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Three Leadership Styles

Three Leadership Styles

Leadership style is the approach that any given individual in a supervisory or managerial position chooses to take in order to give direction to his or her team, to organize people, to achieve team goals, to deal with problems and conflicts as they arise and to generally motivate team members. Being an effective team leader therefore involves appreciating the needs of each team member (at least as far as this is possible) and then choosing the leadership style that is appropriate for the situation and the people.

The original idea of having a leadership approach or what is now often more frequently referred to as a leadership style was developed by the academic Kurt Lewin, with the assistance of Ron Lippitt and Robert White. Lewin and his colleagues suggested that there are three main leadership styles:

  1. Autocratic: When using this style, the leader takes most decisions without consulting others. An autocratic style works when there is little or no need for input on the decision, where the decision would not change as a result of input, and/or where the motivation of people to carry out subsequent actions would not be affected, whether they were or were not involved in the decision-making. The obvious example here is where there is no time for input such as in an emergency situation when the leader typically has knowledge that others may not.
  2. Laissez-Faire: In the laissez-faire style (French for ‘leave to do’) the leader’s involvement in decision-making is usually kept till last and people are largely left alone to make their own decisions, although the leader may still be the ultimately accountable person. A laissez-faire style often works best when people are capable and motivated to make their own decisions, and where there is no requirement for central coordination. This can occur when resources are shared across a range of different people and groups or in a self-directed team situation, for example.
  3. Democratic: When using the democratic style (sometimes called the consultative or participative style), the leader involves people in discussions and final decision-making, although the process may vary from the leader having the final say to working to find consensus in the group. People usually appreciate being consulted, especially if they have been used to more autocratic decisions with which they disagreed in the past. However, this style can be problematic when there are a wide range of opinions and there is no clear way of reaching consensus or when there is a lot of time pressure. An example of a situation in which this style might work well is when looking to relocate a team from one location to another (perhaps in the same building) as they are likely to be happier with the final collaboratively arrived at result.

These three styles represent a progression from being highly directive, or essentially telling people what to do, to letting people make most of the decisions for themselves. However, there is another way to look at leadership styles. This is to separately think about the workplace production tasks that need to be done and the people performing those tasks. In other words, some leaders have a style that tends to be very task or performance-focused. This means they mainly care about getting the task done and the goals achieved. Other leaders have a style that is very people-focused, meaning that they care mainly about the employees in their team and ensuring that they are happy and motivated to perform the tasks and achieve the goals that have been set. Many leaders’ style fits quite neatly into one or other of these two categories. However, much of the recent research suggests that leaders need to move between these two styles (and even use other more subtle variants of them) according to different circumstances or when the situation at hand is different. As a result leaders should be looking to “flex” their style according to the task requirements and according to the needs of the particular individual being asked to carry it out.

Much has been written about leadership style and “style-flexing” in the last 60 years or so since Lewin’s original work. This has mainly been by academic researchers such as John Hemphill and Ralph Stogdill at Ohio State University (on production versus people orientation), Daniel Katz, Robert Kahn and Rensis Likert at Michigan State University (with their work on the social psychology of organizations) , Robert Blake and Jane Mouton, at the University of Texas (with their work on the Managerial Grid), Bob Tannenbaum and Warren Schmidt at UCLA (with the management continuum), and Douglas McGregor at M.I.T (with his work on the Theory X manager (authoritative) and Theory Y manager (democratic).

Much of this work on leadership styles was done by academic in the US over a period of 25 years after WW2. However, in the UK, people such as John Adair (who added “the team” dimension to people and the task) and Meredith Belbin (who was interested in team styles) added useful perspectives. Based on this broad research, a system called “situational leadership” was developed by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard. Hersey’s situational grid, for example, (as Blanchard now has a slightly different version), provides for four leadership styles which he calls Telling and Selling (on the more autocratic or leader “push” side) and, Participating and Delegating (on the more democratic/laissez-faire leader “pull” side). This practical application of the general theory has been used in many organizations and has spawned other derivative models (such as Situational Communication, for example).


There are a number of different styles that a leader can adopt in the workplace in order to provide direction, implement plans, manage problems or conflict and to motivate people. Although there is a lot of research on the subject, a modern view that is widely held is that “flexing” style according to circumstances is a wise approach for every leader to take.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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  1. nancycirinoApril 17, 2013 at 7:56 am

    thank you for the article. it helped in my report

    • Dr. Jon WarnerJune 3, 2013 at 3:22 pmAuthor

      You are most welcome Nancy.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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