What’s Your Style of Leadership?

Lao Tzu, founder of Taoism, said, “To lead the people, walk behind them.” While much has happened in the intervening 25 centuries, leadership is still a vital commodity that can make or break your career. Whether a new or seasoned manager, new challenges will stretch your limits. Understanding your leadership style is a first step in building your strengths to achieve success.

Managers and Leaders

Are you a manager or a leader? The terms are not interchangeable. Generally, a manager is thought of as a person who implements the ideas of a leader. Managers are concerned with the mundane tasks of fulfilling a mission; leaders describe a vision for the organization. As management guru Peter Drucker put it, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”1

This may relegate management to what one psychology professor describes as “a profession, not a key role in a group.”2 To an extent this is true: leaders in your organization inspire others to achieve with their vision, while managers make sure employees do what is needed under budget. But roles often overlap. As a manager you may be called upon to be a leader for a specific initiative, for example.


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Different perspectives also define managers and leaders. Managers tend to react to situations using current information and think of goals in impersonal terms tied to the culture of the organization. Leaders, charged with creating a vision, tend to shape ideas instead of responding to them and have a personal attachment to goals. Differences are summarized in Table 1.

Finally, Harvard Business Professor and consultant John Kotter describes management as “a systematic way of making people and technology work proficiently” while leadership creates those systems. The overlapping nature of the roles and the creative approaches managers take in implementing a vision have lead one marketing director to propose that we should focus on how people can exhibit characteristics of both strong managers and strong leaders.3

Semantics aside, as a manager you play a central role in creating a vision for your unit. How you do so defines your leadership style.

Table 1

Managers vs. Leaders
Manager Leader
• Impersonal, passive attitude toward goals
• Focus on current information
• Establish strategies by combining people and ideas
• Act to limit choice and resolve conflict
• Prefers working with others
• Focused on how things get done
• Personal orientation toward goals
• Shape ideas and vision
• Develop new approaches
• Focus people on shared vision while raising expectations
• Relate to people in an intuitive, empathetic way
• Attract strong feelings of identity

Types of Styles

Descriptions of leadership are based on influences: behavioral, situational, personality trait or power-based. There is no right or wrong approach. As Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes magazine, writes, “There is no single leadership secret; there are many. They are hiding in plain sight, and we can learn from them.”4

Psychologist Kurt Lewin categorized leadership in 1939 by how decisions are made:5

  • Authoritarian (Autocratic) – provides clear expectations for what is done with a clear distinction between leader and followers. Decisions tend to be made without input from the group. Research shows less creativity under authoritarian leadership.
  • Participative (Democratic) – offers guidance to the group and invites participation in decision-making. Group members are more motivated and creative.
  • Delegative (Laissez-Faire) – with little or no guidance, group members are encouraged to make decisions themselves. This can lead to poorly defined roles and expectations.

In a study of school children assigned to one of each type of leader in an arts and crafts project, Lewin found the Participative to be the most effective and the Delegative least productive. But style efficacy depends on the group. A Delegative style, for example, works if employees know their roles well and are able to work without much guidance. Online quizzes can help you determine which of Lewin’s styles fits you.6

One popular approach is the Blake Mouton model in Table 2, which divides leadership styles by behavioral dimensions of concern for production vs. people. The degree of your concern determines where you tend to fall in the grid, helping you to compare and contrast your style with other leaders. While an imperfect model, it shows the liability of favoring one dimension over another. The “Country Club” style, for example, assumes that people work hard so long as they are happy, but production may suffer.

Table 2: Blake Mouton Grid11

Continued on page 2…


Situational Leadership

You may recognize your style in the above, or you’ve realized that while you feel most comfortable with one you tend to use different styles depending on the situation. This contingency-based model arose from a realization that no one style works in all situations. Leadership responds to the needs of the organization in the moment. The most effective leaders adopt their style to the situation, as described by Daniel Goleman in his book Primal Leadership.7

The popular Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory assumes leaders fail when they don’t match their style of leadership to the maturity of the person or group they are leading. It describes four main leadership styles mapped to maturity levels as listed in Table 3.

