Choosing a Leadership Style

These basic styles of leadership are not mutually exclusive. No one has to choose between using autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire. That would be like telling a golfer that he had to choose between using a wood, or iron, or his putter to play a round of golf. In the course of a game, he will use some of all three. The effective leader will carefully choose between all the styles of leadership and use the one most appropriate at a given time and place. The more a leader adopts his style of leadership to meet the particular situation and the needs of his followers, the more effective he will become in reaching his own goals.

One way an effective leader shows his skill is by knowing which style to use at any given time. All leaders will have a tendency to use one style more than the others, but he will need to learn to fit the style to the situation. That doesn’t mean that he should be inconsistent, but it does mean that he should be flexible. A leader might use an autocratic style to direct his secretary, a democratic style to consult an assistant, and a laissez-faire style with an associate.

A number of criteria should be considered when selecting a leadership style. The leader should consider the subordinates as individuals, the group as a whole, the situation, his own personality, and the forces at his disposal.

Subordinates as individuals

Different classes of individuals will respond differently to the styles of leadership. Subordinates who are hostile, dependent, inexperienced, or immature will follow autocratic leadership better. Followers who are cooperative, group minded, trained, and motivated will respond well to democratic leadership. A subordinate who is self-confident, professional, somewhat of an individualist, and maybe an introvert will respond better to a laissez-faire style.

The group climate

The group is more than the sum of the parts. The group will have characteristics just like the individuals in the group, and the selection of a style is based on the same type of criteria. A group can be trained, enthusiastic, aggressive, militant, or lazy. Some groups will have a lot of tradition, and this must be considered when selecting a style of leading. Some groups will work well together, and some groups will not. Some groups will be cooperative and loyal, and some will be the opposite.

The situation

The situation also must be considered. Generally, changes in the situation will require changes in the leader’s style. If there is extra pressure, a short-term emergency, or internal discord, the leader will need to adopt a more autocratic style of leading. When there is time to do so and the opportunity to train others, then a democratic style might be used. The democratic style is very effective for organizational planning and creative problem-solving. The laissez-faire style is a good choice when evaluating competent workers and when involved in highly creative and innovative work.

The leader as a person

The leader must also consider himself, his personality, his wisdom, his abilities, and even his sex when selecting a style. Women who are in leadership positions should generally use democratic or laissez-faire styles. A young leader is generally unwise to use autocratic leadership on an older group of subordinates. Some leaders would appear to be unsure or a phony when they try to be laissez-faire.

Forces at the leader’s disposal

A lot of power is needed to be autocratic, because when an order is given to do something, a subordinate may respond, “What if I don’t?” The leader using autocratic leadership will need the power to back up the command.

Most managers actually have two preferred styles. They prefer to use a more autocratic style on their followers, giving them more control; but they prefer a more participative style be used on them by their superior, giving them more self-control and less control from others.

Other Leadership Styles

There are some leadership styles that are hard to classify as they are out of the ordinary.  Here are a few other leadership styles that you may encounter in the church.  These are not right or wrong but each will have their own advantages and disadvantages.

Charismatic leadership

A charismatic leader has a special emotional draw about them.  There is an intangible quality about this type of leader that makes followers do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do without the direction of the leader.

The charismatic leader is a strong leader and is given freedom to lead. His followers are extremely devoted to him and to his tasks, and they are willing to stand against the rest of the world. He can issue a call or a challenge and the followers will respond with conviction. It almost demands opposition, and the leader and his group will meet the challenge in full glory. His leadership is born in a crisis situation and requires continuing crises for survival.

The leader maintains an image, almost god-like. He stays detached. He is seen as very strong, almost a superman. Some even talk of “hypnotic eyes.” He is very much a creation of his followers, yet he is their leader and they follow him.

Some special problems exist with this style. He is anti-establishment, anti-organization, and anti-democratic culture. The organization is built around the single leader, and he fails to develop or to hold top quality leaders around him. This creates a lack of permanence in his work, as it seldom survives past his death. The followers almost worship him as a god.  When taken to the extreme this develops into a cult like following.

The partisan style of leadership

This leader has an extremely narrow focus or outlook. He is preoccupied with one thing and eliminates all other concerns. He is a real extremist and can be called a fanatic. He is a man of strong convictions. He is very capable and concerned about his one interest. He is described as being zealous, crusading, and single-minded. He leads a minority with unflinching courage. He attempts to go forward regardless of obstacles, and glories in tribulation and even martyrdom, whether real or imaginary. A youth pastor can develop this, or a missionary to a special group, like the Jews, can develop this. A church planter can develop this.

