Leadership Styles and Methods: Assessing and Improving Your Skills

Leadership goes beyond being appointed “the manager.” Leadership has to do with whom the people are following. Leaders influence others’ behaviors. To become more effective, leader-managers must learn how to influence others with the intent of effectively motivating them. Leaders possess qualities that make others want to follow them. The standard definition of leadership is the process of influencing other people’s behavior toward achieving a predetermined goal. It is imperative to note that leadership is a means, not an end.

Leadership traits are physical or personality characteristics that differentiate leaders from subordinates. There have been many attempts to define these qualities over the years, and perceptions of what distinguishes leaders have changed. In the 1980s, Warren Bennis, a leading management consultant, reviewed ninety successful leaders to determine commonalities among them.1 Sixty were Fortune 500 executives and 30 were from the public sector. Bennis identified the following basic leadership traits, which remain relevant:

  • Attention. Leaders attract attention by exercising a strong vision and commitment to accomplishment.
  • Meaning. Leaders use exceptional communication skills that make visions tangible to others.
  • Trust. Leaders exhibit clear focus and consistent behavior, which generates trust.
  • Self-awareness. Leaders know their limitations but remain optimistic.

Leadership Styles

Leadership styles vary according to organizational structure, people, environment, and task. Leaders promote loyalty among subordinates by keeping an open mind, being self-aware, and being inquisitive.

Awareness is important in working effectively with diverse groups and individuals, regardless of personal bias. Anger and frustration indicate a closed mind. The effective leader asks questions with a genuine interest in learning more, rather than as a probe to expose a mistake or fault. Employee inquiries should be conducted with genuine interest and with demonstrated respect. Even more important is listening to the feedback, so that appropriate action (if necessary) may be taken.

One model for understanding leadership styles differentiates between four types of leaders:

  • Directing leaders direct subordinates in what, how, when and where tasks should be done. These leaders maintain a standard of performance, and their style is high-directive and low-supportive in nature.
  • Coaching (participative) leaders welcome input and consult with employees. These leaders are highly directive-oriented, but they are also highly supportive.
  • Supporting leaders are friendly and show concern for the well-being of their subordinates; they treat subordinates as equals and offer a high-supportive and low-directive environment.
  • Delegating (achievement-oriented) leaders encourage high achievement and sets challenging goals; the emphasis is on excellence, and these leaders outwardly show their confidence in subordinates’ abilities. They operate in a low-supportive and low-directive environment, which allows employees to extend themselves and their abilities fully.2

The leadership style an individual uses is often a reflection of the individual’s attitudes about workers, their competence, and how to get work done. Different situations will require different styles of leadership in order to maximize the productivity and well-being of subordinates.

Transformational Leadership

Every leader should strive to become a transformational leader, or a leader that contributes to change. They prompt the highest levels of motivation and commitment among their followers. They are able to create an organizational vision so vivid that it elicits followers’ loyalty and trust. Martin Luther King, Jr is a good example of a transformational leader. Transformational leaders operate by:

  • Generating greater awareness of the goal’s importance and purpose
  • Inspiring followers to put the organization’s or team’s interests ahead of their own
  • Motivating followers’ higher-level needs

Transformational leadership is comprised of:

  • Idealized, charismatic influence
  • Inspirational (meaningful and challenging) motivation
  • Intellectual stimulation (innovation and creative problem solving)
  • Individual consideration through listening and constructive feedback

Guidelines for becoming a transformational leader include:

  • Developing a clear, colorful, and realistic vision
  • Providing a viable strategy for achieving the visionary goal
  • Conveying a personal conviction and optimism toward goal attainment
  • Conveying confidence in the team’s/followers’ abilities
  • Continuing to build team/follower confidence with graduated milestone celebrations
  • Dramatically exemplifying organizational values
  • Creating, modifying, or removing cultural forms

Leadership Behavior

A leader’s behavior impacts the environment in which he or she operates, as well as the individuals with whom he or she comes in contact. Simply put, a leader’s behavioral style affects work group effectiveness.

