Leadership Styles

Learning Outcomes

  • Compare different styles of leadership

Group Leadership

Often, larger groups require some kind of leadership. In small, primary groups, leadership tends to be informal. After all, most families don’t take a vote on who will rule the group, nor do most groups of friends. This is not to say that de facto leaders don’t emerge, but formal leadership is rare. In secondary groups, leadership is usually more overt. There are often clearly outlined roles and responsibilities, with a chain of command to follow. Some secondary groups, like the military, have highly structured and clearly understood chains of command, and many lives depend on those. After all, how well could soldiers function in a battle if they had no idea whom to listen to or if different people were calling out orders? Other secondary groups, like co-workers or fellow students, also have formal leaders, but the styles and functions of leadership can vary significantly.

Leadership Function

What types of functions do leaders fulfill for a group or formal organization? An instrumental leader is one who is goal-oriented and largely concerned with accomplishing set tasks. We can imagine that an army general or a Fortune 500 CEO would be an instrumental leader. In contrast, expressive leaders are more concerned with promoting emotional strength and health, and ensuring that people feel supported. Social and religious leaders—rabbis, priests, imams, directors of youth homes and social service programs—are often perceived as expressive leaders.

There is a longstanding stereotype that men are more instrumental leaders, and women are more expressive leaders. And although gender roles have changed, even today many women and men who exhibit the opposite-gender manner can be seen as deviants and can encounter resistance. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s experiences provide an example of the way society reacts to a high-profile woman who is an instrumental leader. Despite the stereotype, Boatwright and Forrest (2000) have found that both men and women prefer leaders who use a combination of expressive and instrumental leadership.

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Leadership Styles

In addition to these leadership functions, there are three different leadership styles. Democratic leaders encourage group participation in all decision making. They work hard to build consensus before choosing a course of action and moving forward. This type of leader is particularly common, for example, in a club where the members vote on which activities or projects to pursue. Democratic leaders can be well liked, but there is often a danger that the input-gathering process will proceed slowly since consensus building is so labor intensive. A further risk is that group members might pick sides and entrench themselves into opposing factions rather than reaching a solution.

In contrast, a laissez-faire leader (French for “leave it alone”) is hands-off, allowing group members to self-manage and make their own decisions. An example of this kind of leader might be an art teacher who opens the art cupboard, leaves materials on the shelves, and tells students to help themselves and make some art. While this style can work well with highly motivated and mature participants who have clear goals and guidelines, it risks group dissolution and a lack of progress.

As the name suggests, authoritarian leaders issue orders and assigns tasks. These leaders are clear instrumental leaders with a strong focus on meeting goals. Often, entrepreneurs fall into this mold, like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Not surprisingly, the authoritarian leader risks alienating the workers. There are times, however, when this style of leadership can be required. In different circumstances, each of these leadership styles can be effective and successful. Consider what leadership style you prefer. Why? Do you like the same style in different areas of your life, such as a classroom, a workplace, and a sports team?

Further Research

What is your leadership style? Take this Leadership Styles Quiz to help you find out!

are we ready for a female potus?

Then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is shown speaking into a mic and standing behind a podium with a placard stating: Countdown to a New Beginning.
Figure 1. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton drew fire for her leadership style. (Photo courtesy marcn/flickr)

The 2008 presidential election marked a dynamic change when two female politicians entered the race to become the next President of the United States (POTUS). Of the 200 people who have run for president during the country’s history, fewer than thirty have been women.

Democratic presidential candidate and former First Lady Hillary Clinton was both famously polarizing and popular. With an impressive resume as an experienced global diplomat, Clinton was attacked for being elitist, intellectual, abrasive, and wealthy. Consider that Hillary Clinton’s popularity surged in her 2008 campaign after she cried on the campaign trail. It was enough for the New York Times to publish an editorial, “Can Hillary Cry Her Way Back to the White House?” (Dowd 2008). Harsh, but her approval ratings soared afterward. In fact, many compared it to how politically likable she was in the aftermath of President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal.

A toy figure of Hilary Clinton is shown in a packaged box reading “Is America Ready for This Nutcracker?”
Figure 2. This gag gift demonstrates how female leaders may be viewed if they violate social norms. (Photo courtesy of istolethetv/flickr)

On the other side of the aisle was Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. The former governor of Alaska, Palin was, to some, the perfect example of the modern woman. She juggled her political career with raising a growing family and relied heavily on the use of social media to spread her message. Palin was the opposite of Clinton in many ways–she had no national or international political experience and came across as friendly, upbeat, and even silly at times. Sarah Palin’s expressive qualities were promoted to a greater degree. While she has benefited from the efforts of feminists before her, she self-identified as a traditional woman with traditional values, a point she illustrated by frequently bringing her young children up on stage with her.

When Clinton ran again in 2016, her lengthy political career worked against her as a number of actions she took as Secretary of State were used to criticize her. Her opponent, the reality-TV personality and real estate heir Donald Trump, had no political experience, but he positioned himself as an instrumental leader who demonstrated leadership in global business.

As we look to the 2020 election, a number of female candidates have entered the field. So what light have these candidates’ emerging campaigns shed so far on the possibilities of a female presidency? According to some political analysts, women candidates face a paradox: they must be as tough as their male opponents on issues such as foreign policy, or they risk appearing weak. However, the stereotypical expectation of women as expressive leaders is still prevalent. How much of the rhetoric is about the female candidate’s appearance (What is she wearing? Is she attractive?)? Compare this to the field of male candidates. In the workforce, being a mother can often limit a woman’s upward mobility as we will see while being a father has the opposite effect for men. Do we see any evidence of this gender disparity in the 2020 Presidential Election?

Think It Over

  • Compare and contrast the leadership styles of former President Obama and President Trump. What leadership style (democratic, laissez-faire, or authoritarian) do you see as being the best suited for the position? Why?
  • Think of a scenario where an authoritarian leadership style would be beneficial. Explain. What are the reasons it would work well? What are the risks?
  • Describe a time you were led by a leader using, in your opinion, a leadership style that didn’t suit the situation. When and where was it? What could she or he have done better?
  • What kind of leader do you tend to be? Do you embrace different leadership styles and functions as the situation changes? Give an example of a time you were in a position of leadership and what function and style you expressed.

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authoritarian leader:
a leader who issues orders and assigns tasks
democratic leader:
a leader who encourages group participation and consensus-building before moving into action
expressive leader:
a leader who is concerned with process and with ensuring everyone’s emotional wellbeing
instrumental leader:
a leader who is goal oriented with a primary focus on accomplishing tasks
laissez-faire leader:
a hands-off leader who allows members of the group to make their own decisions

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