The major danger is the way this kind of leader tends to lose sight of all else, except for his one purpose or group. He can be too single-minded. He may also tend to minimize the weaknesses of his own group to a dangerous point.

The specialist or expert style of leadership

Specialization and division of labor is a proven practice in our world today. As knowledge has expanded, specialization has become necessary. Doctors use specialists in the various parts of the body: eyes, ears, throat, skin, etc. Pastors also use specialists in the ministry of a church: children, youth, education, music, administration, counseling, evangelism, etc. The specialist is one who accumulates the most information about a small part of the whole and seeks to dispense and use that knowledge to help the whole.

The top leader cannot afford to be a specialist, but must remain a generalist and use specialists. He must find the expert, listen to him, grasp the essential information being communicated, and allow the expert to work, without ever losing sight of the whole overall picture. The specialist is in danger of losing sight of the simple but essential parts, and especially the concept of the whole. He will have a tendency to see everything in the light of his specialization.

Laissez-faire Leadership

At the opposite end of autocratic leadership is the laissez-faire style of leadership.  This is a laid back, hands off approach to leadership.

Definition of Laissez-faire leadership

This style calls for a minimum of direction and control from the leader with a maximum of freedom for individuals in the group. It is actually centered in the individual and not in the leader or in the group. The leader serves as a supply sergeant and information booth. He gives help only when it is requested, demands few if any reports, and gives the workers the maximum of freedom. The leader is a first among equals. The term “laissez-faire” is from the French, and means free rein. It is used in the sense of a good cowboy riding a trained quarter-horse when the cowboy does not attempt to guide the direction of the horse with the reins, but leaves them loose and lets the horse do his thing. A trained quarter-horse can respond to a cow quicker than the rider can tell it to respond. The laissez-faire style is not an absence of leadership, but it does have a minimum of leadership control. The leader sees himself as a first among equals. He seeks to provide materials and information as it is needed and requested.

When to use

The laissez-faire style can be an excellent style to use with a trained and motivated group. A pastor with a highly motivated, professionally trained, and experienced staff could very well use a laissez-faire leadership style and give them the freedom to do their work.


The two biggest problems with this style are coordination and control. A pastor with several associates may find that each man is doing what is right in his own eyes, and that every staff member is running off in his own direction and that the total church program is suffering. The total church program may progress quite haphazardly, if at all. Much friction and jealousy may exist between the staff and their programs. Another problem is that some people cannot work under this style of leadership. Some need more direction, and some may even feel that the leader doesn’t care for them because there is so little contact (control).

Democratic Leadership

Most people are familiar with democratic leadership if for no other reason than they are used to electing their local, state, and national leaders.  This is what democratic leadership may look like within the church.

Definition of Democratic Leadership

The basic idea is that of people rule, or at least group participation. It is group centered, instead of the leader-centered approach of autocratic leadership. The leader draws ideas and suggestions from the group by discussion and consultation. The group members are encouraged to take part in planning, decision-making, and the setting of policy. The leader is a moderator. He gets ideas from the group, but he can make the final decision. He can use a vote for decision-making, but that is not the thing that distinguishes the democratic style. The input of the group is the critical factor, even if they don’t vote, they must be involved and have a say. The democratic leader develops a team concept. Most followers prefer this style of leadership.

When to use

Democratic leadership is especially effective with an educated and motivated group. It helps to train followers in leadership as they participate in planning and decision-making. Followers get to listen and learn from the free exchange of ideas, and even the praise and criticism of ideas. Perspective is broadened as one is exposed to many different ideas, and wisdom is accumulated as one participates in the give and take of discussion of ideas. The democratic leader is training his followers to assume more responsibility and reach ultimate self-fulfillment. It is the best style for development of followers. Participation in the decision-making process also gives one a stronger sense of ownership of goals and decisions.


Disadvantages do exist to this style. A trained and motivated group is necessary or the leader’s efforts are doomed to failure. The followers must know enough to contribute good ideas and they must be motivated enough to want to be involved. The followers must feel that their input is really being considered, because if they believe that an autocratic leader is using a democratic style with his mind already made up, it will affect morale. If insecure people are in the group, they generally prefer a more autocratic style of leadership. The democratic concept may subject quality to quantity, and the genius may be pulled down to the lower average of the group. The democratic process will take more time than a more autocratic approach. In time of crises this delay may be costly.

