At some point in your career, you will be asked the interview question, “What is your leadership style?” Some struggle to put their leadership philosophy into words. Others google ‘leadership style’ and pick the one that sounds like the best answer. So, it comes back to the age old question of whether leaders are born, or are they made?

Let’s explore whether you can pick your leadership style, or if you’re born with one.

What is leadership style anyway?

It has been said that there are as many leadership styles as there are leaders. And, if you’ve ever dipped your toe into the leadership research you’ll know that there are as many leadership styles as there are leadership researchers.

In short, it is how someone motivates others, how they give direction, and how they envision and execute a plan.

What’s the difference between all of the leadership styles?

I find it fun to read down a list of all the leadership styles that have been coined over the years. You see things like servant leadership and laissez-faire. In some ways, it’s like reading down menu. People read the list and think: I’m a little bit of this. I’d like a little more of that. I’m definitely NOT that.

But, what I think is more valuable in thinking through leadership styles is thinking through some of the matrices of styles that researchers have put forward. As you read through the list below, ask yourself:

  1. Where do I fall on the spectrum?
  2. Is this true about me – or is it how I would like to be?
  3. What would happen if I were a little more like the other side of the spectrum?

Are you more people-oriented or task-oriented?

While some managers focus on getting the job done, others concern themselves more with the well being of their team members. Taken to extremes, nether side of this dichotomy is effective.

People-oriented leaders usually think the task-oriented managers are too cold. Task-oriented leaders usually think people-oriented leaders are too soft. But, this judgement of the other isn’t really helpful. What is helpful is to consider what is your natural propensity.

How complex/ambiguous is the task relative to the skill of your team members?

There are some who believe that we must always give team members space and opportunity to do the work however they want. To do otherwise is to micromanage. Micromanage being the dirty word of leadership.

However, not every employee is skilled enough to solve a very ambiguous or complex tasks. So, when this employee is given a lot of latitude, the leader sets the employee (and themselves) up for failure. Success, in this case, means the manager needs to provide more explicit instruction. The manager needs to review work more closely, and more often. Not because he/she is a micromanager, but because they want the employee to succeed and the task to be accomplished.

Micromanagement (the dirty word of leadership) most commonly happens when the task is not complex and the employee is very skilled.

Is there a right/wrong way to do the task?

This question is not about whether the task is done the way you would have done it.

This is about – are there rules about how the task must be done? Are there steps that MUST be followed in a particular order to be successful?

In government, there are many rules about much of the work that is done. These rules are usually called laws. The question then is whether the task is really guided by a law/policy or do managers just think it is (or should be).

And, in that vein, if there is a ‘right’ way to do a task then there is no value to getting input from the team on how to do the task.

Is it more important to get it done now or to get the most creative solution?

This question speaks to how participatory your leadership style is (or should be).

In working with leaders who work in emergency response environments, they often tell me, “I don’t have time to ask people how they feel about doing a task or for their opinion”.

And, of course, they are right.

When a house is on fire, that is not the time to debate with a team of 10 why the house is on fire or the pros/cons of how to put the fire out. That is the time for the leader to give direction and for the team to execute.

The challenge, however, is that some managers see every situation as a house-fire. And, unless you are actually a fire-fighter, this usually isn’t the case. Or, it’s a situation that has become a ‘house-fire’ because the team didn’t do the preventive work of thinking through a ‘fire-prevention strategy’.

The point is, sometimes it makes sense to take more time to get input from the team. To try out different solutions. And, in doing so, the team may come up with a solution that is out-of-the-box and is better than if they had just executed the direction of manager. And, other times, there is not enough time to do this. Or, the time it takes to get different perspectives will not improve the outcome enough to make it worth taking the time.

Is leadership style innate, learned, or situational?

As your resident psychologist – I’m going to go with the answer: All three.

We all have natural inclinations that impact how we lead. Some of us are more sensitive to others’ feelings. Others experience time urgency more strongly. Some have a stronger propensity to trust others. As a result, we will naturally or innately resonate with some leadership styles more than others.

We also learn a lot about how to lead from those around us. Again, as your favorite psychologist I must say that some of it comes from your parents. If you think about it, they were your first leaders and managers. Then came your teachers at school. And, finally, those managers you have worked for throughout your career. Knowingly, or unknowingly, you have picked up ideas and strategies throughout your life that now guide how you lead and manager others.

Finally, as they questions from the prior section suggest – leadership style is (or should be) impacted to a great extent on the situation that you are in. And, dependent on the people you are leading.

Before you claim a leadership style…

There is one thing that is missing from most discussions of leadership styles. That is, the perspective of the people that are being led. Newstrom and Davis (1993) argue that leadership style is what is seen from the perspective of the employee.

I think this is an important concept in answering the question of whether you pick your leadership style, or whether it picks you. Because if Newstrom and Davis are right – the answer doesn’t matter. What matters is how people interpret your actions.

You can tell me that you don’t micromanage. But, if your people think you do…then you are. You can think that you are people-oriented but if your people don’t agree…then you aren’t.

So, before you answer the interview question with what your leadership style is, I’d suggest you ask the people that know the answer.

The people you lead.

While you’re considering your leadership style, you might also want to learn why calling your team a ‘team’ doesn’t make it true. Sometimes, they are a group of people.


Newstrom, J.W. and Davis, K. (1993). Organizational Behavior: Human Behavior at Work. New York: McGraw-Hill.