If people are an organisation’s most valuable asset, then the CEO is that organisation’s single most important person because the buck stops with them to create value from all other employees and, in turn, to secure the organisation’s long-term health and viability.
Over the better part of four decades in industries as varied as education, retail, technology and government, I’ve had the pleasure of working for a handful of tremendous leaders. Ken Olsen and Dave Duffied, founders of Digital Equipment Corporation and PeopleSoft respectively, are two that students of modern leaders may know. In both cases, they founded and guided organisations that still rank today among the most successful ever by most any measure: market capitalisation, revenues, customer satisfaction, whatever.
I’ve also had the displeasure of working for a few leaders, who for fear of litigation I won’t name, who were downright terrible. Not surprisingly the companies they managed failed to achieve any greatness whatsoever.
The point of this is that great bosses and not-so-good ones share many of the 10 qualities Forbes magazine lists as common to great leaders. And because even the poorest leaders I’ve experienced had confidence, showed commitment and were positive, resilient and creative, simply ticking off Forbes’ list of leadership qualities tells only half the story about what leaders possess that can drive organisational health from the top down and inside out.
What’s more revealing is how particular qualities come together and manifest themselves in a leader’s behaviour—or in what psychologists call their “leadership style.”
Steve Jobs versus Robert Kennedy
Maybe you can’t learn leadership, but you can learn from leaders – and glean a lot from their leadership styles.
Apple’s Steve Jobs (with whom I had no personal experience) was undoubtedly a great leader. He had vision, creativity and commitment, and he created one of the most valuable organisations on the planet. According to many, however, including Forbes, Steve Jobs wasn’t always particularly nice to subordinates. Indeed, he was known to be imperial, aloof, often terse and intolerant. His leadership style was what psychologists define as Autocratic—that is, Jobs and Jobs alone had the power to make decisions, and he could be ruthless when wielding that power. As Forbes contributor Gene Marks wrote, “Jobs wasn’t successful just because he was creative, brilliant and hard working. Jobs had an extra little something going on that further separated him from his peers: He was a jerk.”
That said, in November 2014 Apple Corporation became the largest publicly traded corporation in the world by market capitalisation!
Another famous Autocratic-styled leader was the American politician Robert Kennedy (1925-1968). The little brother of President John Kennedy was also known for his arrogant, micro-managing, autocratic style during his early career crusading against corrupt union bosses, mobsters and communists, and shielding his brother from political adversaries. And like Steve Jobs, Robert Kennedy endeared himself to very few along the way. Lyndon Johnson, who joined the younger Kennedy in one of the greatest feuds in political history, called him a ”grandstanding little runt.”
Closer to home, Australia has had a run of highly Autocratic prime ministers. Think Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott, both of whom have experienced the bitter downside of a go-it-alone, micro-management style.
Leadership style, however, can be situational. Take again Robert Kennedy and the very different leader who emerged following his brother’s assassination. As a teenager I attended a rally to see and shake hands with him during his 1968 campaign for the presidency—and the leader I saw that summer’s day was not tough but fragile, not dominating but humble. To be sure he was hesitant, awkward and, at times, inarticulate. But the compassion and integrity he projected, and the way he challenged his followers to make sacrifices for the common good, was markedly different from the hard-hitting young lawyer who brutally and very publicly antagonised Jimmy Hoffa.
And while Steve Jobs’ leadership style remained Autocratic even after his 2009 onset of liver failure, the tribulations of Robert Kennedy helped morph his leadership style into something altogether different: Transformational—focused on elevating his followers to not only higher levels of motivation but also, importantly, morality. This evolution was spectacular, and had he survived Sirhan’s bullets historians speculate what might have been with a Transformational, moral Robert Kennedy as the most powerful man in the world rather than the Autocratic, immoral Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon (think secret bombings of Cambodia, Watergate scandal, White House Tapes and resignation) we received in his stead.
Psychology’s expanding list of leadership styles
Since the 1930s psychologists and researchers have identified a host of leadership styles, and more are being added all the time, but every leader, as any human being, is a cocktail of disparate, sometimes contradicting qualities and behaviours that can defy being pigeon-holed. Part of the reason for this is that there are now so many leadership styles, both formal and informal, to pick and choose from, including:
- Bureaucratic, characterised by very structured procedures, limited space to explore new ways to solve problems and, often, painfully slow pace because things have to be done “by the book.” This style of leadership is common in organisations where safety (and efficiency) are paramount such as the military, medicine and law.
- Charismatic, a style marked by a leader who, by virtue of their personal magnetism, gains influence and authority by infusing energy and eagerness into team members. The business world is full of Charismatic leaders. In fact, it’s somewhat unusual for a successful leader not to be Charismatic.
- Democratic or participative, in which the leader seeks to share decision-making and listens to ideas of others but retains the right to make final decisions. Here, think of union leader Bob Hawke and his Prime Ministerial election campaign pledge, “Bringing Australia Together.”
However, perhaps the best example of this leadership style is Dwight Eisenhower. During WWII he was faced with getting Allied forces with vastly opposing self-interests to implement a common strategy for the liberation of Europe, and that he succeeded at all is amazing. That he succeeded so well is nigh unbelievable.
