What is the Best Leadership Style? It Depends!

Leadership styles are like a set of tools, designed for a specific set of circumstances. Of the myriads of tools available, here are three of the most important leadership styles, with some practical considerations on the appropriate situation for each style.

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Is any particular style of leadership superior to others? If you Google “Leadership Styles,” you’ll get about 20,200,000 results…Those are a lot of styles from which to choose! Leadership style means the behaviors and attitudes that leaders choose to carry out their leader functions, such as providing direction, follower development, motivation, or discipline. Social scientists, psychologists, and other academic researchers have proposed numerous theories and produced countless studies of leadership styles over the years, creating a complex picture. In order to simplify the situation and provide some practical points on adapting an appropriate leadership style, I will briefly discuss three of the most significant styles, and show how various circumstances might call for different styles.

A Spectrum of Control

A simple way to look at leadership styles is to measure how much independent control is being given to followers. Although the spectrum might include numerous labels along the way from total control to no control, examining three styles—Authoritative, Participative, Delegative– along the continuum is most helpful. Let’s first look at the definition of each of these styles.


Authoritative: Decision-making power centralized in the supervisor. She or he gives the commands and may closely monitor or even direct during the operation/task. Authoritative leadership style is not the same as being a ‘dictator,’ as the leader takes inputs and responds to followers.

Participative: The “democratic” form of leadership, where everyone gets a vote. The leader brings a work team together, gets everyone’s inputs and opinions, and then picks a course of action by consensus.

Delegative: The leader distributes tasks to followers, giving them the authority and responsibility for completing tasks. This does not relieve the leader, however, of her or his responsibility, nor diminish the leader’s ultimate authority.

 Situational Leadership – People, Time, Task

None of these styles is superior to another—selecting an appropriate style depends on conditions. Three of the most important conditions that determine the correct leadership style are

  • The nature of the people (both leader and followers).
  • The time requirements of a situation.
  • The nature of the task, such as structured or unstructured, requiring precise repetition or innovation, simple or complex.

One way to determine the nature of followers is to compare their motivation and capabilities. Leaders need to assess the level of each individual’s internal motivation, attitude, and confidence, and then compare that to his or her level of competence in a particular situation. Note that one’s motivation and competence might change depending on the circumstances—an expert in one area may be completely incompetent in another. In other words, choosing appropriate leadership styles requires sound judgment and critical analysis of each situation. Take a look at the following matrix for examples of worker motivation versus competence.


The following matrix compares the three conditions, as well as advantages and disadvantages, of each style of leadership.


Overlaying the styles of leadership based upon the degree of leader control over the Motivation-Competence matrix helps us conceptualize how to apply the right style. In situations of low competence and low motivation, we will usually need to be more directive, giving much more explanation of why and how we need things to be done. This can be quite frustrating for some people, and very demanding on time and energy; thus, we need to be careful to control emotions and not become angry with followers. For those with low abilities but high motivation, we act more like trainers or coaches. It’s important to not patronize or look down upon followers as we train and coach, however, as this will crush their enthusiasm. As competency and motivation increases in our teams, we can leverage their expertise with a more participatory style. This style treats team members as peers, and requires respect and willingness to take inputs. As we move toward highly motivated and highly skilled workers, we can be confident in delegating duties and simply overseeing their work. But we must not be lulled into a false sense of security, as the leader never abdicates ultimate authority and responsibility. Probably the biggest challenge for any leader is dealing with those workers who have great capability, but seem to lack internal motivation to be effective. In this case, we need to find a spark that will ignite their enthusiasm, providing physical and emotional support as required. On the other hand, we can’t fall into a trap of doing things for these workers that they should be doing themselves—it may require a firm push to get this worker out of a comfort zone. The activity below will help us put these analytical tools into practice.


Activity: Applying Leadership Styles


Please read the following scenario and then use the leadership style tools from above to consider solutions to the questions.

The CEO of ACME Corporation has just found out that one of their best customers, Wile E. Coyote, is irate over a broken piece of equipment. He is threatening to sue, and take his substantial business elsewhere. The CEO feels blindsided by this situation, and investigates, finding the following facts about four of the involved employees.

Worker One:


He’s an enthusiastic worker who often takes initiative to help customers. Unfortunately, he directly caused the incident. When he found that the customer had a problem, and was not able to get timely assistance from the responsible department, he jumped in to help. Because he had no special expertise in that equipment, he ended up giving the wrong advice to the customer, and the equipment was subsequently damaged.

Worker Two:


He’s one of the company’s more experienced workers, who can fix just about any problem with the company’s products. However, he tends to not take responsibility for personal development, declining extra projects and training opportunities, and generally does just enough to get by. He has the most expertise in the area of the customer’s problem, and would have been the company’s point of contact for this problem, but was unavailable in the break room when the customer called, as is often the case.

Worker Three:


In a recent re-organization, her old job was eliminated, forcing her to move to the department with direct responsibility for the equipment which was having a problem. She was the first person whom the customer approached. She knew it was in her department’s area of responsibility, but she had not yet learned the technical knowledge, so she declined to help, handing the problem off to Worker One.

Worker Four:


The direct supervisor of Worker One, she found out about the incident after the customer complained. In fact, with her expertise, she was able to solve the machine problem and get it back to working order, although the customer had already lost valuable production time due to the mistake. She did her best to protect Worker One; feeling that the problem had been adequately solved, she attempted to hide the incident from the leadership higher up in the company.

Where do each of the workers fit into the Motivation-Competence matrix?

Which worker committed the worst act?

How do you think the CEO should deal with each of the workers?

As we contemplate different leadership styles and their application, whether by ourselves or in leadership development sessions, we can use this scenario to explore how much control or independence to give followers. The considerations are not all inclusive…we may think of other factors that would influence a proper leadership style choice. In future articles, we will dig deeper into these styles, and perhaps some others, in order to expand our leadership tool kit and increase our skills.

Copyright © 2017 by Robert Cummings All rights reserved.

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