Table 3: Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership12

Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership
Maturity Level Most Appropriate Style
M1 – low maturity; lack knowledge, skills, or confidence to work alone S1 – telling / directing; tell people exactly what to do and how to do it
M2 – medium maturity; limited skills S2 – selling / coaching; still provide direction but with more communication to “sell” the message and get people on board
M3 – medium maturity with higher skills but limited confidence S3 – participating / supporting; focus more on relationships and sharing decision-making and less on direction
M4 – high maturity; able to work alone S4 – delegating; most responsibility passed on to members of the group

If there is no “one size fits all” leadership approach, what common qualities do leaders possess? According to Ken Blanchard, co-creator of the Hersey-Blanchard model and best-selling author, “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.”8 Whether influencing, persuading, or motivating, leaders have a talent to inspire others.


Leadership style effectiveness depends on forces in the situation, the leader and the follower. A leader must weigh the likelihood of a person accepting direction versus the importance of the decision. In a high-risk setting, an authoritarian style may be the easiest to apply, the most well-accepted, and least confusing for all involved.

Strength-Based Leadership

According to Gallup, which surveyed more than one million work teams and interviewed more than 20,000 leaders, the most effective leaders constantly invest in strengths. When leadership focuses on employees’ strengths, engagement rises dramatically. Effective leaders surround themselves with the right people and understand their followers’ needs (trust, compassion, stability and hope). There is no one strength that all good leaders possess; the most effective leaders are acutely aware of their talents and use them to their best advantage.9

Successful leadership means learning to use your strengths in any situation to inspire, influence and motivate. This self-discovery can build your team’s confidence, increasing productivity and satisfaction. Setting a direction for your team and encouraging them to participate in creative solutions is a winning approach to better patient care.

Scott Warner is lab manager at Penobscot Valley Hospital, Lincoln, ME.


1. BrainyQuote. Retrieved May 14, 2011 from the World Wide Web: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/p/peterdruck131069.html

2. Riggio R. Leadership vs. Management: What’s the difference. Retrieved May 14, 2011 from the World Wide Web: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/200911/leadership-vs-management-what-s-the-difference

3. Emergenetics. Management vs. leadership: What’s the difference. Retrieved May 14, 2011 from the World Wide Web: http://www.emergenetics.com/management-vs-leadership-whats-difference

4. Karlgaard R. Four styles of leadership. Retrieved May 14, 2011 from the World Wide Web: http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2009/1102/opinions-rich-karlgaard-digital-rules.html

5. Cherry K. Lewin’s leadership styles. Retrieved May 14, 2011 from the World Wide Web: http://psychology.about.com/od/leadership/a/leadstyles.htm

6. About. Quiz: What’s your leadership style? Retrieved May 14, 2011 from the World Wide Web: http://psychology.about.com/library/quiz/bl-leadershipquiz.htm .

7. Wall Street Journal. Leadership styles. Retrieved May 14, 2011 from the World Wide Web: http://guides.wsj.com/management/developing-a-leadership-style/how-to-develop-a-leadership-style/

8. BrainyQuote. Retrieved May 14, 2011 from the World Wide Web: http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/k/kenblancha307860.html

9. Gallup. New gallup book destroys the myth of the well-rounded leader. Retrieved May 14, 2011 from the World Wide Web: http://www.gallup.com/press/113536/Press-Release-Strengths-Based-Leadership.aspx

10. Leadership-Tools. Leadership versus management. Retrieved May 14, 2011 from the World Wide Web: http://www.leadership-tools.com/leadership-versus-management.html

11. Mindtools. Blake Mouton managerial grid: Balancing task and people-oriented leadership. Retrieved May 14, 2011 from the World Wide Web: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_73.htm

12. Mindtools. The Hersey-Blanchard situational leadership Theory: Choosing the right leadership style for the right people. Retrieved May 14, 2011 from the World Wide Web: http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newLDR_44.htm .

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