Classic styles of leadership behavior are:

  • Authoritarian: Retains authority and responsibility, assigns people to clearly defined tasks, and communicates downward. This style stresses prompt, methodical, and predictable performance.
  • Democratic: Delegates much of his or her authority but retains total responsibility, work is assigned on a group decision-making basis, and communication flows upward and downward. Participation is key for personal enhancement.
  • Laissez-faire: Assumes little responsibility and relinquishes authority to the group with little or no problem-solving support, and communication is horizontal (among peers). Self-starters thrive in this environment without leader interference.

The rule to remember when selecting the best leadership style for any situation is that past performance affects the present and future, and that subordinates’ behaviors affect the leader, just as the leader’s behavior affects subordinates. The best leadership style is the one in which subordinate and task, as well as the leader and environment, are cohesive. By analyzing past performances, such as subordinates’ abilities and motivation, the present situation and future possibilities become clearer.

This integrative model may be used to determine the best leadership style.

  • Step 1: Determine the nature of the task to be performed. Is it well structured or changing? Is it ambiguous, challenging, overwhelming, or meaningful?
  • Step 2: Evaluate subordinates’ abilities and motivation. Are the workers motivated? Are they willing to take responsibility for, and control over, their work?
  • Step 3: Evaluate leadership characteristics affecting the chosen style of leadership. Is the leader self-confident and a good communicator? Is the leader knowledgeable, and does he/she possess expert personal power? Are leader-member relations good?
  • Step 4: What leadership background is influencing the chosen leadership style? What is the position power? Will the leadership style be dictated by a superior?3

Leaders set themselves apart from managers and others within the organization. They establish and share a vision of their goal for the future of the group, team, or organization.

Leaders enable others to be successful, serve as role models, and create opportunities. They develop action plans that build accountability, reliability, predictability, and persistence. Leaders work hard to develop subordinates so that they may in turn be able to delegate to them. They also follow up delegation with feedback. If mistakes happen, leaders make sure subordinates have learned from the experience.

Leaders challenge the status quo. They are self-confident in their abilities and change things for the better. Leaders develop charisma in the process by developing trust and building power bases that motivate people and get things done.

Improvement in Leadership Skills

Use this checklist as a rough guide for assessing and improving your leadership skills:

  • If my subordinates had the opportunity, would they elect me for their leader? If not, why not?
  • Do my subordinates volunteer for assignments? Do they do what needs to be done without being directed? If they need to be continually motivated, why is that necessary? Does it have to do with my style of leadership?
  • Do I always make the decisions? Should I change the way decisions are made and let others, or the situation, determine how, and who, assumes the decision making role?
  • Do I understand my workers’ needs? Am I accurately reading the group’s mood and what they think about the task, the organization, and the leadership?
  • Am I correctly assessing our leader-member relations? What style of leader do they think I am? Is it appropriate, considering the type of workers, tasks, and situations we encounter?
  • Am I an effective planner? Do I know how to keep track of the work without getting involved in everything? Have I been effectively delegating?
  • Have I been effectively communicating, both verbally and nonverbally? Have I been using formal and informal communication channels adequately?
  • Have I been aware of barriers to effective communication within the group? If so, what have I done to correct them?
  • How well have I been giving and receiving positive and constructive feedback? Have I been a good listener, or have there been misperceptions and misunderstandings?
  • Have I forgotten the importance of the relationship between good communication and good managing and leading? 4

1Robert Kreitner and Angelo Kinicki, Organizational Behavior (Homewood: Irwin, 1989).
3W. Alan Randolph and Richard S. Blackburn, Managing Organizational Behavior (Homewood: Irwin. 1989).
4ICMA, Effective Supervisory Practices.

This article is adapted from BOMI International’s Managing the Organization. More information regarding this is available by calling 1-800-235-2664, or by visiting www.bomi.org.