Democratic leadership that is bureaucratic

A bad type of democratic leadership is bureaucratic leadership. Here the leader is seen as a diplomat and he must learn to use the majority rule as a way to get people to produce. Decisions are made by majority rule and governed by parliamentary procedure. It is marked by continual reference to organizational rules and regulations, and it is assumed that everything can be perfect if the people will abide by the rules. The rules were decided on by majority vote.

Autocratic Leadership

A leader’s style has to do with the manner in which he carries out his responsibilities, and how he is perceived by those he is leading. The basic styles of leadership are autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire, but a number of other styles are described in the leadership literature. The styles to some degree represent a swinging pendulum. The autocratic is one extreme and the laissez-faire is the opposite extreme; the democratic is in the middle. A range exists with each basic style, so that a person could be extremely autocratic, or autocratic but almost democratic. This section outlines the basic leadership styles but your leadership style may not fit all of the description of any particular style.

Definition of Autocratic Leadership

The autocratic style is leader centered. The autocratic leader is a dictator. He considers decision-making a one man operation, and thinks of himself as the man. He considers himself superior to his followers, and mainly seeks obedience from them. He determines policy and procedure. He decides the who, the what, the how, the when, and the who with. He usually makes decisions with little hesitation; in fact, he may consider hesitation in decision-making a sign of weakness. He has a tendency to make decisions in all areas, because he sees himself as the decision maker. He may even be viewed as an expert decision maker in every area by his followers. He will use threat, manipulation, or force to
accomplish his will.

The autocratic leader assumes that people dislike work and will avoid it. People will not do anything unless coerced, controlled, directed, or threatened with punishment. He further assumes that people prefer being directed, wish to avoid responsibility, have little ambition, and place the highest value on security.

Christian leadership should not be autocratic to this extreme.  It lacks love and compassion and obviously comes across as arrogant.  Nevertheless there is a place for some manner of autocratic leadership within the church.

Autocratic leadership is not all bad. Many examples of autocratic leadership can be found in the scripture. Moses, Joshua, Nehemiah, Peter, Paul, and others could be used to illustrate an autocratic style of leadership. The autocratic style is especially an appropriate style when the leader is speaking with the power of the Old Testament prophet, “thus saith the Lord.” God does speak to individuals, especially leaders, and reveals His will to them, and they need to speak with a clear sound and say this is the way to do it. The autocratic leader, however, who misuses this and attempts to force his will on people with the words of a false prophet, creates problems in churches.

When to use

Autocratic leadership is very appropriate in times of crises or emergencies. Decision-making is faster when only one person is involved in the process. Autocratic leadership is appropriate when a person is training others who don’t know enough about the task to make decisions. Autocratic leadership is appropriate when there is rebellion and the situation is filled with disturbances, then one person needs to take over.

Problems with this style

Problems do exist when this is the only style of leadership. One major disadvantage of autocratic leadership is that it fails to develop leadership in followers. The leader makes all the decisions. In fact, the autocratic leader will stifle creativity and discourage innovation. He must tell the group what to do, when to do it, where to do it, and who to do it with. People learn that the autocratic leader is THE leader and they stop trying to do anything. Work may actually stop when he is not physically present, because no one else can make a decision. Generally an autocratic leader will not develop an organization that can continue after he leaves. Things may fall apart when he resigns, because he has developed neither individuals nor the organization. A Christian leader especially needs to be concerned with developing other people, and this style will present special problems to a Christian.

Another problem of the autocratic leader is that he is viewed as being insensitive to the feelings of others. The autocratic leader has power and  “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is where the term dictator comes in. He is not viewed in a positive manner. Most people do not want to work for the autocratic leader because he is seen as so careless of human feelings.

The autocratic leader also works without a checks and balance system. The leader prefers not to answer to anyone. He doesn’t want anyone to question his authority. When he is right, he is very right; but when he is wrong he is very wrong. Some type of shared leadership or team leadership can avoid some serious pitfalls.

Autocratic leader that is paternalistic

A very special sub-classification of the autocratic style is the paternalistic style of leadership. This type of leader has a father attitude toward the group and is deeply concerned for the welfare of each individual in the group. The leader looks on the followers as his children and he is very concerned for his followers. He is a father, however, and is to make the decisions for his children. A young seminary graduate may go as an associate pastor to an older man who may treat him as a son. The educated and ambitious followers will resent this style of leadership where they are treated as children. If the paternalistic leader will allow his “children” to grow up and become leaders he can be a very effective leader. He can protect from some dangers, teach how to do it, and gently loosen the apron strings. A mentor is often this type of leader.