The Kurt Lewin leadership styles is one of the oldest leadership styles frameworks there is. Additionally, the Lewin leadership styles are probably the most commonly mentioned today, very much undeserved, as I will show in this article. As my own leadership career and my interest and proficiency in leadership styles have grown, the more I doubt the Lewin leadership styles. One of the styles is so good that I created a course to teach you how to implement it, all based on my vast experience as a CEO: democratic leadership course.
What are the Kurt Lewin Leadership Styles?
The Kurt Lewin Leadership styles originate from the 1930s and consist of democratic leadership, where the leader and the group decide together, autocratic leadership, where the leader makes all decisions, and laissez-faire leadership, where the group makes decisions without the leader.
Which of Lewin’s three leadership styles is the most effective?
According to the Lewin experiments, autocratic leadership is the most productive, followed by democratic leadership. With an absent leader, productivity remains in democratic leadership but drops rapidly in autocratic leadership. Laissez-faire is the least productive of the three leadership styles.
Try our Lewin leadership styles test (new tab) to see if you are an autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire leader, or buy my book where you get extensive information on the Lewin styles and how to use them. (Leadership Styles Classics).)
Leadership Styles by Kurt Lewin
Kurt Lewin, a behavioral psychologist, worked on experiments concerning autocratic behavior and leadership styles in the 1930s and 1940s, a time when trait theories of leadership were popular. The Lewin leadership styles toolbox is behavioral, meaning that every leader has one of three personalities or behaviors. Nothing in this framework mentions taking the situation and other circumstances into account, making it outdated compared to the Goleman Leadership Styles and the Full Range Leadership Model with its transformational leadership style. Lewin’s experiments involved the laissez-faire leadership style, the democratic leadership style, and the autocratic leadership style. (We have an article on this topic right here: The Lewin Leadership Experiments.)
The Lewin leadership styles are some of the most commonly mentioned, and it is also the worst collection of styles for modern leaders, in my opinion. Please don’t use it or consider it an option; employ other leadership styles instead. (Check out 12 common leadership styles and how to pick yours.) Keep on reading, and I’ll explain my position further. Before that, I want to introduce you to the three leadership styles by Kurt Lewin. I also want to highlight that I’m not too fond of the Lewin leadership styles framework, and I explain why in this article: Criticism of the Lewin leadership styles: Why the Lewing leadership styles are bad and why you should avoid them. Instead, I recommend more modern approaches such as transformational leadership, the Situational Leadership Model, and many others that you can learn about at our leadership styles page. (Lewin as well as the Situational Leadership Model are included in our Leadership Origins E-book.)
The Three Leadership Styles by Kurt Lewin – Short introduction
The autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire leadership styles are all very different, and to a degree, even polar opposites. Here is a short introduction to them all. The discussion continues in the next chapter of this article.
What is the Democratic Leadership Style?
Democratic leadership builds on empowering team members to participate in decision-making, with a strive toward consensus. The engaging climate welcomes everyone’s opinions, leading to robust solutions. However, the democratic leader still has the final say on any decisions. This style is sometimes slow but generally very effective.
The Democratic Leadership style was introduced in the 1930s as one of the three leadership behaviors used in the Kurt Lewin experiments in 1938. The Lewin model assumes a leader has one of the three behaviors, and there is no push for leaders to switch styles depending on circumstances.
The democratic leadership style provides the advantages of increased creativity and innovation, and collaboration, which helps to solve complex problems, high employee engagement, and strong accountability through shared goals. (Increase your career success by mastering democratic leadership. I teach you how to implement it step-by-step, how to run meetings, how to build empowerment, accountability in performance in my democratic leadership course.)
The backside of this is that democratic leadership brings weaknesses in productivity, which can drop while waiting for time-consuming decision processes, and it does not work well in low-skilled, inexperienced teams. Read more about the lower productivity in our article about the Lewin leadership style experiments. You can also learn more about democratic leadership right here: What is democratic leadership, its advantages, disadvantages, how to implement it, etc. If you are serious about taking your leadership to the next level, try our democratic leadership course.
What is the Autocratic Leadership Style?
Autocratic leadership is when the leader holds all the decision power and rarely consults others. Autocratic leadership is unpopular, has many disadvantages, and leads to low engagement and sometimes to a toxic environment. Autocratic leadership can be helpful in a crisis when control and fast decisions are crucial.
Autocratic leaders have been around for a long time in the shape of tyrants, dictators, monarchs, etc. Still, the Autocratic Leadership Style, or rather leadership behavior, is first mentioned by Kurt Lewin et al. in their 1938 leadership experiment. The autocratic style is not defined as interchangeable, i.e., a leader is either an autocratic leader, a democratic leader or a laissez-faire leader, with no switching between styles depending on the situation. It is simply the personality of the leader.
