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Although every leader has their own unique methods and techniques for directing people, most leaders can be classified into one of three archetypal leadership styles. By learning to understand these styles, business leaders can learn how to adapt their own approach to better fit different situations.

According to recent studies, only 21% of companies said that their organization’s leadership practices were very effective. This is a real problem, given that 62% of the most successful companies identify effective leadership as the most important factor in improving an organization’s agility. It’s obvious that leadership plays a significant role in the success or failure of any organization. However, there is no single, correct way for leaders to direct their subordinates. Each leader must instead develop a specific leadership style unique to their own personalities and circumstances.

Take a moment and consider your own leadership approach. Do you prefer to issue commands authoritatively, or would you rather nurture and guide your subordinates? Do you allow your employees equal say in the direction that your team or organization takes, or do you choose instead to seize total control, assuming the rights and risks of leadership solely for yourself? Recognizing how you prefer to lead is a vitally important aspect of command.

Researchers have identified three archetypal types of leadership styles in management that can be used to describe most leaders in most situations. By gaining a better understanding of the strengths and weaknesses associated with the method of leadership that most comfortably fits your personality, you’ll be able to leverage your skills to reach more consistent success. To that end, let’s briefly address the three most common methods of command that have been used by leaders throughout the ages: 

1. Autocratic

The autocratic leader is one who understands the strength of authority. These are the leaders who see their subordinates as cogs in a greater machine—vital and valuable cogs, but cogs nonetheless. These leaders are not interested in the opinions or suggestions of their underlings, and they are certainly not interested in opening up the decision-making process to the entire group. Instead, they choose to bear the yoke of leadership completely alone, and they expect those who fall under their authority to either follow orders, or make room for someone who can.

Advantages: Autocratic leaders are able to improve efficiency and productivity by streamlining the work process. They create firm deadlines, and generally have a very clear set of expectations for their subordinates. Likewise, in a time of crisis or emergency, autocratic leaders can quickly decide upon and implement responses without having to gain the support of the rest of the team. Due to their unwillingness to delegate, autocratic leaders cut down on the kinds of misunderstandings that arise when information and directives are passed through multiple layers of management. This may also result in subordinates who are better trained, and who are more productive, because the autocratic leader is able to supervise his or her team directly.   

Disadvantages: Autocratic leaders have only their own ideas and experience to draw upon, and are generally unwilling to accept advice from underlings. This means that any creative input that could be offered by other members of the team will likely go unspoken, which is unfortunate, given that many such leaders lack creative problem-solving skills. Additionally, those who work under autocratic leaders often end up resenting their manager, because they feel as though their own contributions aren’t being recognized and their suggestions aren’t being heard. Autocratic leaders are also much more likely to micromanage, which studies have shown can result in increased likelihood employees taking extended sick leave. Autocratic leaders often find themselves at the center of a hostile or low-moral work environment, which can lead to high employee turnover.

When to use this style: The Autocratic leader is most valuable when times get tough. By taking control and being willing to make quick and difficult decisions during times of crisis, you’ll be able to minimize damage and better lead your team to success. During times of emergency, your team will appreciate a strong and decisive leader. Autocratic leadership styles may also come in handy when team correction is necessary. However, when times of crisis pass, it is generally more beneficial to allow the group to provide input and take part in the decision-making process, at least to a certain extent.

2. Democratic

Democratic leaders are those who encourage the free exchange of ideas throughout a group. Within these teams, all members have an equally valued voice, and the ‘leader’ acts as more of a spokesperson or facilitator, ensuring that decisions reached by a consensus are carried out. Democratic leaders rely on the participation of the group, and put a great deal of value in the expertise each member of the group brings to the table. A democracy lacks one single, powerful leader. Instead, every employee shares the freedoms and responsibilities of leadership equally.  

