What type of boss are you? Breaking down the three main styles of leadership

Just as cream rises to the top, if you’re great at what you do, you’ll likely be offered a better job in due time. The promotion may not come from your current employer, but eventually someone is going to notice your stellar professional track record. A higher position in virtually any company means more money and opportunity, but all of those attractive perks usually also come along with a whole lot more responsibility. 

In many cases, those extra responsibilities come in the form of other people. Surprisingly, while ascending to the rank of manager used to be a common career aspiration among Americans, that’s simply not the case anymore. Most people want to be their own boss, but a drastically lower number are interested in managing others. The reasons for this generational shift in mindset are numerous and nuanced, but many of the factors can be boiled down to one undeniable fact: Being a leader isn’t easy. 

Regardless of where you fall on the wanting-to-be-a-manager spectrum, let’s assume you’ve recently accepted a new position that comes with an added leadership role or managerial responsibilities. The notion of managing other employees may feel alien, or even downright intimidating, but there’s an approach to leadership out there for everyone. You just have to find what works for you.

From Julius Caesar and Charlemagne to George Washington or FDR, history offers no shortage of leaders to study across the millenia, but the actual scientific study of leadership is far shorter. To trace modern leadership research to its beginnings all we have to do is travel back in time a mere 85 years to 1939. Let’s take a look at the original 3 main styles of leadership.

Leadership school is in session

Besides our parents, some of the very first leaders we encounter in this life are teachers. Meanwhile, no demographic exemplifies human nature on its purest level than children. By the time one has grown up, the world has unavoidably left an impression on the psyche. So, who better to start with when analyzing leadership styles than schoolchildren? 

Social psychologist Kurt Lewin did just that in 1939 when he conducted what is still considered the standard bearer when it comes to leadership research. While there have been countless leadership studies and theories conceived since, Dr. Lewin’s experiment sparked it all. 

Considered the father of modern social psychology, Dr. Lewin separated a group of adolescent students into three cohorts. All of the groups were taught arts and crafts, but one cohort was assigned an autocratic leader, the second was given a democratic leader, and the final group was taught by a delegative leader.

Authoritarian (autocratic) Leadership

Authoritarian leaders draw a clear line in the sand between themselves and everyone else. These types of managers rarely ask for input from other members of their team, and lay out expectations in no uncertain terms. Autocratic leadership prioritizes control over pretty much everything else; workers are instructed on how to carry out every aspect of their job. 

While the drawbacks of authoritarian leadership are rather obvious, as no one enjoys being micromanaged and resentment usually rears its head sooner rather than later among employees, autocratic management can be useful during crises that call for quick, confident decision-making. This approach to management also makes more sense when the boss is significantly more experienced or knowledgable than the team they are managing.

Delegative (laissez faire) leadership

Essentially the opposite of our first leadership strategy, delegative leadership is all about taking a decidedly hands-off approach to managing people. A style Thomas Jefferson no doubt would have appreciated, laissez faire leaders avoid setting goals for their teams or offering guidance on how to get tasks done. Employees working under such a leader are typically free to work at their own pace, set their own deadlines, and work in whatever manner they feel is most productive for them personally.

Delegative leadership can be a great approach if you truly trust that your employees know what they’re doing. With that in mind, this managerial style is best reserved for experienced, highly motivated workers. Less qualified or inexperienced employees will likely need a bit more direction.

Participative (democratic) leadership

Deemed the most effective form of leadership by Dr. Lewin’s study all those years ago, participative leadership entails both guiding workers and empowering them to think for themselves. Democratic managers habitually encourage input from team members and incorporate those ideas into plans moving forward. 

While participative leaders retain the final say, their workers still feel like their voices are being heard. This type of leadership may extend project timelines a bit, but is often associated with higher quality output and achievements once everything is said and done.