Lewin's Leadership Styles Framework

Three Core Leadership Styles

Lewin's Leadership Styles Framework - Three Core Leadership Styles

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How is your natural leadership style affecting your team?

Chances are, you've worked for a wide variety of leaders during your career. Some might have been excellent, while others may not have been effective at all. You might even have experienced a boss who was great in some situations and bad in others, because he or she used the same leadership style each time.

It's important to understand your own natural leadership style, so that you can adapt your approach to fit your situation. It's also helpful to know which leadership behaviors to avoid.

One way to do this is to use Lewin's Leadership Styles Framework. In this article, we'll look at the three core leadership styles that Lewin identified, and we'll see how you can use his model to be a more effective leader.

About the Model

In 1939, psychologist Kurt Lewin led a study that identified three core styles of leadership, and outlined the effect that each style had on team members. His research also showed that leaders get different results when they lead their teams in different ways.

Although Lewin conducted this study many decades ago, his findings have influenced many of today's leadership theories and approaches, including transformational leadership (which, we believe, is often the most effective leadership style to use in business).

The three core leadership styles he identified were:

  • Authoritarian (autocratic) leadership.
  • Participative (democratic) leadership.
  • Delegative (laissez-faire) leadership.

It's important to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each style, so that you can recognize your own natural leadership style, and adapt your approach to fit your situation.

When you understand each style, you will also know what behaviors to avoid if you want to get the best from your people.


Lewin's research took place in the U.S. It's important to remember that people in other cultures may respond differently to these leadership styles.

Our articles on Cross-Cultural Leadership and Wibbeke's Geoleadership Model have more information on how to lead a diverse, cross-cultural team.

The Three Leadership Styles

Let's examine each of Lewin's three leadership styles in detail, and look at how and when to apply each one with your team.

As you read through the descriptions, bear in mind that you can use elements of all three approaches in different situations.

Authoritarian (Autocratic) Leadership

You lead in an authoritarian way when you make decisions without consulting your team members. You tell people what to do, and how to do it.

The benefit of authoritarian leadership is that it's very efficient: you can make quick decisions, and people don't have any say on what they do.

The downside is that an authoritarian work environment is often demoralizing and demotivating for people. You may also miss out on getting input from skilled, knowledgeable team members if you use this approach, which can severely limit innovation and performance in your team.

What's more, in many cultures, people quite understandably resent and resist authoritarian leadership. It can cause disengagement and unhappiness in your team, and even cause people to be aggressive or hostile; and it can lead to high absenteeism and increased staff turnover.

Authoritarian leadership is often appropriate when you need to make quick decisions during crises, but it's harmful in many modern working environments.

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Participative (Democratic) Leadership

With participative leadership, you have the final say on decisions, but you involve team members in the decision-making process. This builds trust and good working relationships, and team members feel empowered and engaged with their work.

The downside of participative leadership is that it can slow the decision-making process, which can lead to missed opportunities. This can be particularly damaging in emergencies or crises.

Delegative (Laissez-Faire) Leadership

Delegative or laissez-faire leadership is very hands-off. When you use this style, you allow team members to set their own goals and deadlines, and you let them determine how to do their work.

Delegative leadership is most effective when team members are highly motivated and highly skilled, and when you can provide frequent feedback on performance and progress. It's also effective when you work with freelancers or consultants.

The downside of delegative leadership is that it can lead to poor performance in teams where people have low skill levels, little motivation, or poor knowledge.


It can be challenging to know which leadership styles to use in a given situation or with a specific team. Use tools like Path-Goal Theory, Fiedler's Contingency Model, and the Leadership Style Matrix to think about the best leadership style for your circumstances.

Key Points

Social psychologist Kurt Lewin identified three primary leadership styles in 1939. These were:

  • Authoritarian (autocratic) leadership.
  • Participative (democratic) leadership.
  • Delegative (laissez-faire) leadership.

Lewin's research forms the foundation of many of today's leadership models and frameworks.

Its most important conclusion is that people tend to resent authoritarian leadership, and that they can become aggressive, demoralized or demotivated when subjected to it. By contrast, you need to use participative or delegative approaches to leadership to get the best from people.

It's helpful to understand each of these three styles so that you know when and how to use them, and so that you know what behaviors to avoid if you want to get the best from your team.