‘When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’, as the Maslow quote goes. The best leadership is said to be situational, with effective leaders changing their approach to accommodate their situation. This can become a challenge when the situation changes rapidly or when the leader is capable of only one approach.
Leadership style is often presented as an either/or proposition with regards to how leaders deal with people. “Autocratic” and “democratic” are terms used to define end points of a continuum developed over the years by those who study such things, as outlined in the table below:
According to Bernard Bass, an author and researcher of all things leadership, the autocratic leader tends to:
- be arbitrary, controlling, power-orientated, coercive, punitive, and close-minded;
- foster in subordinates greater resentment, less loyalty, less commitment, less involvement, and less satisfaction;
- take full and sole responsibility for decisions and control of followers’ performance;
- stress obedience, loyalty, and strict adherence to the rules; and
- make and enforce the rules and see that decisions are carried out.
Democratic leaders on the other hand demonstrate the following attributes:
- leadership is considerate, consultative, participative, consensual, employee-centered, concerned with people, concerned with the maintenance of good working relations, supportive and orientated toward facilitating interaction, and relations-orientated;
- a belief that workers are internally motivated to do well and seek autonomy and the opportunity to prove their worth; and
- move decision-making to lower levels, encourage questioning and ideas, open to criticism, treat subordinates’ mistakes as learning opportunities, celebrate subordinates’ accomplishments, promote subordinates’ ideas to higher authority.
So which is better according to research? It depends.
At face value, the democratic approach is often considered “better”. While the autocratic approach is best applied when organisations need to be turned around quickly, it is also most frequently associated with workers quitting their jobs. Autocratic leadership tends to be more punitive and the inherent close supervision increases role ambiguity, reduces productivity, and decreases group harmony.
The democratic approach on the other hand works best when it is visibly supported by higher authority, members are well-educated, leaders have the skills to conduct meetings with the members, and time can be afforded for trust to develop. If these factors exist, then the democratic approach results in higher rates of productivity, reduced personnel turnover, reduced absenteeism, and better employee physical and mental health.
Which approach is appropriate depends in part on the nature of the follower and the environment. Democratic leadership is desirable in situations where the workforce becomes educated and seeks greater participation, when business becomes more complex, and when the use of advanced technology increases and there is greater emphasis on team expertise. Immature, dependent, and inexperienced subordinates are more likely to expect and accept authoritarian direction, whereas a democratic approach results in more rapid employee development.
We are often presented with a value judgement of autocratic leadership as bad and democratic leadership as good. This is not always the case. Authoritarian leadership works best with authoritarian followers in an authoritarian culture. There are times when an authoritarian approach is appropriate, as the leader of a high performing group can afford to be more democratic than the leader of a poor performing group.
The right tool for the right job
I question how much a leader can operate outside of their preferred method, and to what extent a new leader is necessary when the situation changes. I also question the extent that the leader creates situations that best suits their approach. Taking an autocratic approach can become a self-fulfilling prophesy, creating crisis situations that justify an autocratic leader’s preferred method.
A strict collaborative democratic approach is not always the answer either. Approaches such as Greenleaf’s servant leadership can result in positive customer and client satisfaction but is not necessarily correlated with positive profit outcomes. Practical application can be seen as unrealistic, encouraging passivity, and not being appropriate for all situations or serving the wrong cause.
A balance is needed and there are times to operate in either mode, but leadership should always begin with a regard for the individual within the organisational objectives and alignment with the leader’s core values. Leadership studies identify that great leaders derive pleasure from developing the innate potential of others and operate with an integrity and authenticity that comes from being true to themselves. The success of the approach depends not only on the situation but also on the alignment within the leader. As Bass states:
“the degree that leaders are consistent in what they think they ought to do, they will have a consistent style of leadership.”
This aligns with an axiom I have found true in most organisations: “As the head is, so the body shall be.”
We hear more about democratic leadership during times of low unemployment. As economic conditions tighten, more autocratic leadership approaches emerge as leaders default to a path of least resistance to achieving short-term reactionary outcomes. These pressures push out conversations about motivation theories and the creation of firms of endearment, overridden by seeming realities of profitability and cash flow.
