It’s well established that managers are a critical lever, either for employee engagement and retention or for disengagement and churn. One study recently found that nearly half of UK employees have left a job because of their manager, for instance.

It’s easy to draw conclusions that findings like this point to ‘bad’ managers. But different employees thrive under different leaders with different leadership styles – so perhaps when we say ‘bad’, we might more accurately say ‘mismatched’.

This has important ramifications for succession planning and leadership hiring – processes many organisations could benefit from maturing, given 46% of UK businesses don’t have a good succession plan in place.

Keep reading for:

  • The three basic leadership styles and their characteristics
  • How leadership style impacts employee engagement and productivity
  • Guidance for better succession planning and leadership hiring

What are the basic leadership styles?

One of the earliest theories of leadership came from a classic study by Lewin, Lippet and White in 1939, outlining three basic leadership styles and the social climates that result. Most of today’s leadership thinking stems from or builds on this work.

  1. Authoritarian leadership

Lewin, Lippet and White characterise authoritarian leadership (also commonly called the autocratic leadership style) as:

  • Top-down: ‘all determination of policy [was made] by the leader’
  • Disconnected: ‘activity steps [were] dictated by the authority one at a time, so that future steps were always uncertain’
  • Controlling: ‘the leader usually dictated the work and work companions’
  • Distanced: the leader ‘was “personal” in praise or criticism’ but ‘remained aloof [and] impersonal’

2. Democratic leadership style 

Lewin, Lippet and White outline four characteristics of the democratic leadership style:

  • Collaborative: ‘all policies a matter of group discussion and decision, encouraged and assisted by the leader’
  • Guiding: ‘general steps to [achieve] group goal [were] sketched, and where technical advice was needed the leader suggested alternative procedures from which choice could be made’.
  • Macro-manager: ‘members were free to work with whomever they chose, and the division of tasks was left up to the group’
  • Objective and involved: ‘the leader was “objective” and “fact-minded” in praise and criticism’ and acted like ‘a regular group member’

3. Laissez-faire leadership 

According to Lewin, Lippet and White’s research, laissez-faire leadership looks like this:

  • Hands-off: ‘complete freedom for group or individual decisions, without any leader participation’
  • Unstructured: ‘materials supplied by leader [who] would supply information when asked’ but no other participation.
  • Delegative: ‘complete non-participation by leader’ on deciding how tasks should happen or who should work together.
  • Non-interfering: ‘very infrequent comments on member activities unless questioned’; ‘no attempt to participate or interfere’

Each of these styles of leadership has advantages and disadvantages and are typically valuable within different sorts of organisation. Choosing a leadership model that suits your organisation is critical to ensure work gets done effectively. That is, to ensure the organisation has the right structures, processes, and people to thrive.

Let’s unpick that.

How leadership style impacts employee productivity and engagement 

There’s no right or wrong leadership model, although current thinking has popularised the democratic leadership style over autocratic or authoritarian leadership.

But organisations following any leadership model can be successful. Elon Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX are examples of highly successful organisations that could be described as authoritarian. Donald Trump is another example of a successful authoritarian leader.

Rather than choosing one leadership model over another, it’s perhaps most important to have harmony between the leadership framework of the organisation and the processes, structures, and people who function within it.

Say you’re a start-up with a predominantly laissez-faire style of leadership, for example. In this case, you’d likely have a flatter structure with more fluid roles and responsibilities and need employees who are comfortable working without clear tramlines.

If you then hire employees who function better within a rigid organisational hierarchy with well-defined job roles and processes, they might struggle to adapt and deliver the productive output you’ve hired them for. And the reverse is also true. There’s no wrong answer but there are plenty of ‘wrong’ combinations.

You’re probably familiar with the well-known Gallup stat that managers account for 70% of variance in employee engagement – which is often taken as evidence for the urgent need to develop better managers. ‘80% of employees have experienced bad management’, headlines tout. But again, this definitive linguistic ‘bad’ is surely missing nuance.

Part of the story here is doubtless a dearth of leadership skills. The Chartered Managers Institute say ‘the UK faces a management and leadership skills crisis’ which needs urgent resolution. 95% of directors believe building leadership skills is critical to improving organisational performance.

But maybe this isn’t the whole story. Rather than interrogating our leadership development processes, perhaps we should be looking at our talent acquisition strategies and processes, internal mobility and strategic workforce planning processes. Particularly around leadership style fit.

Better leadership hiring starts with organisational introspection 

Whether you’re hiring externally or promoting internally, the strength of your leaders is crucial for organisational health. And as we’ve just explored, there’s not an objective ‘perfect’ candidate.

Rather, better leadership hiring must start with a deep understanding of how your business functions.

This is true even (or especially) if you’re undergoing transformation – as so many businesses are. The Workforce Institute at UKG found the pandemic propelled 87% of the UK workforce into new ways of working underpinned by digital technology, for instance.

A visionary leader can be crucial to change management but hiring is steeped in your reality today as well as your ambitions for tomorrow. (A robust people analytics function can be helpful, to better understand your organisation.)

Professor of Leadership Development at Harvard Business School Rakesh Khurana says ‘missing the chance for organisational introspection’ is one of the biggest pitfalls for executive recruitment, and a major reason ‘boards often fail to choose the right CEO’.

He writes: ‘Many boards rush to identify candidates before pausing to re-evaluate goals. Some boards appoint a new successor without being sure that the individual’s experiences and skills fit the organization. Other boards don’t even clarify in their own minds the organization’s specific objectives’.

Although Khurana is explicitly talking about CEO succession, the same principles can apply to broader leadership and executive roles. If the leader you’re hiring or promoting (and leadership style they espouse) doesn’t suit the framework you – and your employees – expect them to operate within, they could be fighting an uphill battle.


The right leaders have a huge impact on organisational performance – but ‘right’ doesn’t refer to any silver bullet collection of skills and competencies that great leaders ‘must’ possess. Different organisations are suited to different leadership styles – there’s no right or wrong.  

Rather, when you understand the DNA of your business, you can hire and empower people (both leaders and employees) to thrive within the system you’ve created.