What makes a strong leader
“I’ve searched all the parks in all the cities, and found no statues of committees.”
Gilbert K. Chesterton.

Whilst there are certainly statues or reliefs depicting groups, teams, or collective action, traditional logic dictates that statues are made to commemorate great individuals – history’s courageous leaders. G. K. Chesterton’s words could be read similarly to the adage “too many cooks spoil the broth”, and imply that decisive action needs to be taken by an individual: a leader.

One of the first theories regarding leadership stems from Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle, whose Great Man theory purports that leaders are born; leadership cannot be taught, and these great men will arise when there is a need of similar greatness. Similarly, the Trait Theory suggests that you are either born with it, or you’re not, believing people inherit traits which mark some out as suitable leaders.

But are leaders simply born, as Carlyle suggests? A number of leadership models have arisen in more recent years, arguing that many different styles exist, and that leadership can, indeed, be taught. Broadly speaking, the Behavioural Theory posits that leaders are not born at all, and are very much made through defined, learnable behaviour. Stemming from this, Role Theory and Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid offer greater insight into expectations and outcomes of learned leadership.

From the top

Some of the more hard-line and authoritative leadership styles fixate around autocratic leaders – such as in the military – with decisions coming from one person at the top. A good model for making quick decisions, in slower-paced environments this style can often leave staff feeling left out or dissatisfied when their views are not considered. Meanwhile, Characteristic Leadership is a style which relies heavily on the charm of a leader, with success being largely dependent on their presence. Whilst other models build the confidence of a team to carry on after their leader’s departure, the removal of a charismatic leader often creates a power vacuum. When this style works well, it can be seen in a similar light to Transformational models.

A Bureaucratic style of leadership establishes strict rules or procedures, and does not allow much room for innovation or creativity – not the best model for businesses requiring out-of-the-box thinking, but it may be suited to routine-based roles where clearly defined rules or parameters may benefit employees. However, many jobs typically employ a Transactional Leadership model, which treats the job as a form of transaction. This model sees subordinates – motivated by rewards, and punishment – cede all authority to their manager, with their sole purpose to fulfil their commands. This model relies on a clear structure of command which outlines expectations, and the associated reward for success, or punishment for failure. This model often uses ‘management by exception’, praising that which exceeds expectations, and correcting that which falls short. In particular, the Leader-Member Exchange Theory describes how this is maintained.

You’ve been served

On the flip-side of the coin from autocratic models, so-called ‘Servant Leadership’ also has links to the Charismatic Leadership style, in which an often compelling and generous leader works hard to meet the needs of their team. Well-suited to collaborative environments, this often results in higher satisfaction levels, as staff feel valued and heard. The drawback to this style is that it can lead to difficulties in speedier decision-making. Similarly, Democratic Leadership models invite subordinates to contribute to the decision-making process by having their thoughts and opinions taken into account – however, the final responsibility for the decision still resides with their inclusive leader.

Participative models hold that by having involvement in the decision-making process, the understanding and commitment of those carrying out the tasks improves. A collaborative approach can often yield better results than from individual leadership, though may lead to mistrust if views shared are ignored. The leadership styles identified by Lewin, and Likert, suggest participatory models are preferred by team members.

For those leaders who have a great deal of trust in their subordinates, the Laissez-faire (let them be) model gives staff a great deal of freedom; rather than micromanaging team members, they provide support only when necessary. This is a great model for well-coordinated and experienced teams, able to manage their time; but it may be ineffective for newer team members.

Transforming the outcome

Using the Transformational Leadership style is often effective and preferred, with those who incorporate it typically seen as authentic and empathetic, holding themselves accountable in addition to the team. By sharing their vision, they encourage cohesion, leading to their goal of seeing the team or organisation constantly improve. However, this requires constant energy and enthusiasm on behalf of the leader which, paradoxically, can sometimes wear on the followers, and cause them to leave.

However, great leadership is often dependent on a range of situational variables which include the situation itself, the leader, and the followers. Implied is that effective leadership does not follow one model devoutly, but rather changes in relation to the circumstances in a model known as Situational Leadership. Some, such as Hersey and Blanchard, advocate adapting the leadership style to fit the capabilities of followers, expanding on Vroom and Yetton’s Normative Model.

Working on the assumption that there is not one definitive leadership model, contingency theories such as Fiedler’s Least Preferred Co-Worker (LPC) Theory imply that a leader’s ability is contingent upon various situational factors. These include leadership style, behaviours of followers, and other situational events, and determine that a style successful in one situation may fail in the next.

The success of any enterprise – business in particular – depends on the quality of leadership. What kind of leadership style would you bring to the workplace?

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