Three Leadership Styles (and how to best use them)

By John Obradovich on August 29, 2017

Several predominant leadership styles are commonly used in businesses of all kinds, each with its own particular strengths and weaknesses.

Therefore, it's important to understand any single type of leadership style and how it may affect an organization's culture and success. We must also consider the efficacy of alternative leadership styles in a holistic and relative sense.

Leadership Comes in Many Forms

The following analysis serves to position several leadership models against one another in terms of their relative effectiveness in various circumstances and demonstrate their place within the larger context of their respective schools of thought.

1) Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is characterized by idealized influence or charisma, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation and individualized consideration (Bass, 1990). Charisma, or idealized influence, is the unique quality that transformational leaders have that allows them to be seen as role models. For the transformational leader, it is essential to be viewed as having charisma in the eyes of one's employees (Bass, 1990).

2) Transactional Leadership

Unlike transformational leadership, which assumes that people will perform better for a leader who inspires them (Bass, 1990), transactional leadership is based on the supposition that people merely respond to reward and punishment, and that followers' primary responsibility is to do what the superior directs them to do. It's a reflection of the authoritarian Theory X vision of employee motivation (McGregor, 1960).

Perhaps the biggest limitation on its effectiveness may be the fact that it relies on an exchange to gain compliance and adequate performance from followers. This framework follows the carrot and stick approach. This can be viewed as negative reinforcement, such as is commonly seen in Management-by-Exception (Roux-Dufort, 2007).

3) Servant Leadership

Servant leadership is concerned with serving the needs of and empowering followers. Greenleaf (1977) described the benefits of the servant leader accruing to organizations as a result of empowering others and helping them develop based on their need for growth, rather than an agenda set forth organizationally. Greenleaf also illustrated the idea that with servant leadership, power is used ethically. Teams work effectively and collaboratively in an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust.

Male graduate student standing in an office and gazing out a window

Which style is best? It depends.

To cope with changing environmental conditions, contingency theory suggests that sometimes an authoritative style is appropriate and at other times a more participative style is effective.

It depends on the situational variables present.

As with business and the economy in general, leadership is also dynamic and, as contingency theorists Hersey and Blanchard (1982) pointed out, the appropriate leadership style is often a function of the environmental circumstances present at any given time.

House and Mitchell (1974) developed a contingency model known as the path-goal theory of leadership. According to House and Mitchell (1974), there are four types of leader behaviors including: supportive, directive, achievement-oriented and participative.

"The stated goal of this theory is to enhance employee performance and employee satisfaction by focusing on employee motivation" (Northouse, 2004, p. 123). The idea is that the leader would employ the style most proper given the followers' motivational needs and expectations. Essentially, the leader would define goals, clarify a path, remove obstacles and provide support. This, it was theorized, would motivate employees because they would see that they could perform the work; and if they believed that the work would result in a certain outcome, and if they believed that there was a payoff that they valued in the end, then motivation would occur.

These theories matter.

In summary, leaders must take note of the contributions of the various contingency theorists and understand that one may not be able to effectively lead in the same way for each follower or with the same style in all situations regardless of his or her preferred leadership style.

Rather, the effective leader must continually adapt his or her style of leadership to the situation at hand, and to the followers involved. All the while, the leader must keep a watchful eye on maintaining a continued relationship with the followers as individuals as well as successfully meeting organizational goals.

How can you boost your leadership style?

Our degree programs at PGS can equip you to identify and nurture your own unique leadership style whether at the associate, bachelor's, master's or doctoral level. With practical course work based on research and theory, you'll be equipped to lead well in whatever leadership style you fall into.

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  • Bass, B. (1990). From transactional to transformational leadership: Learning to share the vision. Organizational Dynamics, 18(3), 19-31.
  • Greenleaf, R. (1977). Servant-Leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.
  • Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. (1982). Management of organizational behavior: Utilizing human resources. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentise-Hall.
  • House, R., & Mitchell, T. (1974). Path-goal theory of leadership. Journal of Contemporary Business, 81-97.
  • McGregor, D. (1960). The human side of enterprise. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Northouse, P. (2004). Leadership theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Roux-Dufort, C. (2007). Is crisis management (only) a management of exceptions? Journal of Contingencies & Crisis Management, 5(2), 105-114.
Category: Leadership