Autocratic leadership provides advantages such as great clarity, quick decision-making, improved crisis-handling, and increased productivity in low-skilled teams, at least temporarily.
The disadvantages of autocratic leadership include a lack of empowerment, low engagement, and accountability within the team. It also adds an extreme dependency on the leader, and little happens if the leader is absent. Last but not least, intimidation, punishment, and fear are common in autocratic leadership, leading to a toxic work climate.
Read more in our detailed article: Autocratic Leadership, what is it, pros and cons, how to be effective.
A 116 page E-book with articles on Great Man Theory, Trait Theory, Behavioral Theories (Lewin, Ohio, Michigan, Blake & Mouton), Contingency Theories (Fiedler, Path-Goal, Situational)
What is the Laissez-Faire Leadership Style?
Laissez-faire leadership is a hands-off leadership style where team members are free to make all decisions. Laissez-faire leadership leads to low productivity and a perception of a disengaged leader. Laissez-faire leadership can work with highly-skilled, capable, and self-motivated teams.
Laissez-Faire is the polar opposite of autocratic leadership since laissez-faire means that the team makes all the decisions without the leader and autocratic leadership means the leader makes all the decisions without the tea. Kurt Lewin and his colleagues first defined laissez-faire leadership during the Lewin Leadership styles experiments of 1938 and 1939. Laissez-faire leadership is also known as hands-off leadership, free-rein leadership, the absence of leadership, or simply zero leadership. Laissez-faire is also part of the Full Range Leadership Model.
On the upside, a highly skilled and experienced team can do great when making all the decisions themselves, and the team members get an abundance of creative freedom with this approach. On the other hand, teams that lack the right maturity level can quickly fall apart, and confusion can spread, resulting in reduced productivity.
Learn more in our article here: Laissez-Faire Leadership, what it is, pros and cons, example leaders, example business situations.
So, to sum up, these styles are incredibly different, as you can see. Try our Lewin leadership styles test (new tab) to see if you are an autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire leader. You can also learn more about the experiments in our article, The Lewin Leadership Experiments, or continue reading below the image.
The Strengths of the Lewin Leadership Styles
Besides any advantages of the three different leadership styles, the framework as a whole has its pros, which you can read about here.
The Lewin Leadership Styles have the following advantages:
- The simplicity of the Lewin leadership styles make them easy for anyone to understand, and they widened the leadership discourse beyond the trait theory approach.
- The extreme differences between autocratic, laissez-faire, and democratic, make it easier to understand your personal leadership in comparison
- The significant differences and the simplicity can quickly spawn some good and fruitful group discussions around leadership
The Weaknesses of the Lewin Leadership Styles
The three styles in this framework, autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire each have their cons. This chapter outlines the cons of the Lewin styles framework as a package.
The Lewin Leadership Styles have the following disadvantages:
- The framework is so simple that no modern leader should try to align with one single style, perhaps except for democratic leadership, which often works well
- The Lewin styles lack situational and contextual connection completely, making the framework a behavioral leadership style theory, which is insufficient when addressing modern leadership complexities
- Two out of three styles are useless as personalities and behaviors and should be avoided entirely
- The knowledge of these three leadership styles is so widespread that people actually believe in them as a promising paradigm for leadership
Alternatives to the Lewin leadership styles
My advice is to use an alternative to the Lewin leadership styles that are more modern, take situational aspects into account, and provide additional tools than just the extremes for leaders to use. Develop your impact as a leader by taking our democratic leadership course and checking out many other and better frameworks on our leadership styles page. These include the great Goleman six leadership styles (which also includes democratic leadership), servant leadership, transformational leadership, situational leadership model, and many others. I am very skeptical of the Lewin leadership styles, and I explain why in my book (Leadership Styles Classics: Autocratic, Democratic and Laissez-Faire (Amazon)) and this article: Criticism of the Lewin leadership styles: Why the Lewing leadership styles are bad and why should avoid them.
Try our Lewin leadership styles test (new tab) to see if you are an autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire leader.
Lewin, Kurt, Patterns of Aggressive behavior in experimentally created social climates. Journal of Social Psychology, 10:2 (1939:May) (https://tu-dresden.de/mn/psychologie/ipep/lehrlern/ressourcen/dateien/lehre/lehramt/lehrveranstaltungen/Lehrer_Schueler_Interaktion_SS_2011/Lewin_1939_original.pdf?lang=en)