Leadership and followership
Leadership and followership

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3 What is leadership style?

Leadership style is a sub-section of leadership theory that concentrates on the traits and behaviours of leaders.

Your leadership style is the way in which you utilise your personality traits, learned behaviours and experience to maximise the performance of your team.

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Figure 3 Leaders have different styles.

Many leaders benefit from the use of frameworks, theories and definitions to guide and underpin their actions. There are several leadership style frameworks available. Two are listed here:

  1. The work of Kurt Lewin and colleagues in the 1930s defined three different styles of leadership that are still referred to regularly today:
    • Autocratic – the leader makes decisions themselves, without consulting others.
    • Democratic – the leader involves followers in the decision-making process.
    • Laissez faire – the leader has little involvement, allowing followers to make their own decisions.

Further reading: Lewin (1939)

  1. Path-Goal Theory is concerned with how leaders motivate their followers to achieve specified goals. Developed by Robert House in 1971 and subsequently updated, this complex theory incorporates leadership style, follower needs and situation. It defines four leadership behaviours, each with a different impact on followers:
    • Directive – being clear and specific about expectations, tasks and deadlines
    • Supportive – focusing on followers’ needs and welfare, creating a positive working environment
    • Participative – involving followers in decision making and encouraging their ideas
    • Achievement-orientated – having high expectations and setting challenging goals that you are confident followers can achieve.

Leaders use the framework to match an appropriate behaviour to the task and situation, factoring in follower characteristics, such as desire for control and preference for structure.

Further reading: House (1974); House (1996)

Such frameworks are intended to give you choices and guidance about the way you lead in particular situations. Watch this short video which explains when you might use different styles:

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At the end of this video there is reference to an accompanying article. If you would like to read it, you can find it on the MindTools website [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Once you have watched the video, try this short exercise to check your understanding.

Activity 3 Varying your leadership style

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

1. When might you use Kurt Lewin’s autocratic style of leadership?


When the team consists of new staff with little or no experience of a time critical task


When the team are highly motivated and knowledgeable


When a complex task needs to be carefully planned

The correct answer is a.

2. When might you use Kurt Lewin’s laissez faire style of leadership?


When the leader doesn’t really know what to do


When staff are highly motivated and take pride in their work


When a task requires effective collaboration between different staff members

The correct answer is b.


Although autocratic leadership is sometimes described as too controlling, there are occasions when it might be an appropriate approach, for example, when working with a new, inexperienced team who need support in delivering a project quickly, or in a military situation where there are clear and present dangers.

Laissez faire leadership is also discredited by some as too ‘hands off’, but can be used effectively to develop and encourage motivated and capable staff who have a drive to succeed.

Leadership skill is demonstrated when making a judgement on which approach to adopt.

While some researchers have developed leadership style frameworks that incorporate a range of options, others have focused on a single style. You’ll find out more about some of these in the following sections.

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