Leadership Style


Leadership  StyleLeadership style in traditional leadership theory means how you relate to subordinates. Do you emphasize task structure or relationships, be unilateral or participative?

Do you show consideration to people or do you get the job done through formal structure? Questions about leadership style assume that the fundamental purpose of leadership is to motivate employees to work harder. But, thanks to hyper-competition, organizations now have two separate tasks - to get today's business done and to create the future. The former calls for good management; the latter for leadership.

Now, leaders need to focus externally and promote new products or services, something all employees can do. This means that leadership is no longer a formal role; only management is. We now need to reframe leadership style as management style.

Style questions should refer to how managers motivate subordinates to perform, not leadership. Leadership generates new directions - it's not about managing people.

What is Leadership? 

In our knowledge driven world, the power to lead is shifting to the power to promote new ideas, a better way, based on innovation. The meaning of leadership now should be simply the successful promotion of new directions. Leaders show the way. The beauty of this definition of leadership is that it is consistent with market leadership, green leadership or leadership in sports where one individual, team or organization "shows the way" for others. By focusing our attempts to define leadership on what it means to be the head of a group, we have created a very distorted picture of leadership. From this point of view, there is only management style. There is no such thing as leadership style; there is only influencing style.

Consider green leadership. When a green leader promotes environment-friendly policies in one country that are followed in another country, this is leadership-at-a-distance where those who follow don't report to, or even work with, the person showing leadership. Such leadership is a one-off act of influence, not an ongoing role. Leadership by example is also a discrete impact, not a role. So is leadership shown bottom-up, as when a front-line employee succeeds in convincing management to adopt a new product. Everyone can show this kind of leadership everyday without taking charge of other people.

Leadership and Influencing Style

The conventional concept of leadership style assumes a top-down, role-based view of leadership. Traditionally it refers to how you manage people and make decisions. When the notion of leadership style was first invented, writers on leadership did not differentiate between leadership and management. Today, we need to recognize that what used to be called leadership style is really management style. Management style is about how you make decisions for your team.

The fundamental argument of this website is that leadership means promoting new directions, not managing people. You can promote new directions aggressively, by example or through any number of other influencing styles. Hence, the only leadership style is influencing style. Before we became obsessed with leadership in the 1980's, we talked about management style. When we tossed management out and replaced it with leadership, we simply re-labeled management style as leadership style. This was a mistake due simply to an emotional over-reaction to the Japanese business success in the West. We needed a scapegoat to blame for our failure so management got it. Instead of upgrading management, we dumped it and we are stil paying the price with a concept of leadership that is badly confused with management. 

Some Influencing Styles

  • Direct appeals using logical arguments and evidence.
  • Expressing enthusiasm and conviction for your idea.
  • Making rousing speaches to large audiences with stirring images and music.
  • Quiet but persistent persuasion over time.
  • Enlisting the support of persuasive others.
  • Asking open questions designed to lead others to your conclusions.
  • Setting an example - the old adage ''actions speak louder than words'' is very true.

We follow the example of others perhaps more than any other leadership style. Unlike conventional notions of leadership, using authority is not a leadership style.

Using authority to influence people is not leadership - unless you equate leadership with being in power. Thus there is no such thing as autocratic leadership, only autocratic management. We don't actually need the term ''leadership style''. There is really only influencing style.

The term ''leadership style'' arose in the days when showing leadership was associated with particular persons in positions of power. We defined leadership as being a certain type of person. Today, leadership is better thought as an occasional act that anyone can show in certain circumstances - like temporarily leading in a tennis match. Conversely, management is a position of responsibility - hence it still makes sense to speak of management style. Want to read about conventional leadership style as discussed in the textbooks? See What is Leadership Style?

See also: How To Be a LeaderLeadership DefinedLeadership as InfluenceLeadership Traits and The Purpose of Leadership for more on these themes.

For more unconventional thinking on leadership see our sister site LEAD2XL