Autocratic, democratic, laissez-faire: What’s your style?

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The research on leadership styles that psychologist Kurt Lewin conducted 75 years ago was so insightful that it remains relevant to this day. So what kind of leader are you: autocratic, democratic or laissez-faire?

Authoritarian leaders, also known as autocratic leaders, provide clear expectations for what needs to be done as well as when and how it should be done. These leaders, who ensure there is a clear division between themselves and their followers, make decisions independently with little or no input from the rest of the group.

“The autocratic-authoritarian cluster encompasses being arbitrary, controlling, power-oriented, coercive, punitive, and close-minded,” notes Bernard Bass in The Bass Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications. “The cluster has often been described in pejorative terms. Stripped of negatives (emphasized by so many social scientists), it means taking full and sole responsibility for decision and control of followers' performance. Autocrats stress obedience, loyalty, strict adherence to roles. They make and enforce the rules. They see that decisions are carried out. Powerful autocratic leaders throughout history have often been praised for their ability to develop reliable and devoted followers and to act as the principal authority figures in establishing and maintaining order.”

Upside to authoritarian leadership style: There’s very little room for doubt as to what everyone is supposed to be doing. Authoritarian leadership works best when there is little time for group decision-making or if the leader is the far-and-away most knowledgeable member of the team.

Downside to authoritarian leadership style: This efficiency results in a loss of creativity from the leader’s team. Researchers found that decision-making was less creative under authoritarian leadership. And if you take this style too far, you can wind up being viewed as controlling, bossy and dictatorial.

Democratic leaders may offer guidance to group members, but they also participate in the group and encourage input from other team members. Participative leaders encourage group members to participate, but retain the final say over the decision-making process. Group members feel engaged in the process and are more motivated and creative.

“The democratic or egalitarian leadership cluster reflects concern about the followers in many different ways,” Bass says. “Leadership is considerate, democratic, consultative and participative, employee-centered, concerned with people, concerned with maintenance of good working relations, supportive and oriented toward facilitating interaction, relationship oriented, and oriented toward group decision making.”

Upside to democratic leadership style: The contributions of a team led by a democratic leader are of a much higher quality than that of those led by an authoritarian one. Generally believed to be the most effective leadership style. 

Downside to democratic leadership style: Members of a team under a democratic leader generally are less productive than the members of the authoritarian group.

Laissez-faire leadership results in the least productive team. Members of a group organized under this leadership style — the hallmarks of which include offering little guidance and leaving decision-making completely up to the group — made more demands on the leader, showed little cooperation and were unable to work independently.

“The inactivity of laissez-faire leaders — their inability or reluctance to accept responsibility, give directions and provide support — has been consistently negatively related to productivity, satisfaction and cohesiveness,” Bass writes. “Sheer energization, drive, motivation to succeed and activity are likely to be correlated with successful leadership and influence.”

Upside to laissez-faire leadership style: This style can be effective in situations where group members are highly qualified in an area of expertise.

Downside to laissez-faire leadership style: This type of leadership often results in poorly-defined team roles and a lack of motivation.



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