The 3-style model of leadership from Kurt Lewin, understanding and using the model to understand styles of leadership.

Overview

This is the oldest of the situational models. Kurt Lewin, a psychologist, led a research team in 1939 and identified what he called three 'styles' of leadership behaviour in an article in the Journal of Social Psychology.

I am grateful to James Scouller, an expert coach, thinker, and writer on leadership, for the contribution of most of the technical content on this article, and for the collaboration in editing it and presenting it here. Aside from what follows here, Scouller's expertise in leadership theory is evidenced particularly in his 2011 book "The Three Levels of Leadership", which I commend to you.

Kurt Lewin identified three Behavioural styles among leaders. Now these three styles could also fit into the Leadership Styles module. However if you bear in mind the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, you can match them to your circumstances - provided, of course, you can flex your behaviour. This is when the Three Styles model becomes a guide to more effective leadership.


Authoritarian

Sometimes called the Autocratic style. This is where leaders spell out the goals, deadlines and methods while making decisions on their own with little consultation with others. Here, the leader doesn’t usually get involved in the group’s work and it is less likely to see creative decisions under this style of leadership. However, it is a decisive way of leading and can suit high-risk, short-timescale decisions. Lewin noted that leaders who adopt this style can be seen by others as dictatorial and tend to get stuck in one mode of behaviour.


Participative

Sometimes called the Democratic style. This is where the leader expresses his or her priorities and values in setting goals and making decisions, but also takes part in the group’s work and accepts advice and suggestions from colleagues. However, the leader makes the final decision. This style can produce more creative problem solving and innovation than the Authoritarian approach so it makes sense to adopt it in competitive, non-emergency situations.


Delegative

Sometimes called the Laissez-Faire style. The Delegative style means the leader hands over responsibility for results to the group. He or she lets them set goals, decide on work methods, define individuals’ roles and set their own pace of work. It can work well provided the group shares the same overall intent as the leader and if he/she trusts all members of the group.  


Summary

In summary, Lewin outlined three distinct modes of behaviour for leaders. If they were merely descriptive, they wouldn't help leaders wanting to become better at what they do. But if you bear in mind the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, you can match them to your circumstances - provided, of course, you can flex your behaviour. This is when the Three Styles model becomes a guide to more effective leadership.


 

Lewin, K.; Lippitt, R.; White, R.K. (1939). Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created social climates. Journal of Social Psychology 10: 271–301.


Acknowledgements

James Scouller Biography

I am grateful to James Scouller for his help, patience, and expert contribution in producing this leadership guide.

James Scouller is an expert coach and partner at The Scouller Partnership in the UK, which specialises in coaching leaders. He was chief executive of three international companies for eleven years before becoming a professional coach in 2004. He holds two postgraduate coaching qualifications and trained in applied psychology at the Institute of Psychosynthesis in London.

James Scouller's book is called "The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Know-how and Skill". It was published in May 2011. I commend it to you, and his thinking too.

You can learn more about James Scouller's book at three-levels-of-leadership.com.

Details of James Scouller's executive coaching work are at TheScoullerPartnership.co.uk.