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 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.