, and will be disastrous in an organization that needs direction and structure.


1. Autocratic. Autocratic leaders insist on doing it all themselves. They have all the power, make all the decisions, and don’t often tell anyone else about what they’re doing. If you work for an autocratic leader, your job is usually to do what you’re told.

An autocratic leader often maintains his authority by force, intimidation, threats, reward and punishment, or position. Although he may or may not have a clear vision, and may or may not be steering the organization in the right direction, he’s not concerned with whether anyone else agrees with what he’s doing or not.

Autocratic leadership allows quick decision-making, and eliminates arguments over how and why things get done. At the same time, however, it may reduce the likelihood of getting a range of different ideas from different people, and can treat people badly, or as if they don’t matter. If, as is often true, the leader is concerned with his own power and status, he’ll be looking over his shoulder, and moving to squelch any opposition to him or his ideas and decisions. Innovation or the use of others’ ideas is only permissible if it’s part of the leader’s plan.

Effects on the organization. Autocratic leaders often leave fear and mistrust in their wake. Others in the organization tend to copy their protection of their position, and their distrust of others’ ideas and motives. Often, autocratically -led organizations are not particularly supportive of personal relationships, but much more keyed to chain-of-command. Everyone has her own sphere, and protects it at all costs. Communication tends to go in only one direction – up – as a result of which rumor can become the standard way of spreading news in the organization.

At its best (and there are decent autocratic leaders – see the box directly below ), autocratic leadership provides a stable and secure work environment and decisive, effective leadership. All too often, however, it can sacrifice initiative, new ideas, and the individual and group development of staff members for the predictability of a highly structured, hierarchical environment where everyone knows exactly what he’s supposed to do, and follows orders without question.

Although the above paints a pretty bleak picture, many autocratic leaders are not hated and feared, but rather esteemed, and even loved. It depends on their own personalities – like anyone else, they can be nice people, or highly charismatic, or even willing to listen to and act on others’ ideas – on the organization itself (in the military, most soldiers want someone firmly in charge), on the quality of their decisions, and on the needs of the people they lead. If they’re generally decent and not abusive, make good decisions for the organization, and fulfill the parent-figure or authority -figure image that most people in the organization are looking for, they can be both effective and well-respected.


2. Managerial. The leader who sees herself as a manager is concerned primarily with the running of the organization. Where it’s going is not at issue, as long as it gets there in good shape. She may pay attention to relationships with and among staff members, but only in the service of keeping things running smoothly. Depending upon the nature and stability of the organization, her main focus may be on funding, on strengthening the organization’s systems and infrastructure (policies, positions, equipment, etc.), or on making sure day-to-day operations go well (including making sure that everyone is doing what he’s supposed to).

If she’s efficient, a managerial leader will generally be on top of what’s happening in the organization. Depending on the size of the organization and her management level, she’ll have control of the budget, know the policies and procedures manual inside out, be aware of who’s doing his job efficiently and who’s not, and deal with issues quickly and firmly as they come up. What she won’t do is steer the organization. Vision isn’t her business; maintaining the organization is.

Effects on the organization. In general, a well-managed organization, regardless of its leadership style, is a reasonably pleasant place to work. Staff members don ‘t have to worry about ambiguity, or about whether they’ll get paid. As long as oversight is relatively civil – no screaming at people, no setting staff members against one another – things go along on an even keel. Good managers even try to foster friendly relationships with and among staff, because they make the organization work better.

On the other hand, good management without a clear vision creates an organization with no sense of purpose. The organization may simply act to support the status quo, doing what it has always done in order to keep things running smoothly. That attitude neither fosters passion in staff members, nor takes account of the changing needs (and they do change) of the target population or the community. The organization may do what it does efficiently and well…but what it does may not be what it should be doing, and it won’t be examining that possibility any time soon.

Obviously, the leader of any organization – as well as any other administrator – has to be a manager at least some of the time. Many are in fact excellent managers, and keep the organization running smoothly on a number of levels. The issue here is the style that person adopts as a leader. If she sees management as her primary purpose, she’s a managerial leader, and will have a very different slant on leadership than if her style is essentially democratic, for instance.


3. Democratic. A democratic leader understands that there is no organization without its people. He looks at his and others’ positions in terms of responsibilities rather than status, and often consults in decision-making. While he solicits, values, and takes into account others’ opinions, however, he sees the ultimate responsibility for decision-making as his own. He accepts that authority also means the buck stops with him. Although he sees the organization as a cooperative venture, he knows that he ultimately has to face the consequences of his decisions alone.

