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Criticism of the Lewin leadership styles: Why they are bad, and why you should avoid them

Updated August 20, 2022 by Carl Lindberg

If you have read my article on the Kurt Lewin Leadership Styles, you noticed my skepticism towards them. This article explains my reasoning in a bit more detail.

I see five areas of significant concern for the usability and viability of the Lewin leadership styles framework. I explain them thoroughly in this article. In the end, I hope that you will consider using any of the modern frameworks available on our leadership styles page instead. Try our Lewin leadership styles test (new tab) to see if you are an autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire leader. This article is partially an extract from my book which you can find here: Leadership Styles Classics: Autocratic, Democratic and Laissez-Faire (Amazon).

The sharp differences push the extreme

Imagine a cook who can only make super sweet food or super salt food. Or, he might, in fact, not cook at all.

Consider a car driver who can only put the car in park, go full speed ahead, or reverse as fast as possible.

Leadership is about nuances, compromise, understanding things, judgment calls, etc. Things are rarely on or off, or black or white if you see what I mean. So, you can’t act in extreme directions, it simply will not serve the leader or the followers well.

Let us go back to the cooking example. Imagine Jamie Oliver or Gordon Ramsey saying: “There are three types of chefs: one doesn’t cook at all, one is a know-it-all, and one collaborates with others!”. I think there is room for plenty more different types of chefs.

The simplicity makes the model inadequate

People will actually believe that there are three types of leaders. I think this comes from the human urge to systemize things, make them clear and understandable. It is about reducing complexity.

I have met people who have asked if someone’s manager is an autocratic or democratic leader or if they can do whatever they want at work. The world isn’t as simple as that, and we trick ourselves into trying to reduce complex topics into extremes.

The experiments behind the leadership styles are flawed

As it happens, the experiments by Lewin were not entirely up to par when it comes to methodology, and the results are somewhat questionable. On top of that, they are more than eighty years old and concerned groups of 10-year old boys. Please read our article on the Kurt Lewin Leadership Styles experiments to find out more. You will be surprised on how some of the experiments and conclusions.

Behavioral leadership theories are insufficient

The Lewin styles are based on leadership behaviors. These are personalities, not active choices of temporary manifestation of leadership. I know what you might think, I am interpreting the model too literally. Well, in that case, anyone stating that there are only three leadership styles is being too literal as well, right?

Nothing in the Lewin model states adapting your leadership behavior to a situation or other factors. It talks about different leadership philosophies, and a philosophy is nothing you change several times a day depending on the needs. You usually adhere to one philosophy, hence the saying “that’s my philosophy”, and not “those are my philosophies”. By the way, the contingency and situational theories in leadership started emerging in the 1960s. The time of the Lewin experiments was dominated by trait theory, which emerged from the Great Man Theory, so no, the Lewin styles were not secretly intended to depend on the situation.

Any behavioral leadership theory is insufficient for the complexities of the modern-day. All leaders should strive to act and behave, with intent, to maximize their positive impact on the team and develop long-term performance. This will not be possible if you depend on your personality, refuse to act differently depending on the needs of the person in front of you, and the general settings in the world around you. If anyone doubts that, ask if they behave differently at a funeral compared to a birthday party and if they talk in different ways with their boss or their child. You will immediately see that situational aspects have a lot of influence on how we act. The fact that the Lewin model ignores this makes it obsolete.

The three leadership styles have only one useable style

Why even talk about a toolbox of three tools where two tools are entirely unusable?

Let us start with laissez-faire leadership. This is a leadership style where the leader does not lead. What is the purpose of that leader, then? So, out of three available leadership styles, one of them is not to lead. Not that useful.

Secondly, unless you are a dictator, a psychopath, a newly promoted manager with a vindictive attitude, or something similar, the autocratic leadership style is useful in only one situation: crisis. I mean crisis when you need immediate obedience, have no time to consult others, and must act immediately. Let me compare with driving for a while. When I drove my wife to the hospital as she was very close to giving birth, I drove faster than normal, with adrenaline, and I would be willing to break the law if I deemed it safe at the time. This was an emergency, and I knew it. Let’s call this crisis driving. Do you think it is a good idea for me always to use my crisis driving abilities? Of course not! If everyone did that, it would lead to collisions, frequent road rage, etc. A driver’s ed teacher telling you there are three ways to drive: not to drive at all, complete crisis mode, or collaborating with common sense with other people in traffic, you would consider that person strange, right?

Yet, when it comes to leadership styles, all three of the Lewin styles repeatedly get mentioned as the three styles of leadership, and it seems like it is accepted as a sensible way forward for reasons I do not understand. Luckily, the third style, democratic leadership, can unlock great success, fantastic team climates, and long-term sustainable performance. So, let us all remember democratic leadership and forget about the non-leadership and the toxic-boss-on-a-power-trip style since they do not belong in any sensible leaders’ repertoire. (Try our Lewin leadership styles test (new tab) to see if you are an autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire leader.) What to do instead? Please visit our main page on leadership styles where you can learn about many other leadership styles approaches. These include the six leadership styles by Daniel Goleman, transformational leadership, the situational leadership model, to name a few. Several of these approaches build on using certain styles at the appropriate moments, with intent, balance, and common sense. This will lead to better performance, happier employees, more promotions for leaders, and a better world in general! Have a look right here: Leadership styles.

Read more about this framework and its associated styles in my book: Leadership Styles Classics: Autocratic, Democratic and Laissez-Faire (Amazon)

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