Autocratic leaders create top-down, command-and control-situations best suited for their leadership style. Democratic leaders create collaborative, people-focused environments aligned with their mode of operation. Removing moral judgement from the discussion, each approach can create the appropriate situation for the leader, provide organisational results, and attract or retain people who align or can adapt to the leader’s approach.
What kind of leader do you think you are and what kind of leader would your followers say you are? Can you and do you change to accommodate your situation? If you are feeling democratic, feel free to collaborate with me in the comments below. If you are overly autocratic, tell me how it is and leave it at that.
When five local entrepreneurs purchased the Kansas City, Missouri-based Major League Soccer franchise for $15 million back in 2006 (then known as the Wizards), they came into a business that had been owned by the late Lamar Hunt as a secondary property behind his NFL team (the Kansas City Chiefs) and that didn't have much brand identity. The new owners, though, came in with little soccer knowledge but focused on building an innovative business and becoming a community staple. And in five short years, they've massively changed the organizational structure and are building a new model for sports franchise management.
"We have the utmost respect for Lamar Hunt and what he did for soccer in Kansas City," says Robb Heineman, one of the principal owners of the recently renamed Sporting Kansas City. "Without him, we wouldn't even be here. But we wanted to challenge the model. At the end of the day, the team on the field needs to be successful to succeed. But we hope that by building and managing a team on the business side that is winning from an innovation perspective, that translates to on-field success."
Assessing your organization's management style and determining its time for a change is not easy, though. If you're new, as the Sporting Kansas City owners were, they had a chance to redefine the way the business was run. But not all managers have that luxury and sometimes need to change styles in their existing role.
"If you begin to think your management style is backfiring, where you ultimately see it is in the disengagement of your staff," notes Jon Picoult, founder and principal of Watermark Consulting, a business advisory firm based in Simsbury, Connecticut. "As employees become disengaged, they become less interested in your success as a leader but more importantly in your company's overall success, which is what matters most."
But how can you successfully change your management style like the ownership group did at Sporting Kansas City? This guide will describe the five different management styles, how to recognize the type of style you employ and how to make that important organizational shift.
How to Change Your Management Style: What Type of Manager Are You?
The first step to changing your management style is identifying what type of manager you are. Traditionally, there are four management styles, but a fifth is also worth noting.
Autocratic: A leader who requires control over all organizational decisions and requests little input from his or her team members characterizes autocratic management, also referred to as Authoritarian. In a positive sense, autocratic leaders are good at making decisions, although they may not always be the most informed. On the negative side, people who work for autocratic managers often feel as though their contributions are not valued by the organization and decisions often don't consider how it will affect employees other than the manager.
Paternalistic: Paternalistic management is also very dictatorial, but includes the best interests of the employees as well as the business itself. In a very basic sense, the leader is often in a better situation to make overall organizational decisions due to experience. A well-known example of a paternalistic leader is Steve Carrell's character Michael Scott in the NBC comedy The Office. From a positive perspective, these managers care about the social needs of their employees (for example, being happy), but it also slows down and clouds the decision-making process.
Democratic: Exactly as it sounds, a democratic management style gives everyone equal say in decisions, from employees to management themselves. The "leadership by committee" approach makes employees feel really good about the overall product, and the collaborative style of management often leads to more thorough and thought-out solutions to problems. If the workforce doesn't have the experience necessary to make informed decisions, they can sometimes be made hastily while also being drawn out in the decision-making process (since you are soliciting input from much of the organization), but democratic leadership is popular and often effective.
Laissez-Faire: A form of management that is characterized by being very hands-off and allowing group members to make many big decisions, a laissez-faire management style has generally led to the lowest productivity level among groups. In short, that is due to very little managerial guidance and freedom for employees to make many decisions (informed or not). In an organization where your employees are highly experienced, good at working on their own and/or motivated, a laissez-faire approach can be a good one, but in many cases, leaders need to actually lead.