Democratic leadership invites the participation of staff members and others, not only in decision-making, but in shaping the organization’s vision. It allows everyone to express opinions about how things should be done, and where the organization should go. By bringing in everyone’s ideas, it enriches the organization’s possibilities. But it still leaves the final decisions about what to do with those ideas in the hands of a single person.

Some models of democratic leadership might put the responsibility in the hands of a small group – a management team or executive committee – rather than an individual.


Effects on the organization. Democratic leadership, with its emphasis on equal status, can encourage friendships and good relationships throughout the organization. (In more hierarchical organizations, clerical staff and administrators are unlikely to socialize, for instance; in a democratically-led organization, such socialization often happens.) It helps people feel valued when their opinions are solicited, and even more so if those opinions are incorporated into a final decision or policy.

What a democratic leadership doesn’t necessarily do – although it can – is establish staff ownership of the organization and its goals. Although everyone may be asked for ideas or opinions, not all of those are used or incorporated in the workings of the organization. If there is no real discussion of ideas, with a resulting general agreement, a sense of ownership is unlikely. Thus, democratic leadership may have some of the drawbacks of autocratic leadership – a lack of buy-in – without the advantages of quick and clear decision-making that comes with the elimination of consultation.

4. Collaborative. A collaborative leader tries to involve everyone in the organization in leadership. She is truly first among equals, in that she may initiate discussion, pinpoint problems or issues that need to be addressed, and keep track of the organization as a whole, rather than of one particular job. But decisions are made through a collaborative process of discussion, and some form of either majority or consensus agreement. Toward that end, a collaborative leader tries to foster trust and teamwork among the staff as a whole.

A collaborative leader has to let go of the need for control or power or status if she is to be effective. Her goal is to foster the collaborative process, and to empower the group – whether the staff and others involved in an organization, or the individuals and organizations participating in a community initiative – to control the vision and the workings of the organization. She must trust that, if people have all the relevant information, they’ll make good decisions…and she must make sure that they have that information, and provide the facilitation that assures those good decisions.

Effects on the organization. Collaborative leadership comes as close as possible to ensuring that members of the organization buy into its vision and decisions, since they are directly involved in creating them. It comes closest to the goal of servant leadership explored in the previous section, and it also comes closest to reflecting the concepts of equality and empowerment included in the philosophy and mission of so many grass roots and community-based organizations. It thus removes much of the distrust that often exists between line staff and administrators.

David Chrislip and Carl E. Larson, in Collaborative Leadership – How Citizens and Civic Leaders Can Make a Difference, equate collaborative leadership not only with servant leadership, but with transformational (see below) and facilitative leadership as well. They identify four characteristics of the collaborative leader:


  • Inspiring commitment and action. The collaborative leader helps people develop the vision and passion to start and maintain the work.
  • Leading as a peer problem solver. The collaborative leader facilitates problem solving by modeling and teaching a process, and by helping others bring their experience and ideas to bear.
  • Building broad-based involvement. The collaborative leader invites everyone concerned into an inclusive process.
  • Sustaining hope and participation. Reaching goals may take a long time. The collaborative leader both helps the group set interim goals so it can see progress, and, by example and in other ways, helps to maintain the passion and commitment to keep going when there’s no end in sight.



Collaborative leaders also generally foster close relationships among staff members, making for more communication and cross-fertilization in their work, and leading to more effective ways to accomplish the organization’s goals.

On the down side, management can be neglected in favor of building a collaborative organization. Even more to the point, collaborative decision-making can be excruciating. Depending upon the group, ideas can be talked to death, and insignificant disagreements about insignificant areas of policy can take hours to resolve.

Collaborative decision-making can be democratic – based on a majority vote after discussion – or dependent on arriving at consensus, with a range of possibilities in between. Consensus decision-making is particularly difficult, in that it requires everyone to agree before a decision can be made. A single determined individual can derail the process indefinitely. Even at its best, a consensus process can take inordinate amounts of time, and try the patience of all involved. It’s not impossible to employ, but it takes real commitment to the ideal of consensus, and enormous patience. In practice, true consensus decision-making is most often used in collective organizations, which are significantly different from collaborative ones, and often involve everyone in leadership.


Another way of looking at leadership style

A different view, popularized by James MacGregor Burns, contrasts two styles of leadership: transactional and transformational.

Transactional leadership, as its name implies, views leadership as based on transactions between leader and followers. The leader sees human relations as a series of transactions. Thus rewards, punishments, reciprocity, exchanges (economic, emotional, physical) and other such “transactions” are the basis of leadership. In simplest terms, I lead this organization by paying you and telling you what you need to do; you respond by doing what you need to do efficiently and well, and the organization will prosper.

