Leadership: Is It All About Style?

Leadership: Is It All About Style?

Do all leaders possess the same key traits? The ancient Chinese general Sun Tzu thought so. In his famous book on leadership, The Art of War, he proposed that all effective leaders possess the same five characteristics: intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage, and discipline.

In modern times, however, we’ve discovered that different leaders lead in different ways – and that what works for one type of leader won’t necessarily work for another.

Style theories of leadership were developed in response to the inadequacy of purely “trait-based” leadership theories. This approach analyzes the behaviors of successful leaders and groups them together in common themes to define broad leadership styles.

It’s an approach that allows for a description of leaders (and leadership behavior) that is simultaneously more complex and more practical than the old “one size fits all” model. Why? Because it recognizes that leadership behavior is diverse, and that it takes “different strokes for different folks” to inspire, motivate and lead others toward a goal. It also shows that people who may not achieve a perfect score on Sun Tzu’s list of leadership traits can still be effective leaders.

Most importantly, this approach more accurately represents most people’s experience of leadership behavior, which is this: effective leaders are not all effective in the same ways.

For example–your project manager, Greta, may have a Type-A personality. She works so hard (and expects so much of her team) that it’s almost inevitable that she gets things done. But John, who’s a more relaxed type, can also achieve the same results with the same team, with less effort. Why? Because he knows how to create systems that work.

Style theories of leadership were designed to avoid the shortcomings of the trait-based leadership approach, but they also present their own set of issues. Because while their behaviorally based approach to leadership may more accurately reflect what “works”, they do not address a core issue–how do we develop our particular style of leadership?

Another problem: while style theories of leadership pay lip-service to the concept of diversity, the names chosen in most style theories reveal a bias that ultimately suggests that there is one “preferable,” if not “best” style of leadership. In this way, they’re not so different from Sun Tzu, who was convinced that there was one right way to lead.

The earliest work on leadership style carried out by Kurt Lewin, Ronald Lipitt, and Ralph White (way back in 1939) described three leadership styles: authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire. (Wouldn’t you prefer a ‘democratic’ leader over an ‘authoritarian’ one?)

Then there’s the managerial grid model developed by Robert Blake and Jane Mouton (in 1964) based on where a leader’s behavior fall on two continuums: concern for people and concern for goal achievement. This results in five leadership styles: Impoverished Style, Produce or Perish Style, Country Club Style, Middle-of-the-road Style, and Team Style. In theory, all of these styles can be effective, but who wants to be labeled as having an ‘impoverished’ style – or even a ‘middle of the road’ style?

Despite their shortcomings, however, style theories of leadership can be useful for those seeking to become better leaders, simply by asking us to look at effective leadership behavior in terms of what works.

Think of two different people you know who you’d consider effective leaders. Do they lead in the same way? Why or why not? And what is it that makes each of them effective?

By John Barney

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