What's Your Style?

In one form or another, we are all thrust into a leadership role during the work day. Whether we are leading an organization or a youth soccer team, leadership is one of those intangible, almost immeasurable qualities that make us who we are.

Our personal leadership style is shaped largely by the myriad situations we encounter daily. While no two people are alike, we all have principles that guide our decisions. It is these principles that make up our specific leadership styles.

The Age-Old Question

The principles or style by which someone leads has been a topic of discussion for many centuries. The 15th-century philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli wrote at great length in answering the question with which all leaders are confronted: “Is it better to be loved or feared?”

While most of us have never sat up late at night thinking about this quandary, I am sure you know at least one person you have worked with who has led through discipline and fear.

Many years ago, all of the managers in our park district were called in to participate in a workshop. While I can’t remember the topic or who sat next to me, I do recall the speaker asking for a show of hands as to how many managers had administered a written reprimand in the past year. He started with one and worked his way up. Very few of us had one, let alone two, but as we all surmised, the same two managers who were synonymous with disciplining their employees had their hands up long after everyone else.

This even surprised the speaker, making him offer a piece of advice. He said very plainly, but sharply to these managers, “It’s not them, it’s you.”

Although this was over 10 years ago, I still think he was dead-on. I remember sitting in meetings with these managers and listening to them boast of how they would sit on the bluffs overlooking the parks with binoculars, watching their employees, or how they would search the phone and alarm records looking for discrepancies. Their behavior turned the employee/employer relationship into a prisoner/warden one.

There are numerous avenues afforded to a supervisor to correct bad behavior, or to instruct an employee before a written reprimand is necessary. While this leadership style may be effective in the short term, it does not promote the values that build quality employees, such as:

• Commitment

• Initiative

• Innovation

• Productivity

• Responsibility

• Team-playing

Nor does this “dread of punishment” help develop the worker and improve his or her value to the organization.

Likewise, Machiavelli finds folly in the person who desires the admiration and love of the people he leads paramount over all else.

I liken this mindset to a volunteer coach I helped several years ago. He spent all of his time and energy trying to get the kids to like him, rather than teach them the game. The kids had little respect for him as a coach and even less as an adult. The leadership (or lack) displayed by this coach could be directly seen in the kids’ poor showing in the first few games of the season. With some guidance and direction, the coach turned the season around for the kids as well as for himself.

Defining Types Of Leadership

These two examples are by no means a synopsis of all the leadership styles found in the workplace. Rather, they are over-pronounced expressions of a few leadership styles.

Today’s leaders have a multitude of principles and styles to study, develop, and integrate into what ultimately becomes their own leadership style. In fact, if you research long enough, you may get confused and wonder how many different leadership styles you have witnessed, used, or worked for.

Furthermore, a common interview question that stumps the best candidate is, “How would you describe your management style?” So, are you an autocratic leader--kindred to Machiavelli--or a charismatic leader, leading your team by your personality and charm? Whether you know it or not, how you lead can be described and slotted into specific leadership styles. In the styles listed below, you may even see aspects of how you lead in all or part of them.

In today’s workplace, numerous levels of leadership exist within an organization. Some of these have specific principles and styles associated with them. Entire organizations can even be built around one type of leadership style, such as the armed forces. Autocratic from inception and long proven effective, even the armed forces are looking to integrate other leadership disciplines into their operations.

Zachary First, Managing Director of the Drucker Institute, when asked about Machiavelli’s philosophies in today’s workplace, cites Peter Drucker’s book, The Age of Discontinuity:

“In the spring of 1968, a witty book made headlines for a few weeks. Titled Management & Machiavelli, it asserted that every business is a political organization and that, therefore, Machiavelli's rules for princes and rulers are fully applicable to the conduct of corporate executives. Of course, this is not a particularly new insight. … But during the last twenty years, non-businesses--government, the armed services, the university, the hospital--have begun to apply to themselves the concepts and methods of business management. And this is indeed new.”

As seen in the business models of today, the old way of doing things is becoming quickly extinct. Employees and business owners expect more from managers, and the autocratic style of managing--having blossomed during the Industrial Age--is far behind us.


An autocratic leader exerts high levels of power over his or her employees or team members; this is often referred to as a dictatorship. A typical autocratic leader does not involve members of his or her team in the decision-making process. If someone does ask for an opinion or recommendation, it is most likely dismissed as soon as it is heard. Communication is described as one-way. The work environment is stressful.

Turnover and absenteeism are both high. This style is not successful in situations where employees can become resentful or fearful. The ideal situation for this type of leadership is routine and unskilled jobs/tasks where the advantages of control outweigh the disadvantages. In situations and conditions which call for urgent action or emergencies, this may be the best style to adopt. Most employees have worked for an autocratic leader, and can adapt to the style when needed. In some situations, subordinates may actually prefer this style.