Transformational leadership looks at leadership differently. It sees a true leader as one who can distill the values and hopes and needs of followers into a vision, and then encourage and empower followers to pursue that vision. A transactional leader thinks of improvement or development as doing the same thing better: an organization that reaches more people, a company that makes more money. A transformational leader thinks about changing the world, even if only on a small scale.

Combining the two views of leadership style

These two ways of looking at leadership style are not mutually exclusive: in fact, it’s easier to look at leadership in the context of both. Assuming, as almost all leadership theorists do, that transformational is either better than, or a necessary addition to, transactional leadership, what elements go into creating a transformational leader? What styles are transformational leaders likely to employ, and how?

Elements of transformational leadership

The transformational leader conceives of leadership as helping people to create a common vision and then to pursue that vision until it’s realized. She elicits that vision from the needs and aspirations of others, gives it form, and sets it up as a goal to strive for. The vision is not hers: it is a shared vision that each person sees as his own.

Martin Luther King’s overwhelming “I Have A Dream” speech derived its power not only from the beauty of his oratory, but from the fact that it crystallized the feelings of all those citizens, of all races, who believed that racism was a great wrong. In that speech, King spoke with the voices of the hundreds of thousands who stood before the Lincoln Memorial, and of millions of others who shared in his vision. That speech remains as the defining moment of the Civil Rights struggle, and defined King – who had already proved his mettle in Birmingham and elsewhere – as a transformational leader.


The conception behind transformational leadership is thus providing and working toward a vision, but also has elements of empowerment, of taking care of people, and even of task orientation. The job of the transformational leader is not simply to provide inspiration and then disappear. It is to be there, day after day, convincing people that the vision is reachable, renewing their commitment, priming their enthusiasm. Transformational leaders work harder than anyone else, and, in the words of a spiritual, “keep their eyes on the prize”.

The methods that transformational leaders might use to reach their goals can vary. They’ll virtually always include involving followers in the goal, as well as charisma, which comes, if not from personal characteristics, from the ability to put a mutual vision into words, and to move a group toward the realization of that vision. Transformational leaders may also use sharing power, setting an example, and/or persuasion to help move a group toward its goal.

What style does all that imply? The managerial style is perhaps least appropriate to transformational leadership, since it pays no attention to vision. The autocratic pays little attention to the ideas of others, and is not generally congenial to the transformational leader. On the other hand, there was Hitler, who tapped into the deepest emotions of those he led, and voiced them in a frightening but highly effective way. There is no guarantee that a transformational leader will work for the betterment of humanity, although he may couch his vision in those terms. The intersection of the transformational and the autocratic is not impossible, but it usually has, at best, mixed results.

Fidel Castro initiated and has maintained desperately-needed land, education, health, and other reforms in Cuba, for which he is still revered by much of the island’s population. He also eliminated any vestige of political freedom, imprisoned and executed dissenters and political opponents, and was at least partially responsible for destroying much of Cuba’s economic base in the name of ideological purity. As with the four styles described earlier, there is no guarantee that either a transactional or transformational leader will be an effective one.


The democratic and collaborative styles are both better possibilities for transformational leadership. Both allow for input from everyone, and both encourage participation in the realization of long-term goals. It can be difficult for a highly motivated, charismatic leader to operate in the collaborative mode, but it can also be tremendously satisfying. There is an argument to be made that, because of the high degree of ownership of the vision in a collaboratively-run organization, the collaborative style could be the most successful for transformational leadership. As noted above, David Chrislip and Carl Larson actually see collaborative and transformational leadership as essentially the same.

How do you determine what is an appropriate style?

All that said, it is probably true that any leader, even a highly collaborative one, uses a range of different styles at different times – even, perhaps, in the course of a single day. Decisions have to be made, major and minor crises have to be met, situations and conflicts have to be resolved, often right at the moment. It is important to realize that different styles may be appropriate at different times, and for different purposes.

In an emergency, no one would suggest sitting down and making a group decision about what to do. There has to be decisive action, and one person has to take it as soon as possible. As long as it’s clear who that person is, there should be no question about the philosophical issues involved. By the same token, it’s counter -productive to make decisions about how people should do their jobs without at least consulting those people about what might work best. Good leaders usually have a style that they consciously use most of the time, but they’re not rigid. They change as necessary to deal with whatever comes up.

There are at least two other factors that have to be considered when choosing a leadership style. The first is that leadership style – at least at the beginning – must, to at least some extent, be consistent with what people in the organization expect. You can try to change their expectations and perceptions of how an organization should be run – that’s part of leadership – but you have to start by meeting them at least halfway, or you’ll never get close enough to talk about it.

