The Kurt Lewin Leadership Experiments


The Three leadership styles by Kurt Lewin rose to fame as part of the Lewin leadership experiments of 1938 and 1939. This article presents the Lewin leadership styles experiments together with some well-founded criticism putting their results into a different light. We start with a few answers to set the stage for you.

What was the Lewin leadership experiment?

The Lewin leadership experiment was a series of leadership studies in the 1930s that involved observing groups of ten-year-old boys and their different behaviors under three different types of leadership. The purpose was specifically to observe aggressive behavior resulting from the different leadership philosophies employed.

What did Kurt Lewin’s experiment on leadership styles find?

The Kurt Lewin leadership experiments found that the autocratic leadership style has the highest productivity but is unpopular and creates a bad climate. Democratic leadership has slightly lower productivity but is more favorable for the followers. Laissez-faire came out as the least productive style.

Continue reading for a detailed description of how the experiments were pursued, their results, and some modern criticism on the topic. I personally dislike the Lewin leadership styles, which you can read more about here: Criticism of the Lewin leadership styles.

Lewin Leadership Studies: Background and Summary

Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), worked on a few leadership experiments in the United States together with Ronald Lippitt and Ralph White. The experiments took place in 1938 and 1939 and involved 10-year old children being studied in different settings. Groups of children were led with different” philosophies” of leadership. These “philosophies” or leadership styles, were:

Please note that these were the three leadership philosophies, which means a leader adopts one of the three according to the Lewin leadership styles framework.

It is debatable whether the three leadership styles by Kurt Lewin and his colleagues are completely behavioral or whether they have a situational element to them or not. Although Lewin’s experiments included some leaders using different behaviors, suggesting that a leader can adapt, this was not done depending on the situation at hand, but rather for the sake of the experiment – to study the outcome of a specific leadership behavior or leadership philosophy.

The conclusions of the Kurt Lewin leadership experiments were:

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  • Autocratic leadership resulted in aggressive behaviors in the groups
  • Groups led by an autocratic leader showed the highest productivity, 70%, but that dropped to 29% when the autocratic leader left the room.
  • Democratically led groups showed a productivity of 50% that dropped very little to 46% in the absence of the democratic leader
  • Laissez-faire leadership performer the worst, with a productivity of only 33%

The Kurt Lewin leadership experiments have also been heavily criticized, and the results above should absolutely be taken with a grain of salt. This article explains many of the basis of criticism, and given how the experiments were done and the doubts in the methodology and conclusions of Lewins report, I am amazed that these three leadership styles are still considered the most common, or the three styles a leader should choose from. I think this leadership styles set belongs in history and that no modern leader should consider this a proper framework for leadership. (I explain my skepticism further here: Criticism of the Lewin leadership styles: Why they are bad, and why you should avoid them.) Any professional leader or manager should look to more modern leadership styles theories with much more extensive scientific backing. You can read about them all on our leadership styles page.

Kurt Lewin Leadership Styles Experiment

The Kurt Lewin leadership styles experiments were not intended as being experiments on leadership styles per se. The name of the research paper presenting the experiments bears the name “Patterns of Aggressive Behavior in Experimentally Created Social Climates”. This study was one in a planned series, aiming to resolve why people sometimes revolt against tyranny, and other times become the willing tools of autocratic leaders, completely submitting to domination.

The First Kurt Lewin Leadership Styles Experiment

  • Two clubs of 10-year old boys monitored over three months while voluntary participating in the activity of making theater masks
  • The same adult leader led one of the clubs in an autocratic manner and the other in a democratic manner
  • Four observers participated and recorded the events

The outcome was unclear, and according to their own report, it raised more questions than answers. This resulted in a second experiment.

The Second Kurt Lewin Leadership Styles Experiment

  • Four new clubs of 10-year olds, still participating voluntarily, with various activities rather than one  (mask making, mural painting, soap making, airplane model making, etc.
  • Four different adult leaders participated this time
  • The leadership styles got an addition, laissez-faire leadership style, which was used in addition to the democratic and the autocratic leadership styles. (The report refers to laissez-faire as “group life without adult supervision”, an interesting way to put it.)
  • The clubs were studied in different social climates, with a new leader using another leadership style every six weeks,
  • Each group had a total of three teachers during the five months of the experiment

Conclusions of the Lewin leadership experiments

The two experiments combined showed the following:

  • When the group using democratic leadership lost its leader, the productivity dropped from 50% to 46%
  • When the group with the autocratic leader left, the group productivity dropped from 70% to 29%.
  • The autocratic leadership groups displayed aggressive behavior among the group members. (Perhaps somewhat like the old movie “the Lord of the Flies”?)
  • The third group was left alone, literally without a leader. This was the Laissez-Faire group, and it displayed boredom and lack of productivity. The productivity was rated at 33%

As you can probably tell from the results of the experiments shown above, their studies revealed that democratic leadership was the most preferred leadership style among those three leadership styles, at least from the perspective of the group. Autocratic leadership looks surprisingly productive, though. Please note that there is a vast array of additional leadership styles available, and the Lewin leadership styles study did not take them into account. In fact, some of them were not even defined back then. Hence, you cannot say that democratic leadership is the best leadership style in the world and rest your argumentation on the Lewin experiments.