If you have been told that you lead “by the book,” you might be a bureaucratic leader. This person is charged with ensuring that his or her colleagues, employees and team members follow strict and systematic protocol and procedures. Leaders seem empowered by the title and position they hold. Used incorrectly, the inflexibility and level of control can demoralize the team, and diminish the ability to react to changes in the workplace and environment. Individual employees may succeed in this environment by following the rules.

Those who follow the rules are rewarded with promotions. This type of organizational leadership is typically found in universities, hospitals, banks and government to ensure quality, increase security, decrease corruption, and make the bottom line more profitable. Leaders who work within these organizations and try to speed up a process may experience frustration and anxiety.


A charismatic leader has a high level of energy and enthusiasm, and uses both to fuel a team’s direction. He or she gains supporters and followers on personality and charm, rather than any form of internal organizational authority or external power.

Charismatic leaders can get caught up in their vision and believe more in themselves than the team. In this case, team members begin to feel that the organization will fail if the leader ever leaves. Such leaders show great confidence in their followers and team members; they make the group clear and distinct, often separating groups based on mission or job assignment.


This true team leadership concept allows members to contribute to the decision-making process; however, not all the decisions are made by the team. Members who play a part in the decision-making process feel a greater amount of ownership of the final outcome, and also feel they control their own destiny. Employees under this leadership work harder and appreciate non-financial rewards. The flexibility offers more creative thinking, and yields positive projects. Such leadership can lead to more meetings, tasks and assignments, but the end results are often better and more widely accepted.

Some leaders have a difficult time with this style. It can take more time to involve the group in the process and some leaders still feel the need to be tough, demanding and controlling at all times.


This person leads by meeting the needs of those employees or colleagues by which they serve a leadership role. Servant leaders gain power by virtue of their values and ideals, as well as strength by respecting, motivating, and genuinely valuing his or her employees. Employees are treated as co-workers or partners.

Advocates believe that this is the style of the future, and point to two main factors--serving employees and being selfless--as the keys to its success. While opponents note that in highly competitive environments this style will crumble, it excels within non-profit organizations/programs.


This is as simple as understanding the characteristics and skill levels of team members, realizing the task at hand, and adapting one’s style based on the situation and team one is leading. A true situational leader is a jack-of-all-trades--not proficient in any one leadership style, but knowledgeable and able to lead by different principles in a variety of environments.

Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey created a situational leadership model in the late 1960s. The model is a matrix/grid with the following characteristics in each box from left to right, top then bottom: supporting, coaching, delegating, and directing. In each situation, a leader evaluates how much supportive and directive behavior one needs. It is a simple process that each of us does subconsciously when we meet someone for the first time or start a new job. The idea is to learn as much about the individuals you are leading or the situation you are about to walk into, and adopt a leadership style for that situation that is most advantageous for all involved.


This style assumes an individual is motivated more by reward than punishment, an organization works better with a clear hierarchy, and the prime goal of a subordinate is to do what the boss says. The leader has the right to punish team members if their work doesn’t meet the pre-determined standard. The focus is on short-term tasks that focus on a single “transaction” (i.e., selling a car).

There are serious deficiencies in shared knowledge and creative work; however, this approach is common in many organizations today as a management tool, not so much as a leadership tool. The main focus is closing the deal.


This style starts with a vision, which does not have to be created by the leader. It can be a vision of the community, elected officials or a group of senior team members. The transformational leader, however, needs to buy in and believe in the vision wholeheartedly, and then lead and inspire each member of the team. This leader must be careful how trust is created as one’s personal integrity is part of the vision. The leader is selling oneself as much as the vision.

A transformational leader is highly visible, and spends much time communicating with others. This type of leader tends to delegate responsibility. The transformational leader may lack the details, but chooses detail-oriented individuals. In influential organizations, both transactional and transformational leadership roles are key positions.

What type of leader are you?

Most likely you share aspects of several styles. This can be based on a host of variables--from the leaders you have encountered to all the life experiences that have molded you. Leaders must be able to adapt to varying positions, workers and environments in order to be successful. While it is important to be consistent, it is acceptable to vary your leadership style to some degree when needed. The key is to provide a level of consistency, fairness and predictability.

No matter where you are on the food chain in the workplace, you exhibit some type of leadership during the day. Some of the world’s great leaders regularly employ charismatic, transformational, democratic/participative leadership in how they govern.

Machiavelli suggests in the end that, if you have to choose between the two, it is better to be feared than loved. We are fortunate that we can employ other principles of leadership. Which one is the most effective depends on the situation and environment, and how it is applied.

Additionally, being consistent and predictable with leadership will not only build trust among employees, but encourage a sustainable work group. In today’s workplace, sustainable practices are the building blocks of a high-performing organization.

Steve Yeskulsky, CPRP is the Director of Recreation and The Arts for the City of Hyattsville, Md. He can be reached via e-mail at syeskulsky@hyattsville.org.

Matthew Spoor, CPRP, is the city manager of Safety Harbor, Fla.