A comprehensive assessment of the research that supports 10 different leadership styles proposed by leadership scholars and thought leaders—leadership styles such as servant leadership, authentic leadership, or transformational leadership—reveals that effective leadership is more nuanced than the “do-good logic” and “don’t-do-bad logic” leadership theories imply.
The leadership field is filled with suggested approaches, principles, and behaviours for effective leadership, often grouped into different leadership styles. Authentic leadership, charismatic leadership, empowering leadership, servant leadership, instrumental leadership, and transformational leadership are a few of the more popular leadership styles that proponents argue will make you effective, successful, and beloved by your people.
A research study of leadership styles by Thomas Fischer of the University of Geneva and Sim Sitkin of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business offers a cautionary tale about the adoption of specific leadership styles. Titled “Leadership Styles: A Comprehensive Assessment and Way Forward,” their study argues that the research behind 10 of the most well-known and accepted leadership styles—the seven listed above plus consideration and initiating structure leadership, destructive leadership, and abusive supervision—has limitations.
Fischer and Sitkin examine the leadership research based on a framework covering four aspects of leadership:
The behavioural aspect is descriptive, that is, based on a description of the observed behaviour. The other three aspects are evaluative: they require an evaluation of the leader’s intentions, execution, and effectiveness.
According to Fischer and Sitkin, the research in support of these leadership styles has certain limitations because every leadership style conflates the description of behaviour with one or more of the evaluative aspects.
For example, transformational leadership is a concept in which a leader appeals to the personal values of followers—an appeal that inspires newly motivated and intellectually stimulated followers to perform beyond expectations. Notice that this definition of transformational leadership conflates behavioural content (the appeal to values) with realized effects (motivated and intellectually stimulated followers) and quality of execution (otherwise, the effects would not be realized). The three aspects bundled together in this leadership style are positive, thereby proving, according to transformational leadership researchers, that transformational leadership is positive.
The biggest problem with conflation is that it gives the false impression of a causal link between the aspects. In the case of transformational leadership, for example, no evidence establishes definitively that a leader’s appeal to values (behavioural content) leads to employee motivation and intellectual stimulation (realized effect).
The issue with what Fischer and Sitkin call “causal indeterminacy” can be illustrated through the example of a leader who forcefully (e.g., with aggressive words) urges process improvements to improve customer service processes. If the employees are receptive, they respond positively to the leader’s strong words and the result is improved customer service processes. If the employees are resistant, they respond negatively to the leader’s strong words and customer service processes are not improved.
In the first case, the leaders’ strong words are characterised as positive transformational leadership which resulted in positive realized effects (improved customer service). In the second case, the leaders’ strong words are characterised as negative abusive supervision which resulted in negative realized effects (unimproved customer service). However, the behavioural content in both examples was exactly the same. When the same behaviour can support polar opposite leadership styles, the methodology for assessing the behaviour has clear limitations.
For future leadership researchers, Fischer and Sitkin propose ways to avoid the conflation trap.
For business leaders, this study implies that no single leadership style offers a turnkey effective approach to leadership that is superior to the multitude of other leadership approaches in the marketplace. Fischer and Sitkin do not reject outright the potential value of the leadership styles they studied. They argue, however, that the positive results of “good” leadership and the negative results of “bad” leadership are not as clear-cut as the books and leadership speeches might indicate. In other words, effective leadership is not as simple as adhering to the “do-good logic” and “don’t-do-bad logic” that leadership research implies.
In sum, leadership styles can be a source of ideas for effective practices, but adhering to one leadership style will not necessarily work in all contexts no matter what proponents might declare. Better to draw on various leadership styles to create a tailored approach that works best for the leader’s personal style and attributes and the contextual environment in which the leadership is taking place.
Thomas Fischer’s profile at the University of Geneva
Sim B. Sitkin’s profile at Duke Fuqua School of Business
Leadership Styles: A Comprehensive Assessment and Way Forward. Thomas Fischer and Sim B. Sitkin. Academy of Management Annals (January 2023).
Ideas for Leaders is a free-to-access site. If you enjoy our content and find it valuable, please consider subscribing to our Developing Leaders Quarterly publication, this presents academic, business and consultant perspectives on leadership issues in a beautifully produced, small volume delivered to your desk four times a year.
For the less than the price of a coffee a week you can read over 650 summaries of research that cost universities over $1 billion to produce.
Use our Ideas to:
Speak to us on how else you can leverage this content to benefit your organization. email@example.com