If you’re trying to turn a system that’s been autocratic into a collaborative one, you have to accept that most people in the system not only won’t welcome the change, and that some won’t even understand what you’re suggesting. You also have to accept that they’ve probably developed their own methods of getting around the rigidity of the system that they’ll continue to use, even if the system is no longer rigid. It can take a long time just to get your ideas across, and longer to help people overcome their suspicions and break old habits. A few may never be able to. You need patience, and the willingness to act occasionally in ways you’d rather not.

In the second story at the beginning of this section, the school principal was on the side of the angels: he was trying to be a collaborative, transformational leader who would inspire and support teachers to become the best educators they could, and who would make the school into a model of excellence, learning for all, and collegiality. The problem was that the teachers expected something entirely different. They wanted someone to tell them what to do, and then leave them alone to do it. They saw the principal’s plans as just another way to trick them into doing things they didn’t want to do, and to get them to work longer hours. The more he tried to explain how what he was asking was for their benefit, the more they resisted – they’d heard that line before.

If he had started where the teachers were, the principal might have been able to be more successful. That would have meant his “running” the school as his predecessor had, and introducing reforms slowly over a long period. Suggestions to receptive teachers might have started the process; professional development could have helped it along. He might have used incentives of some sort to encourage teachers to try new things, rather than assuming they would be happy to be more independent and creative. Paying attention to the expectations of the staff might have paid off for the principal in the long run.


Finally, your style needs to be consistent with the goals, mission, and philosophy of your organization. As mentioned earlier – and in numerous places elsewhere in the Community Tool Box – an organization cannot remain faithful to its mission if its internal structure is at odds with its guiding principles. An organization dedicated to empowerment of the target population, for instance, must empower its staff as well. For most grass roots and community-based organizations, this consistency would mean using some variation of a democratic or collaborative style.

How do you choose and develop a leadership style?

What kind of leader do you want to be? Perhaps even more important, how would you be most effective as a leader? What kind of leadership style would be of the most benefit to your organization, and would allow you to be the best leader you could be? The leadership styles described in this section aren’t the only ways to look at leadership. As we’ve already discussed, most real leaders use a combination of styles, and there are others that haven’t really been touched on here.

It’s possible that Alexander the Great was a born leader, but how much are you like Alexander the Great? Be honest now…it’s doubtful, isn’t it? Just about all leaders, even great leaders, have to learn how to lead, and have to develop their skills over a period of time. You can do the same, especially if you have a clear idea of what you think leadership is about, and if you have good models to learn from. Here are a few things you can do to choose and develop your own effective leadership style:

1. Start with yourself. Use what you know about your own personality, and about how you’ve exercised leadership in the past. Neither of these has to determine what you choose now – people can change, especially if they believe that what they’ve done before was ineffective or inconsistent with their values – but it’s important to be honest with yourself about who you are. That honesty has two aspects.

First, be clear with yourself about what your natural tendencies and talents are. If you want to be a collaborative leader, but you tend to tell people what to do, you have to admit that and think about ways to change it. If you want to be a directive leader, but you have trouble making decisions, you need to deal with that issue. Not everyone can be charismatic, but almost everyone can learn to distill and communicate a vision that reflects the hopes and needs of a group. Knowing who you are is the first step toward both choosing a style and understanding what you’ll have to do to adopt it.

Being truly honest with yourself is a difficult task. For most of us, it may take some time with a counselor or a trusted friend, or the willingness to hear feedback from colleagues, co-workers, and/or family members. It also takes an honest self -assessment, which can mean stripping away defenses and facing insecurities.

Some questions you might ask yourself to start:

How great is my need to be in control? (When you’re in a car, are you uncomfortable if you’re not driving, assuming the driver is competent? Would you let someone else order for you in a restaurant? If you were teaching a class, would it be a lecture? Would you follow tangents that were interesting to class members? Is there a right way to do most everything? If your answers to these questions are yes, no, yes, no, and yes, you probably have a pretty high need to be in control of things.)

How willing am I to trust others to do their jobs? (Are you uncomfortable delegating work, so that you just try to do it yourself? Do you tell people exactly how to do things, even when they have experience doing them? Do you think supervisors should spend a lot of their time checking the work of those they supervise? “Yes” answers to these questions could mean that you don’t have much confidence in others.)

How patient am I? (If someone is having trouble doing something, do you just do it for him? Do you interrupt with your comments before others are finished speaking? Do you want the discussion to end because you want to start doing something? If all these are the case, patience may not be your greatest virtue.)