Advantages: Democratic leaders enjoy the boundless creativity of the entire group. This means that difficult issues are more easily addressed, and better solutions are more likely to be found. At the same time, the internal communication gap that often develops between employees and management is generally reduced in a democratic environment. Likewise, team unity generally grows as a result of democratic leadership, and common office politics (gossiping, cliques, manipulation, etc.) become much less prevalent. The end result is that the work environment improves, and employee turnover is reduced.

Disadvantages: Deliberation is a luxury that sometimes simply cannot be afforded. When decisions need to be made quickly in the face of impending deadlines or other emergencies, a democratic leader may find that their subordinates are unable to adapt and function under the stress. Democratic leadership may also result in team members being unclear as to their own responsibilities, thus creating stumbling blocks when individuals members are forced to work without the benefit of the rest of the team. It can also be difficult in a democratic workplace to identify those employees who aren’t fulfilling their own responsibilities, as it’s much easier for them to simply ‘blend in’ with the rest of the group.

When to use this style: Democratic leadership styles give your team a feeling of ownership over specific clients, projects, results, and the overall success or failure of the team. In fact, given that many business leaders identify the democratic leadership style as the overall most effective method for day-to-day work, the real question here should be when not to use this style. This particular style is less effective during times of crisis. 24% of employees prefer democratic leadership, but only 15% of leaders practice it.

3. Laissez-Faire

Laissez-faire leaders are best described as ‘hands-off.’ In essence, they exist to assign tasks to their employees, but once the task has been assigned, and the necessary resources have been provided, these leaders simply cease being involved. Therefore, it’s up to the employees themselves to decide on the best approach in order to fulfill their responsibilities. Laissez-faire leaders put a great amount of faith in their subordinates, trusting them to remain self-motivated, on-task, and accountable. Of course, should any particular issues arise, the best laissez-faire leaders are those who remain available to offer direction to their employees when needed. However, as this direction is only given upon request, the laissez-faire allows each member of his or her team to succeed or fail based upon their own abilities.

Advantages: Laissez-faire leadership allows team members to operate completely free from unnecessary restrictions or inefficient interference from management. This gives skilled and self-motivated employees a chance to reach their fullest potential. Additionally, laissez-faire leadership helps promote employee morale in the workplace. This leadership style can also help streamline the overall work process, by eliminating superfluous steps designed to monitor and guide team members in completing their tasks.

Disadvantages: Without the firm hand of leadership to keep it on track, a team operating under laissez-faire leadership may quickly drop in productivity. Deadlines may not be reached, crucial steps in the process may be skipped over, and the overall quality of work may suffer due to a lack of guidance.

 

Likewise, with each team member pursuing their own goals in their own ways, team unity may begin to suffer. And, with leaders being seen as distant and possibly uninterested, team members may also begin to lose interest in the work, which can lead to significant losses for the organization (it’s estimated that disengaged employees cost American businesses between $450 and $550 billion per year).

When to use this style: Laissez-faire leadership styles rely upon the skill, motivation, and capabilities of every member of the team. As such, it should only be used when team members show the necessary drive and have the necessary training to be able to function without needing supervision.

In reviewing these three archetypal leadership styles, you may find you don’t fit perfectly into any one category. This is probably for the best, as the most successful leaders are those who are able to jump between leadership styles, picking and choosing techniques that best fit the issue at hand, and adapting their own unique methods on a consistent basis.

Remember, these types of leadership styles in management exist to serve your organization, so don’t feel as though you have to conform your approach to fit some pre-determined mold. The most important leadership skill that you can develop is the ability to objectively recognize what aspects of your personal leadership style work in any given situation, and which aspects generate unfavorable results.  By understanding these most common leadership styles, you’ll be able to consciously move between them to better position your team for achieving success.Effective leadership is, and always has been, about knowing what techniques to use and when. So, when faced with an impending crisis, a disengaged workforce, a lackluster creative process, etc., review your own methods and see where they might be lacking. A leader sets the tone for the entire team, and by changing the way you lead, you may find that your team will naturally adapt, evolve, and improve as well.