Leadership Styles: What Works Today?



Many leaders have hit a roadblock in their ability to lead simply because they lack awareness of leadership styles. Some see styles as natural results of discovering their giftedness as a leader. Some choose a style they have observed in others that appears to be effective.

Only in recent years have leadership styles become important enough to be studied. It is not that leadership methods are new, but historically, most have treated the concept with a “one size fits all” perspective – regardless of the situation or the culture, they appear in the same suit or dress.

What is a leadership style? Is it just natural ability that comes with a leader? Is it something you can learn? Or is it something like a menu: you choose the one you like? In 1939, psychologist Dr Lewin, decided to analyze and label the various methods of leadership. Together with his researchers, he identified what was, for years, the predominant styles of leadership: authoritarian, participative, and delegative. More recently these three have been broken into sub-styles and spin-offs, overlaps and combinations, with the more popular methods being: motivational, cognitive, coaching, charismatic, team, influential, facilitation, servant, and transformational. All have their place, depending on the audience.

A study of these methods is important as inter-culturalization continues to occur globally.  This integration of cultures has impacted education, international business, and NGOs (missions and humanitarian) and necessitated changes in the way people lead and communicate. Leadership now, on any level, must be creative and flexible for the survival of any organization. There is no longer a place for the one size fits all. Successful leaders must have a knowledge and understanding of the audience and the culture, setting or situation where the governance, decision-making, and presentation are taking place.

The three basic methods from 1939 are still very much alive today and will be used to exemplify the need for knowing the audience in the following scenarios.


Authoritarian style is defined usually as independent, controlling, and dictatorial with clear divisions between the leader and followers. The employees are led by high control with little regard for their own ability and contribution. This style is often used when the leader is the most knowledgeable or when there is little time to make decisions within the group as in the military, police department or an emergency situation. As a parental style, it has proven much less effective and often produces the most problematic and delinquent child. Is it effective with an Asian workforce? A Western committee? Your mother-in-law?


Delegative is defined as giving little guidance. It leaves decision making up to the group.  While the employees feel valued, this style frequently creates a lack of understanding of one’s task and a lack of motivation. As a parental style it can be the most permissive and/or neglectful and often produces independent children who struggle with authority and confusion. Is it effective with artists? Engineers?


Currently research indicates that a participative style is the most effective in many settings where there is time for discussion, input, and group participation. All stakeholders feel valued as they contribute their voices to governance and decision-making. This type of parental method has shown to produce the best overall teen and young adult. Is it effective in a hospital emergency room?

We have seen how styles of leadership need to be flexible, creative, and must also consider the audience. A leader can no longer have a one size fits all attitude. When someone plays the piano and hits only one note, there is no song. When the player accesses more keys, then music forms. Increasing access to more and more keys increases the complexity and relevance of the music. Leaders must learn an array of notes, in order to create a symphony of effectiveness.

All of these begged the question: While this might be fine in the marketplace, do these styles apply in church leadership? As one evaluates the role of leadership styles in both the marketplace and the church, there needs to be an understanding of what is meant by “church.” One group sees it as an organization, therefore it should be run as such – much the same as the marketplace. Another group sees the church as an organism called “the Body of Christ” in the Bible. Therefore, it should be different than the marketplace. Marketplace leadership is not known as being “spiritual” as the church is. The problem is that good and bad leadership happens in both settings. Many times, there is good leadership in the marketplace and there is spiritually bad leadership in the church.

Is an authoritarian style ever appropriate in a church setting? Consider the following: A pastor arrives to shepherd his new flock. He discovers the congregation is not very aware of the teachings of Scripture as relates to walking in faith and church governance. He exercises his authority by starting a Sunday series on spiritual life and a weekly study on biblical governance. Because he has more knowledge of biblical teaching than the congregation, he exercises his authority (authoritarian) in most decisions. As he teaches, he creates an atmosphere of love and safety. He shows his love for them by helping them exercise self-discovery (participative) and, over time, the pastor moves his style from authoritarian to participative. The authoritarian leader must be willing to make the switch from a controlling, dictatorial style to a more participative style once the congregants have increased their biblical understanding and responsibility. If that transition does not happen, the church (or business) often does not thrive and risks stagnation or collapse.

Flexibility in styles is important in the church (and marketplace) today as the church demographics change and the subsequent new generations are taking on new leadership roles. Sensitivity to that new leadership necessitates changes so that the younger generations do not disengage. The way “Missions” is done today clearly shows dramatic changes in the way new cultures are approached and in their interactions with the nationals.

Consider that what makes good leadership in the marketplace and church regardless of the style comes from the heart of the leader. The difference is not in geography but in the heart.

The core issue is that the attitude of the leader must be of one who walks in humility and is committed to a vision that is bigger than himself. The question, then, becomes, “How does that happen?” Jesus, never short of words, in a very profoundly simple way, tells believers that any style is fine if it does not violate the love relationship the believer has with God and his neighbor. A leader’s style needs to be birthed in God’s love through him to others.

In reciting the Great Commandment (Mt 22:37-40) Jesus gives this direction. “…‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets [and leadership styles] hang on these two commandments.” The basic desire of God’s heart in this commandment is given to all who name the name of Christ regardless of culture, socio-economic status, level of education, age or gender. Whether they are in the marketplace or church leadership, their thoughts and actions should be motivated by their love for God and others.

While the audience and situation may dictate the style of leadership, there is no question that it must be birthed in the meaning of Jesus’ Words. He clearly demands a love that is exclusive to Him. Out of the words for love (agape, phileo, eros) that Jesus could have used, He chose the word agape. This love is a matter of will and action. It entails a choice, a commitment of the will of the leader. This mature love calls for love when the emotions may not be in agreement; a mature love that chooses to love anyway, despite anger, embarrassment, and fear. Think of Jesus on the cross. It is love that chooses beyond pain, sorrow, and fear.

The heart, soul, and mind are the channels through which the believer accepts and responds to God’s love. In the Greek definitions of heart, soul, and mind, it is discovered that they are unique entities yet overlap each other and together they comprise the whole person, internal and external. The same “love”  for God is the same “love” (agape) for our neighbor. This agape represents the bookends of our lives. This means that any method or style we choose that has the best interest of our audience at heart and where we have done due diligence (researching culture, situation, and setting) can be effective. This is true in the marketplace as well as the church. The opposite is also true. No leadership style under any title will be a success from God’s perspective if we separate ourselves from His divine blueprint, His great commandment.

We must understand that when we walk by faith (2 Cor 5:7), we will walk knowing that without Christ we can do nothing (Jn 15:5), and that Jesus has given us all things that pertain to living and being God-like (2 Pet 1:3). We will not be fearful, but be sensible (1 Tim 1:7); we will be flexible and creative in our choice of styles. As we walk in the marketplace or walk through the church doors, we will walk in love, knowledge, and humility.

The New International Version Bible has been referenced.

This article “Leadership Styles: What Works Today?” by Dr Roy Thompson was first published in the May 2012 issue of Eagles VantagePoint magazine (www.vantagepoint.com.sg). Used with permission.