How organized am I? (Can you almost always find whatever you need without having to search for it? Is your desk clean? Are your files alphabetized and orderly? Are your books alphabetized? Do you have a place for nearly everything? Is your appointment book readable by anyone but you? Are you always on time, and hardly ever miss appointments?)

How good are my people skills? (Are you comfortable with other people? Do people seem to comfortable with you? When you’re with others, do you spend most of your time talking? Listening? About even? Do people seek you out for help or advice? Do you consider yourself a good judge of people, and has that been borne out by your experience? Do you try to consider others’ needs and feelings in any decision?)

These few questions are obviously just a beginning, but they should help you think about some important leadership issues. If you have a high need for control, for instance, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a collaborative leader, but it does mean that you’ll have to learn some new behavior, and perhaps a whole new way of looking at things. If you’re not well-organized, it doesn’t mean you can’t be a good manager, but you’ll have to find strategies to keep you on top of everything.


Second, acknowledge and be true to your beliefs. If you have a real philosophical commitment to a particular leadership style, it will probably be easier for you to change your behavior to match that style than to live with knowing you’re betraying your principles.

2. Think about the needs of the organization or initiative. A community coalition almost has to have collaborative leadership, or it will fall apart amid turf issues and accusations of discrimination. An organization that responds to situations where it has to act quickly – an emergency medical team, for example – may need more decisive and directive leadership. Some groups may have an impassioned vision, but don’t have the practical skills – financial management, scheduling, etc. – to achieve it.

You can adapt most styles to most situations, but don’t neglect the real needs of the organization in your calculations. You may need to practice a different style at the beginning from the one that you want to assume over the long term, in order to solve problems in the organization, or to get people on board. In the example at the beginning of this section, for instance, the school principal might have had more success if he had started by making very little change and moved more slowly into the role and philosophy he wanted.

3. Observe and learn from other leaders. Think about how leaders you’ve worked for or with exercised leadership. What were their styles, and were they effective? How did they handle different kinds of situations? How did what they did make you and others feel? Try to watch others in action, and talk to them about how they see what they do. What do you like about how they operate? What don’t you like? What can you incorporate into your own style?

Find a mentor. If there’s a leader whom you particularly admire, and that person is accessible (Nelson Mandela might have trouble fitting you in), talk with her about leadership issues – about how she perceives what she’s doing, how she’d handle particular situations and why, etc. Most people, especially if they’re good leaders and conscious of what they do and why, welcome the opportunity to help others develop their own leadership skills.

4. Use the research on leadership. There are lots of resources available on leaders and on both the theory and practice of leadership. Many are included at the end of this section, and there are hosts of others you can find yourself. They ‘ll give you a lot more ideas about leadership styles, and help you refine your own thinking about what leadership is and what kind of leader you’d like to be.

5. Believe in what you’re doing. If you’ve thought it through carefully, and believe in the way you practice leadership, that will be projected to others. If you believe in yourself, they’ll believe in you, too.

6. Be prepared to change. Although this may seem at odds with some of the above, it is probably the most important element to good leadership. No matter how well you’re doing, it’s not perfect – it never is, and never will be. Be prepared to find for yourself or hear from others the negative as well as the positive, to consider it carefully and objectively, and to make corrections if necessary. That way, you can not only become a good leader, but continue to be one.

In Summary:

Leadership style is the way in which a leader accomplishes his purposes. It can have profound effects on an organization and its staff members, and can determine whether the organization is effective or not.

Leadership style depends on the leader’s and organization’s conception of what leadership is, and on the leader’s choice of leadership methods. Depending how those fit together, a leader might adopt one of a variety styles, each reflected in the way the organization operates and the way its staff members relate to one another. Some (very stereotyped) possibilities:

  • Autocratic – totally in control, making all decisions himself
  • Managerial – concerned with the smooth operation, rather than the goals and effectiveness, of the organization
  • Democratic – consulting with others, encouraging equality within the organization, but making final decisions herself
  • Collaborative – sharing leadership, involving others in all major decisions, spreading ownership of the organization.

Another way of looking at leadership is to categorize it as either transactional (based on transactions such as pay in return for work) or transformational (based on enlisting people in pursuit of a vision voiced by the leader, but based on their own needs and aspirations, which aims at real change). Combining this view with that based on the four styles makes it easier to understand how leaders operate and make decisions. It also makes clear that different styles may be appropriate for different purposes, and that most leaders shift back and forth among several in the course of a day, even if there is one that characterizes them.

You can choose and develop leadership styles and skills by assessing your own tendencies and talents; understanding the needs of the organization or initiative; observing others leaders and finding a mentor; believing in yourself, and being prepared to change.

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Originally posted 2013-09-18 17:26:00. Republished by Blog Post Promoter