In subsequent interviews with the participating boys, the following conclusions emerged:

  • Nineteen out of twenty liked the democratic leader better than the autocratic leader
  • Seven out of ten preferred the laissez-faire leader rather than the autocratic leader

What about the aggression levels, then? Is autocratic leadership genuinely toxic?

This is where I start to doubt the results of the Lewin leadership study. All be it, I was not there, but some of the conclusions in the report just jumped out at me. Think about this yourself and see what you think.

In the first experiment, two autocratic groups focused on an internal “scapegoat”, which the rest of the group ganged up on, ultimately resulting in that boy electing to leave the group.

In the second Lewin leadership styles experiment, the following measurements applied to aggressive behaviors:

Leadership StyleNumber of Aggressive actions per meeting
Laissez-faire leadership style38
Autocratic leadership style (aggressive reaction)30
Autocratic leadership style (apathetic reaction)2
Autocratic leadership style (my calculated average)7.6
Democratic leadership style20

The average number of aggressions was, in fact, the lowest in the autocratic leadership groups. It seems that since one autocratic group stuck out, they created new subcategories of aggressive versus apathetic reaction – installing that the reason for lack of aggression was apathy. This implies to me that if they had not been apathetic, they would have instead been aggressive. I think the subdivision of the autocratic group is a strong and perhaps not entirely founded action by Lewin and his colleagues. Furthermore, they stated that the apathetic groups became aggressive when the leader left the room, assuming that the apathy came from a despotic presence. My viewpoint is that if a leader leaves, you are taking a big step towards laissez-faire, i.e., the boys are left to rule themselves. The Lewin experiment showed that laissez-faire was the most aggressive. Yet, when an autocratic leader leaves, the forced apathy would cause increased aggression rather than the normal state of laissez-faire. I think these conclusions are a stretch.

Wasn’t the other styles more aggressive?

You cannot circumvent that laissez-faire showed the highest average number of aggressions, followed by democratic leadership not too far behind. So, the “known truth” on autocratic leaders creating toxic climates with bullying tendencies is incorrect then? Not necessarily. I mentioned the scapegoat situations, and the leader him or herself can easily be seen as toxic. Additionally, what would happen in a longer-term situation? I doubt that adults in a laissez-faire scenario are as aggressive as 10-year old boys. I hope I am right.

The Kurt Lewin Leadership styles experiment report is an interesting read, and I am not claiming they were incorrect. I am just planting a seed of doubt and urge you to judge some of the conclusions yourself.

Furthermore, the experiment pertained to ten-year-olds. What would have happened if adults were to participate in the same experiment? The results need to be judged with the circumstances of the experiments in mind. That’s why it is too simplistic to state that democratic leadership is the best based on the Lewin experiments.

Criticism of the Lewin experiment methodology

Before we look at the outcome of a similar study on adult test subjects, let us look at some other criticism of the Lewin Leadership Styles study. Michael Billig presented some interesting viewpoints in his paper “Kurt Lewin’s leadership studies and his legacy to social psychology: Is there nothing as practical as a good theory” for the Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour. Here are some of his critical points.

Lewin had a binary approach to value-laden concepts that affected his analysis and objectivity. This would affect his view and use of the concepts of democratic and autocratic, respectively. In practice, democratic was seen as something good, and autocratic as something bad. Lewin and his team’s use of these words show that they assumed that good situations were democratic, instead of potentially good situations emerging from non-democratic leadership. (Why not call the leadership behaviors role 1, role 2, etc., rather than labeling them with positive vs. negative ideological words.) How democratic is it that a pre-defined leader democratically leads a pre-decided activity, such as mask-making, even if the participants can work together how they see fit? Essentially: If someone tells you who’s in charge and what you must do but let you decide how to do it – is that democracy or permissive autocracy?

Billig also points out how a democratic leader ensures that one of the boys who struggled to voice his opinion gets to speak his mind, and everybody takes turns speaking as instructed by the democratic leader. Is this a clear behavior of a democratic leader, or is it not? The point here is that differences between democratic vs. autocratic behaviors are not as clear-cut as Lewin et al. make it seem.

