Breaking Through to the next Level of Leadership

“First rule of leadership – everything is your fault.”

Wise words from Hopper (A Bug’s Life).  We have all worked with great leaders and been inspired by them and then there have been those whose leadership style can be described at best as being modelled on that of Vlad the Impaler.  Leadership is about inspiring others to see what you see and persuading them that your vision is something of benefit to them.  Understanding those people and what drives them is undoubtedly important but most important of all is understanding your own style of leadership so that you can adapt accordingly to different situations and events.

In 1939, the psychologist Kurt Lewin identified three core styles of leadership:




Authoritative or autocratic leadership depends on clear expectations of what needs to be done, when it needs to be done and how it needs to be done.  Decisions are made alone and implemented through controlling and dictatorial channels.  It is best suited to situations where there is little time for group decision-making or the leader is acknowledged as the most knowledgeable member of the group.  The inherent danger of this style is that it can result in a dysfunctional relationship between the leader and their team and that the team can turn against a dominant leader.

Participative or democratic leadership offers guidance and allows input.  It encourages participation but retains the final say which has the effect of making those being led feel engaged and part of a team.  The only real danger is that some people can occasionally be less productive but that is offset against higher quality contributions.

Delegative or laissez-faire leadership offers little guidance and allows decisions to be taken by group members.  A problem with this is that there are often poorly defined roles and a lack of motivation and there is an absence of personal responsibility that is extremely important when trying to inspire loyalty.

Following on from the differing styles of leadership, there are a number of determining factors that will indicate which style will work best in given situations and these are when:

  1. A task is specific and needs to be conducted by a team who need explicit motivation – here a combination of autocratic strength and assertiveness is required but mixed with all-important clarity of explanation and praise.
  2. A task is specific but needs to be conducted by a team who want autonomy – here the consultative approach works best, asking for opinions but having the final say.  Being open to ideas and suggestions, guiding discussions and not being dismissive.
  3. A task is highly creative and needs to be conducted by a team who don’t want autonomy – here a combination of the consultative and the participative with the all-important insistence of having the final say is the preferred approach.
  4. A task is highly creative and needs to be conducted by a team who want autonomy – a consensus laissez-faire approach will work here but it needs to be used with care and monitored.

Added into all this comes the levels of maturity of the teams in question.  Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard talk about ‘Situational Leadership’ and that leaders need to adapt their style according to the maturity levels of individuals and recognised four groups:

M1 – Lacking in knowledge and skills to work on own

M2 – Willing to work on own but don’t possess all necessary skills

M3 – Ready and willing to work, have the skills but not the confidence

M4 – Able to work on own, in possession of all skills and necessary confidence

Each level requires a different leadership approach:

M1 – Telling

M2 – Coaching

M3 – Participating

M4 – Delegating

Leadership is inextricably linked with power and leaders have power for different reasons.  John French and Bertram Raven conducted a study of power in 1959 and identified five power bases:

Legitimate – the belief that a person has a formal right to make demands

Reward – the ability of a person to compensate for compliance

Expert – the superior skill or knowledge of a person

Referent – perceived attractiveness or worthiness of respect

Coercive – the ability of a person to punish for non-compliance

The most effective leaders mainly use expert and referent power bases to lead.  By understanding these bases we can better realise how we are influenced by others.  Therefore by understanding where our own power bases lie, the levels of maturity of our teams and our natural preferred style of leadership we can better appreciate how to adapt accordingly when seeking to influence.

So, what distinguishes effective leaders from average ones?  Harvard Professor J. Sterling Livingston argued in ‘The myth of the well-educated manager’ that the effectiveness of a leader is not dependent on their education and that there are four key skills, which define effective leadership.

  1. Effective decision-making.  If you face a problem believing that you have to find the right answer, you can be setting yourself up for failure.  Effective leaders are practical and responsive in their approach to decision making and they know that they cannot keep waiting to make a perfect decision.  They have the confidence in situations to make a decision that has a high probability of success and which is consistent with the desired outcome.  Crucially, they know how to make decisions.
  2. Problem finding.  Effective leaders don’t just solve problems; they look for them and seek to neutralize them.  They continually ask questions and look for possible solutions.  When a problem arises, they will be better equipped to deal with it as they will have asked ‘why’ enough times to get to the source of the issue.
  3. Opportunity finding.  Effective leaders constantly look for opportunities to redefine and improve direction.  They will find the right things to do rather than always seeking to do things the right way.
  4. It doesn’t matter how many opportunities you identify or problems you solve, if you can’t inspire people to take action you will have little chance of success.  There is no one correct natural style and strong leaders recognize this and adapt theirs according to the each situation.

Inspirational leaders lead by example, words and vision.  They are trustworthy, committed and imaginative and they accept responsibility.  They keep their promises and are very aware that their reputation is their brand and manage that brand with prodigious attention to detail.  They tell the truth and if they are in a position where they can’t share everything, they explain that they cannot.  They make it easy for people to work with them; they take the time to see people rather then leading through email.  They are predictable and know how to manage their mood.  They don’t fall victim to hyperbole or hubris and they make their teams feel safe.

The ability to be enthusiastic and encourage ideas, look for solutions, accept what is unchangeable and be positive is essential.   The recognition of the importance of humility is also extremely important. “You shouldn’t gloat about anything you’ve done; you ought to keep going and find something better to do.” (David Packard of Hewlett Packard).

Finally, authenticity is fundamental.  Great leaders live their values and speak in a language that others understand.  They are consistently themselves and don’t seek approval but rather give meaningful praise to others.  They have clearly defined goals and make time to explain and communicate those goals.

In the words of Molière: “It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we will be accountable.”

Luan de Burgh 


Kurt Lewin – ‘Leadership Styles’ (1939)

Dr Paul Hersey & Ken Blanchard – ‘Situational Leadership’?

John French & Bertram Raven – ‘Power’ (1959)

J Stirling Livingston – ‘The myth of the well-educated manager’

Related TED talks:

Simon Sinek – ‘How great leaders inspire Action’ 

Roselinde Torres – ‘What it takes to be a great leader’

Stanley McChrystal – ‘Listen, hear…then lead’