Understanding Your Style as You Develop Leadership Skills

As you work your way up the corporate ladder, you will find the need to develop leadership skills that can benefit you and your company in various situations. Each of us will develop a natural leadership style based on our personality, but a truly effective leader needs to build on that natural style to develop many leadership skills.

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Social psychologist Kurt Lewin developed a framework of leadership styles in the 1930s. Subsequent research has built upon his framework, but his finding remain valid today and are helpful to understand as you assess and grow your leadership skills

Lewin's Three Leadership Styles

Lewin's research defined three leadership styles and offered an assessment of their pros and cons:

Autocratic Leadership Style

Leaders with this style make all the decisions themselves and hand them down as writs from on high. They don't seek input from colleague and don't welcome it when it comes.

This style can be appropriate in a situation where you do not need input from your team. Decisions can be made quickly and with authority. Autocratic leadership can be particularly effective when you have a low-skill work force who merely want instructions and tools to get the job done. If you have to tell a worker to dig a hole, they rarely will care what type of shovel to use: just point them to where you need the hole.

The negative side of autocratic leadership is that it will lead to low employee morale, absenteeism and high turnover if implemented broadly.

Democratic Leadership Style

Lewin labeled this the most successful leadership style, where the leader makes the final decision but only after soliciting input from their team. These leaders encourage creativity from their staff and get them highly engaged in the process and the outcome.

Team members working for a democratic leader report the highest job satisfaction. Results of decisions often are better because of the input from various team members and new ideas and skills they bring to the decision-making process.

The downside is that decisions do take longer to reach, and if workers constantly are bothered for input on simple decisions, they could begin to question the authority and decision-making skills of the leader.

Laissez-Faire Leadership Style

This type of leader gives team members complete freedom in how they do their work and to set their own deadlines. These leaders support their workers with resources and advice when asked, but generally are hands-off.

This style would seem to be ideal to the individual worker, as they maintain full autonomy over their own work. They can fully use their creativity and follow their own calendar.

The flip side is workers often become dissatisfied because they cannot count on co-workers to match their schedules and needs. The better workers have to pick up the slack for other workers with seemingly no consequences. Work tends to fall behind and tasks go uncompleted.

Developing Skills Based off the Leadership Styles

Hopefully, you see something of yourself in all these types of leaders, because all three styles can benefit you and your company in difference circumstances. Let's look at a few leadership skills you can gain from each style:

Authority: As a leader, you need to be in charge. An autocratic leader shows the utmost in authority, while a laissez-faire leader completely lacks authority. Striking that balance is going to lead to a productive team effort where the workers can be content in their roles.

Empathy: Both a democratic and laissez-faire leader can show empathy, but the democratic leader actually shows a better sense of empathy by understanding workers need both freedom and structure.

Creativity: If you find yourself leaning to the autocratic side, you'll need to learn to recognize the creativity of others and understand the benefits it can bring to your workplace. Sometimes it's difficult to let go of the idea you know the best way or, even worse, demand the staff sticks to the way we've always done it. Encouraging creativity not only leads to a more satisfied staff, it will lead to better results.

Trust: Trust is a two-way street that shows up distinctly in these three leadership styles. The autocratic leader shows no trust in the team, whereas the laissez-faire leader never gains the trust of the staff. The democratic leader shows trust by seeking input from the team and creating an environment where their ideas are welcome, and the staff learns to trust a leader who puts their input into decisions.

Inclusion: The democratic leader also creates an environment where all are welcome to give their input. A situation where the leader seeks input but from only a few trusted aides, in effect creates an autocratic team, rather than a democratic environment.

Motivation: An autocratic leader creates motivation only at the crack of a whip, while a laissez-faire leader relies mostly on the self-motivation of the workers. Both can be good sources of motivation, but more in a short-term incidence, not for the long-term commitment of running a successful, growing business.

Communication: All three types of leaders will provide communication, but in completely different manners. The autocratic leader will communicate commandments to get the work completed but receive no communication from the workers. The laissez-faire leader will welcome communication from the workers but only return communication when asked. The democratic leader will open an exchange of communication, with a healthy level of back and forth.

As you develop your leadership skills, it will be helpful to keep these styles in mind and draw lessons from them. Experience will tell you as you enter a situation which type of leadership can provide the best outcome, both for your team and for the company.

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Ryan Bonnici

Ryan Bonnici

Ryan Bonnici is the Senior Director of Global Marketing at HubSpot. He’s an experienced digital marketing leader having held roles previously at Salesforce, ExactTarget, Microsoft and Qantas Airways. He's an experienced digital marketing consultant having worked with a wide range of businesses from thermal clothing sales to executive coaching services. For more frequent updates, follow him on Facebook (@growthguy) or Twitter (@ryanbonnici)