Was the Lewin experiment changed to fit the outcome?

Billig also states that the laissez-faire leadership style was introduced in the second experiment in order to preserve this somewhat subjective distinction between democratic and autocratic. Although Lewin’s report makes it seem like the third leadership style was introduced before the second experiment took place, it turns out it wasn’t so. According to other books and biographies concerning White, Lippitt, and Lewin, the second experiment was only about autocratic and democratic leadership behaviors, to begin with. However, the researchers realized that some children in one group were anarchic and ignored the democratic expectations as well as the democratic leader. These boys were too democratic, treating the democratic leader as an equal, not reflecting the researchers’ expectations on democratic behaviors of a group.

This lack of conforming to the researchers’ definition of democratic leadership risked the entire experiment. One “problematic” boy even suggested a strike and rebellion against an autocratic leader, which was deemed unacceptable to the researchers for some reason. Lewin suggested that this group had simply gotten too much freedom and should hence be relabeled as a laissez-faire group. This prompted another laissez-faire group to be created, and the experiment was simply adjusted to fit the outcome better. This is a big no-no as far as I am concerned.

Michael Billig’s paper also criticises the same thing I did: the disregard of the average aggression level of the autocratic groups combined, which would be 7.5. Billig adds that the less aggressive autocratic groups could just as well have been called “non-aggressive autocracies” or “peaceful autocracies”, but the negative term of “apathetic” was used instead. This goes back to the ideological problem: The experiment was not supposed to show something positive about the horrible condition of autocratic leadership.

Billig’s interesting paper on the Kurt Lewin leadership studies contains additional points, but I will stop here. I think we can conclude that the results of the experiments should be interpreted with care, keeping our eyes wide open and not drawing any conclusions written in stone. I still personally believe that democratic leadership is much better, for sure. All I am saying is that we should read the Lewin report with a grain of salt. Again, my skepticism is throughly described in this article: Criticism of the Lewin leadership styles.

An adult version of the Lewin leadership experiment

How about an adult situation, then? What would we see then? As it turns out, Dean and Patricia Fadely did just that in 1972 in their study called “Leadership Styles: An Experimental Study to Determine the Comparative Effectiveness of Democratic and Autocratic Leadership in Adult, “Real World” Groups”.

This study involves eight tenant councils as experimental groups. They were each led by trained researchers taking the role of an autocratic or democratic leader. As it turns out, the groups with autocratic leaders showed greater productivity and commitment than their democratically led counterparts. Go figure. The productivity aspect supports the Lewin leadership styles study that also showed higher productivity with autocratic leaders. Let us go into this with a bit more detail.

Efficiency was defined as the number of policy suggestions made by a specific group and the assess average time for creating them.

Commitment was defined as how many of these policy suggestions had been acted upon two weeks after they had been created initially.

The difference in commitment and efficiency between autocratic and democratic leadership:

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Leadership StyleHigh ProductivityLow Productivity
Autocratic Leadership Style80
Democratic Leadership Style44
Leadership StyleHigh CommitmentLow Commitment
Autocratic Leadership Style62
Democratic Leadership Style26

I think the definition of commitment should be considered carefully. I see commitment as something bigger, something long-term. People commit to a vision, and agree on certain actions and activities.

This study does not see what happens when a group becomes leaderless, and if we rely on the Lewin experiments, it will drop in productivity, far beyond the level of the democratic team.

Conclusions on Autocratic and Democratic Leadership

The general direction of leadership books and my own experience match the above quite well. Here are my personal conclusions on autocratic and democratic leadership when it comes to commitment and productivity specifically.

As I mentioned in my criticism on the Lewin leadership styles, I suggest you look to more modern frameworks, such as Goleman’s six leadership styles, transformational, servant, or situational leadership. You can read about all of these and many other approaches to leadership on our dedicated styles page: Leadership styles.

Sources:
Dean and Patricia Fadely, “Leadership Styles: An Experimental Study to Determine the Comparative Effectiveness of Democratic and Autocratic Leadership in Adult, “Real World” Groups”. (https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED067720.pdf)
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)
Billig, Michael, Kurt Lewin’s leadership studies and his legacy to social psychology: Is there nothing as practical as a good theory?
(https://www.academia.edu/9087258/Kurt_Lewin_s_leadership_studies_and_his_legacy_to_social_psychology_Is_there_nothing_as_practical_as_a_good_theory)

Carl Lindberg

Carl is a global business leader that has led 1-2000 people and had financial responsibility of 200-500 MUSD. During his career, he has led employees in twenty different countries and has lived in three continents.

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