Servant Leadership: the leader being focused on their colleagues and what they need to succeed defines the fifth and final management style, made popular by Robert Greenleaf in his 1970 essay "The Servant as a Leader." They are often humble managers that are extremely talented at tapping into the expertise of their entire organization.
"The reason I think servant leadership is so powerful is because no matter what industry you're in or how large or small your business, you're likely in business to serve someone else—namely a customer," says Picoult. "Servant leadership provides a model for employees of what it means to serve internally, and that's something they can apply to the customers they deal with."
Dig Deeper:Leadership Styles Guide
How to Change Your Management Style: Recognizing Your Management Style
Before deciding to change your management, you need to identify what type of manager you are and determine if a change is needed. There is no one size fits all type of management that works, as each organization is different. But your management style more or less defines your approach to leading others. Also, it's often possible those managers may have qualities from many of the different styles.
"The most effective way to figure out if a change is needed is to solicit feedback from those you're leading or partnering with," Picoult says. "I'm a strong proponent of reverse evaluations and 360 feedback, but it comes down to the environment the business is operating in."
Before you ask your employees about your management style, it's important to ask yourself some questions:
• Are you prepared to adapt your style to become a more effective leader?
• Is a change needed to drive business or can it function as-is?
• Are you willing to ask your staff for more feedback on how to lead them more effectively and then listen to their thoughts?
• What short-term changes can be made?
• What alterations in style will need a more long-term approach?
• Who inside and outside your organization can you enlist for support in this change?
"It's always been about clarity, alignment and focus for us," Heineman says of Sporting Kansas City. "How do we do that? As leaders, by creating a team culture and creating an environment where people are highly incentivized to try things, whether they fail or succeed. We want people to be upwardly mobile and we'd love to create a reputation as a training environment for sports. We really want to empower our employees to be risk-takers."
One of the defining qualities of good managers is that they have more than professional knowledge. They have self-knowledge—in other words, they can look inward to examine their own strengths and weaknesses and they're also willing and happy to listen to outside input on how they can grow and change.
Dig Deeper:Six Sigma Management Guide
How to Change Your Management Style: Making the Management Style Change Happen
So you've taken all the steps to determine if a change is needed and decided that a change in management style is needed. How do you proceed? Think about each individual thing you say and do, and before reacting with your initial thought, catch yourself and do something differently before you fall into your comfort zone. Great leaders are good at adapting to the environment around them, and are good at making changes when they're needed.
"Can people actually change their behavior effectively?" asks Picoult. "That's the big challenge. I think the key element is being self-aware. If you've taken the first step to recognize that something different would be good, that's a huge first step. But you also need to be able to be really objective, step outside yourself and take a candid look at what you're doing today and understanding what you need to differently. So it's not easy, but it requires somebody who is good at making calculated and informed decisions but without an ego. Once you do that, just follow that path."
In making the organizational shift, it is important to take a top-down approach and preach transparency from a leadership perspective. If you are changing your management style, you need to first assess and make the changes yourself (internally, without notification to your employees). Then make it clear early on, or those you lead will anticipate things to remain as they were.
"Internally, it's always been about clarity, alignment and focus," notes Heineman. "How do we do that? When we came in, we created a team culture, an environment where people are highly incentivized to come up with ideas and try things, whether they fail or succeed. We want to empower people to be upwardly mobile and we'd love to create a reputation as a training environment for sports, and that starts at the top."
Externally, if you're changing your management strategy, it's important to be up front with customers and clients. For Heineman, they began by communicating with fans via social media channels (where most of their supporters were anyway) and through a unique membership model that gives customers and brand advocates ways to further connect with the company. Through their successful 2010 rebranding as more than just a soccer club and a June 9 opening of the state-of-the-art LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, a first-of-its kind stadium naming rights deal that directly benefits a charity (ticket sales and concessions will go the cause made famous by Lance Armstrong), the idea that management is no longer doing things via the traditional methods has been made very clear.
Dig Deeper:How to Get People to Change