Leadership Styles - Lewin's leadership styles

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In 1939, social psychologist, Kurt Lewin, identified three styles of leadership that relate to how a leader makes decisions. The three styles describe the level of control that a leader holds over the decision making process and the amount that they involve their team.

What are they?

  1. Autocratic (authoritarian) leadership
  2. Democratic (participative) leadership
  3. Laissez-faire (delegative) leadership

Autocratic (authoritarian) leadership

Autocratic leadership is where leaders have complete power over their people. The leader makes all of the decisions and the followers are expected to follow orders and to execute without question.

This style of leadership should only be used when dealing with inexperienced employees, or in crisis situations, as the lack of input and autonomy can have a negative impact on employee motivation over the longer term.

Democratic (participative) leadership

Democratic (or participative) leadership is where the leader involves followers in the decision making process. Often the leader may still make the final decision but input from group members is encouraged in order to reach a decision.

According to Lewin's research, this style is the most effective for group performance across the board. However, democratic decision making can be a slow process, so it may not be optimal in a time-critical situation.

Laissez-faire (delegative) leadership

Laissez-faire leadership is a hands-off approach where leaders delegate decision making authority to their followers and allow them to work largely on their own.

This style should only be used with highly skilled and highly motivated employees that are capable of planning, making decisions, solving problems and getting the job done without management intervention.

High levels of autonomy can be very motivating for those who are skilled and motivated enough to handle it, but it can have a negative impact on performance for those who need strong direction and guidance.

Which style should I use?

Although Lewin's original study found that the democratic style of leadership had the strongest positive effect on group performance, all three styles have their place. Instead of sticking to one style, adapt your approach to suit the situation and/or your individual team members.

We will look at this concept more in 'Situational leadership'.

Learn more

Next: Leadership Styles - Situational leadership