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What's Your Most Effective Leadership Style?

Leadership styles have been studied for decades and many types have been identified, but in essence, leadership boils down to two different styles: task-oriented and people-oriented leadership. The former is more focused on getting things done; the latter is more concerned with how people feel while they’re getting it done.

The interplay between the two styles has created literally dozens of other identified leadership styles, but I think it’s most useful to look at the three basic variations first identified by psychologist Kurt Lewin and a group of researchers in 1939.

1. Autocratic

The ultimate task-oriented leadership style, autocratic or “command and control” leaders operate in an “I’m the boss” fashion. They provide clear expectations and directions to employees, telling them what to do and when and how to do it. Autocratic leaders make decisions on their own without input from the rest of the group.

Good for: urgent situations where results must be accomplished quickly; situations where the leader has far more knowledge than the team; new employee training

Bad for: creative or knowledge-based jobs; often damages employee morale, initiative and loyalty

Example: Steve Jobs is the rare example of an autocratic leader whose leadership style encouraged creativity—although only within his particular parameters.

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This leadership style is one entrepreneurs can easily fall into without being aware of it. After all, if you start a business because you want to do things “your way" (as many of us do), and you’re impatient with employees who don’t feel your business’s needs as urgently as you do, it can be hard to listen to others. In addition to alienating workers, the autocratic approach’s other main weakness is that it can become hard for the team to imagine functioning without you.

2. Delegative

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the ultimate people-oriented leadership style is delegative or laissez-faire (“let it be”) leadership. In this style, the leader doesn’t provide much direction; instead, decisions are made by the group. For most entrepreneurs, this method of leadership can be hard to even imagine—we tend to be very take-charge people who have strong opinions and want fast results. However, as interest in more supportive styles of leadership grows, some leading companies have explored adding more delegative leadership.

Good for: highly motivated, highly skilled or expert employees

Bad for: situations demanding quick results; new or untrained employees; employees who refuse to take responsibility; employees who need guidance; employees who can’t agree

Example: The "holacracy” system Tony Hsieh is implementing at Zappos is an example of the delegative leadership style at work.

Delegative approaches can work for small groups within organizations who don’t need to achieve results quickly—for example, if you have an R&D team. It’s also possible to be delegative with your key managers, then have them lead their own teams in a more middle-of-the-road style. However, the delegative approach can be problematic for a small business hoping to compete in a crowded market. Ironically, you can also expect pushback from employees, since many people feel lost without traditional leadership.

3. Democratic or Participative

A blend of the task-oriented and people-oriented leadership styles is known as democratic or participative leadership. The leader provides guidance and direction, but also encourages feedback from employees and takes their opinions into account (although he or she makes the final decisions).

Good for: encouraging loyalty; boosting employee morale; improving work, product quality and creativity

Bad for: urgent situations where fast response is needed

Example: Bill Gates is frequently cited as an example of a democratic leader. Gates gave his people, particularly management, a lot of autonomy and listened to their insights. As a result, Microsoft has continued to operate successfully even though he is no longer involved day-to-day.

Democratic leadership incorporates a lot of positive qualities, such as a leader who is actively involved in the business and who empowers employees and encourages team spirit. However, be wary of letting democratic leadership drag your team down to the “lowest common denominator.” Democratic leadership can sometimes dilute your brand and make it more generic. Remember, you’re still the leader, so you shouldn't hesitate to make the final decisions even if your team disagrees.

That brings up another key facet of leadership style: Sometimes it’s situational—and needs to change to match the circumstances. From the leadership styles above, I’m sure you can identify one that feels natural to you (if not, ask someone who works with you closely). Once you’ve done that, make an effort to incorporate a little bit of the other two styles into the way you work—not all the time, but in appropriate situations. Because if there’s one leadership quality that’s needed most in today’s changing business world, it’s flexibility.

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