Leadership Styles in Practice

Day one of any leadership course will usually cover leadership styles in some form. We talk about the autocratic/democratic scale, which occasionally also covers the laissez faire style, and walk away with a view that we should all try to be democratic leaders, unless there is a time pressure which forces us to be autocratic. I've never really seen it taught any other way, but also never really found it to be particularly useful or what it all means in practice - do truly autocratic leaders exist in business, how do I work effectively with leaders of each style, or indeed what style of leader I really am. I figured I'd go and find out for myself.

I think it's important to first define what we mean by a leadership style. I think that many people who a visionary or set demanding targets are labelled as autocratic but setting an ambitious end goal doesn't necessarily mean you're an autocrat, in the same way that being flexible doesn't make you democratic. For me ones leadership style is defined not by the destination they set but by how the route to that destination is constructed.


A picture of Michael Scott, from The Office US, with a mug that says "Worlds best boss"

Autocratic leaders are characterised by having individual control over decisions with little to no input from group members, in business I think this really comes down to the type of person that clearly establishes themselves as the boss. This may not be as directly as having one of those way-too-big-to-be-practical-secret-Santa “The Boss” mugs, but will play out through control of individual workloads and not communicating long term plans. They are the type of people that are decisive, very good under pressure and deal well with a crisis, but also find it difficult to delegate or trust others (the “it's easier to do it myself” mentality) and prefer to keep their plans to themselves. They tend to be proponents of rigid processes - which of course are just a way of dictating how something should be done.

An autocratic leader will task their team not with a goal or vision, but with a specific implementation.

In my opinion a good test of whether you are an autocratic leader is if you are the type of person who presents a drafted implementation of a task or project to your team for feedback and receives little back. Whilst to be truly democratic would involve seeking opinions from the outset, the request for feedback isn't the biggest factor here - the tell is the lack of responses. This may suggest that the team lacks either the knowledge to provide useful opinions (perhaps due to a lack of communication or delegation of responsibility) or the confidence that their views will be taken on board.

Autocratic leadership tends to get a bad name and often seems to be confused with having high expectations, as discussed above, which makes it difficult to find good examples of successful autocratic leaders that aren't dictators. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk are good examples of this confusion. Donald Trump tends to crop up fairly often, but I'm not sure that his leadership is defined by autocracy more so than just his ego. The examples I've found then are long standing editor-in-chief of Vouge Dame Anna Wintour, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and retailer/TV personality Martha Stewart.


The irony of democracy is that when an entity or person feels the needs to labeled as democratic, it's sometimes because, in fact, the opposite is true (Cough…North Korea*). Democratic leadership is characterised by leaders who actively seek out, and consider, the opinions of other. The word consider is key here, it's not enough to simply ask for other views, they have to be considered. That would be like holding an election, and then deciding the result purely on your voting slip. Without consideration it's really just autocracy in disguise.

Envisage the following scenario: Your manager calls a meeting to discuss an issue that has arisen, a few opinions are sought, one person talks a bit too much and 10 minutes after the meeting was scheduled to finish, the plan is decided upon. I'm sure we all experience this fairly often, it's quite typical and on the face of it, it may seem to exemplify democratic leadership but I think there is at least one crucial factor to consider here. In order for democratic leadership to succeed, the leader must be impartial - That's not to say that the leader shouldn't have an opinion, they probably should, but rather that they shouldn't allow their opinion to taint either that of others or their ability to consider them.

In the above scenario it is likely, by virtue of human nature, that you manager will arrive at the meeting with at least a vague idea of a solution. If they allow that to be known by the group, there is a danger that the group will present ideas that are only slight variations on that view - we all naturally want to please our boss, and agreeing with them usually seems an easy way to do this. Additionally by holding a strong opinion, we as leaders, can weaken our ability to consider ideas from others, no matter how credible they may be.

So the point of all of this, is really that I would describe the test of whether you are a truly democratic leader to be based on your desire and ability to actively and impartially seek the opinions of others, and crucially be mindful of not allowing your own views to hamper your reasonable consideration those opinions. If any of that doesn't apply, it may suggest you are a disguised autocrat.

Given that democratic leadership is by far the most common style in practice the pool is examples is huge, but the one's I've settled on are former CEO and Chairman of Coca-Cola Muhtar Kent, Amazon CEO Jess Bezos and Google Co-founder Larry Page.

* Fun fact about North Korea (not a phrase you hear every day right?): You can go from Norway to North Korea, travelling only through Russia.

Laissez Faire

Someone sat in an office, laid back in their chair, with their feet on the desk, wearing sandles

So the forgotten triplet then - Laissez Faire, which I think translates as “let it be”. If Autocratic leadership is “I decide”, and Democratic is “we decide”, then Laissez Faire can be described as “you decide”. I have seen it labelled as the absence of leadership, or lazy leadership, but really it's neither of this things. To me Laissez-Faire leadership is about setting a vision, then creating an environment and culture in which people can succeed towards it. In this sense it is neither an absence of leadership of lazy - it's a tough gig.

As I mentioned earlier, leaders with high expectations are often incorrectly labelled as autocratic. This leads to the other misconception I see - that Laissez-Faire leaders have low expectations or aren't as demanding as their democratic or autocratic counterparts. In fact, in my experience, I think the opposite is true - that these leaders tend to have big visions, and want to make them happen within short timescales.

A good example of how this style tends to show in practice is the fairly well published story of Steve Jobs being shown an early prototype of the first iPod. The engineers had said that they couldn't make it any smaller, but Jobs wasn't so sure, so he dropped it into a tank of water. When the iPod reached the bottom, some bubbles floated up and he said, that shows there's air in it - you can make it smaller. The specifics or even whether the story is true don't really matter here, it's more about a target being set without any instruction on the implementation. The destination has been set, but not the route.

Whether you are a laissez-faire leader then really comes down to whether you ever care about how an end goal is achieved. If the answer truly is no, then you're at least part of the way there. The rest involves being able to sell your vision and then creating the correct environment and culture for success - otherwise it is just lazy leadership. If you are the kind of person that focusses on developing individuals and allowing them to operate at their full potential whilst evaluate them based purely on their results rather than their methods, you're probably a laissez-faire leader.

The examples of Laissez-Faire leaders I've selected are former CEO and co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, investor Warren Buffet and co-founder and co-CEO of Netflix, Reed Hastings - who's recent book No Rules Rules about how the culture at Netflix was built, is a fantastic read and a great insight.

Jerry's Final Thought

It's human nature to want to put things in boxes, and that's exactly what we've done here with these three leadership styles and whilst they are all different, they are also linked in the sense that they're not really discrete - they're zones of a scale. A scale that we don't even have an definitive place on - we operate within a range. The point I'm trying to make here is that our leadership style isn't static - it changes based on the situation and indeed our range can change over time. So really we aren't, as individuals, exclusively any of these styles. We just happen to most often operate in a particular area of the scale.