(Interestingly, this same leadership style failed Eisenhower when he became US President and he was unwilling or unable to adopt the more Transformational, Autocratic leadership style needed to defuse the Cold War or, by shaping public opinion, fast-track civil rights. Here the point is: time change and leadership may be situational, but leaders themselves don’t always change.)
- Laissez-faire, often described as “hands off”, is a style in which the leader gives little or no continuous supervision because subordinates are expected to perform without being placed under a microscope. Well-known leaders who exemplify the positive aspects of this style are Warren Buffet, Jack Welch and, more locally, Scott Farquhar and Mike Cannon-Brookes, founders of Australian success story Atlassian which develops products for software developers and project managers. Their creed is to recruit quality people who could start another Atlassian, not just work there, and empower them to “be the change that you seek.”
Conversely, the unwillingness of Herbert Hoover, a US president who relied almost exclusively on his subordinates, to get involved in market dynamics contributed in no small part to the Great Depression.
- Paternalistic, characterised by leadership that serves as a veritable father figure taking care of subordinates as a parent would and expecting from them loyalty and, to some degree, submissiveness. The People’s Republic of China’s government—for better or worse depending on your point of view—is a good example of this style of leadership.
- People-oriented or Servant, in which the leader fully supports and does all they can to develop team members so that their job satisfaction increases and a genuine interest in doing their job well grows. Abraham Lincoln is often cited as an example of the people-oriented leader, as are Mahatma Gandhi and the Dalai Lama.
- Task-oriented, in which the leader concentrates on the specific tasks assigned to each employee in order to accomplish the task. While successful task-oriented leaders can be found in all occupations, you’re most likely to find them in professions such as accountancy, logistics and stock brokering.
- Transactional, characterised by the person who leads by example, performing certain tasks designed to motivate followers and who uses a system of rewards and punishments to move them forward. Charles DeGaulle personified this style of leader.
Organisational leadership: an art, not a science
This list of leadership styles is far from exhaustive and, to illustrate that fact, a recent Google search of the term “leadership styles” generated nearly 22 million responses including situational and emotional leadership styles and a plethora of theories from Blake-Mouton’s Managerial Grid to the Hersey-Blanchard Situational Leadership Theory and the Path-Goal Theory plus many, many more.
While there may be no shortage of search engine results for the qualities, styles and scientific theories of leadership, it’s much more difficult to determine which, if any, of these makes the best leader.
For mine, the best leaders empower their followers. Various styles of leadership accomplish this by delegating, providing autonomy in decision making, recognising employees’ capabilities and celebrating their successes, and, importantly, removing hindrances to performance. Clearly some leadership styles (Democratic/Participative, Laissez-faire, Servant – or to use another buzz term of late, Authentic leaders) make these things happen, as a rule, better than some. Other leadership styles, such as Bureaucratic and Paternalistic are by nature less likely to develop workplace environments in which employees are psychologically empowered to take on greater ownership for their work.
However, the truth is that all types of leadership can be effective as well as ineffective. Each style can be found in leaders great and small, and, as in the case of Robert Kennedy, at different stages of their careers.
In some leaders, in fact, several styles or bits of them can exist simultaneously as in Nelson Mandela and Gandhi, whose leadership style combined various elements of Charismatic, Servant, Democratic, Transformational and Transactional styles all rolled into one. It’s perhaps therefore no surprise that those two leaders made such an impact on the rest of the world.
I’ll leave it to you to decide which leadership style (or combination of styles) offers the best chance for organisational health to prosper. The key, I think, is to remember than no one leadership style is ideal and neither is any one style bad—indeed, even if an “ideal” leadership style existed it’s highly unlikely it would suit all circumstances and every stage of an organisation’s growth and development.
You might now be wondering about Ken Olsen and Dave Duffield who I mentioned earlier. For mine they both exemplify a style that’s very much a fusion of Democratic, Laissez-faire and Transformational. Neither were particular Autocratic but were nevertheless highly Charismatic and Authentic leaders by virtue of their humble, personable and visionary personalities.
One last point: The first of two great pieces on contemporary executive leadership can be found in All Leaders are Equal—but some are more equal than others, an analysis of leadership by TP3’s organisational development manager Peter Elliott. As well as a review of academic literature on the intrinsic factors that contribute to above-average leadership performance, Elliott looks at the all-important external influences, and his paper also includes an excellent list of references. The white paper is available at https://www.tp3.com.au/ideas/white-papers. The second is an insightful article by TP3 senior learning consultant Jason Wenzel entitled People-Orientated Leadership is Effective Leadership, available at https://www.tp3.com.au/ideas/people-orientated-leadership.
 Honesty, Ability to Delegate, Communication, Sense of Humour, Confidence, Commitment, Positive Attitude, Creativity, Intuition and Ability to Inspire
- White Paper: All Leaders are Equal—but some are more equal than others
- Webinar Recording: Modern Leadership
- Article: People-Orientated Leadership is Effective Leadership
- Workshop: Leadership – Managing People