What is your leadership style?

Applicants for more senior roles may be asked about what their leadership style is. This can be puzzling for a person who hasn’t attended any leadership courses, read any of the leadership literature, or thought about their own role as a leader.

Style refers to the manner or approach used. There is an enormous literature on leadership styles but typically the range of styles is not so wide. The main ones are:

  • Authoritarian: The authoritarian leader tells people what to do and how to do it. They don’t seek advice or ideas on how to do the work as they assume they know what is best.
  • Participative or democratic: The participative leader includes staff in working out what to do and how to do it, while maintaining the final authority on the final decision. It is a collegiate style that recognises the leader doesn’t know everything and that staff know things they don’t know.
  • Laissez faire: In this style, the leader allows the employees to make the decisions while still being responsible for the decisions made. It is based on trust and confidence in staff.
  • Bureaucratic: Bureaucratic leaders follow the rules, stick to procedures, do things ‘by the book’.
  • Charismatic: Charismatic leaders inspire lots of enthusiasm, are very energetic, and have an attractive personality.

While people have a leaning towards a style that suits them, in reality, few people only use one style all the time. Circumstances, including your relationship with people and whether staff know their job, will dictate flexibility in how people go about trying to get work done. Workplaces generally favour a participative style of leadership along with flexibility to recognise when adapting one’s style to changing circumstances is appropriate.

An authoritarian style is appropriate when all information is known, time is short, or there is a crisis. A bureaucratic style can be appropriate for work involving serious safety risks, handling cash, and where transparency of process is important.

There are online tools that help you identify what your preferred style is. To prepare for a question about leadership style, think about what a leader does, how you have demonstrated leadership and what style you have used. Based on this information you can then respond along these lines:

‘Based on [mention leadership training, tools used, self reflection] I’d describe my leadership style as mainly [identify style]. I prefer this style because [mention context such as staff know their work, are new to the job, crises often arise etc]. However there are times when I need to be flexible, such as [mention changed circumstances]. At these times I well then use [mention alternative style]. Based on feedback from [mention who] these approaches seem to have worked well.’

Dr Ann Villiers, career coach, writer and author, is Australia’s only Mental Nutritionist specialising in mind and language practices that help people build flexible thinking, confident speaking and quality connections with people.