In 2005, leadership expert John Maxwell identified influence as the true measure of leadership. The role of a leader is, ultimately, to influence team members to accomplish a given task while fostering team cohesion and motivation. In 1939, social scientist Kurt Lewin applied his theories to organizational development and identified three leadership styles: authoritarian, participative/democratic and laissez-faire. Each style has its own pros and cons. Hence, an awareness of each leadership style assists the manager in adopting the right approach according to the context of a given situation.
An authoritarian leader adopts a dominant and dictatorial approach when leading his team members. Authoritarian leadership enforces authority by strict rules and procedures rather than encouraging teamwork. An authoritarian leadership style fits best in urgent and stressful situations. Such situations call for a firm and resolute leader who is able to make decisions without consulting team members. However, an autocratic leader can easily cultivate passive resistance in his followers, resulting in lower performance from team members.
The democratic or participative leader involves team members in the decision-making process. He fosters participation among his followers and aims to provide guidance rather than authority. This type of leadership aims to motivate and empower team members. The focus on participation and group decision-making creates a sense of belonging in the team. At times, however, the democratic leader can be perceived as insecure and unable to come to a final decision without first consulting his followers.
The laissez-faire or free reign leader scarcely provides direction to his team members. Control in the group is minimal; authority is shared among members. The free reign approach can prove an effective type of leadership when the team has achieved identity and cohesion, resulting in motivated and resourceful team members. In such situations, the sharing of authority and minimal direction empowers team members. The lack of direction in laissez-faire leadership, though, can result in demotivated team members. Team members can feel lost and unsupported by their leader.
In his studies, Lewin concluded that participative or democratic leadership yields the best results, as it provides a median between the extreme authority of the authoritarian leader and the lack of direction in laissez-faire leadership. Nonetheless, each leadership style can prove effective when applied in the appropriate context. The role of an effective leader is to adopt the style that fits best with his team dynamics.