Management Styles – Here comes Kurt

Today we start a series about different leadership styles. “Wait. Besides good and bad leadership, is there anything else?”, you may be thinking now.

Yes, there are. And quite a lot of them. And it’s not just since the industrial revolution that numerous research groups have been studying this topic. After all, good leadership depends on various factors, and depending on the situation, it can make sense to change one’s leadership style. For a good leader, it is crucial to know what styles there are and how to use them.

In the gray world of management and leadership, there are a variety of different styles and practices. Sometimes they overlap, sometimes individual styles are merged or expanded into new models. At first glance, this can be quite confusing. Our goal is to bring some clarity to this chaos and provide an overview of what techniques are available to lead people.

We will look at different terminologies of leadership teachings and also look at how they relate to each other.

To kick off this series, we’ll look at three classic leadership styles coined by Kurt Lewin.

Ready? Well here we go …

Here comes Kurt!

Of course, good leadership is not something that comes easily to you. And it’s definitely not easy. Because good leadership depends on the corporate context, the company values, cultural characteristics, the employees and many other things. And since the topic is very complex, many people have dealt with it and named or developed different leadership styles.

This was also the case with the social psychologist Kurt Lewin, who, as a result of his research work (“Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created ‘social climates'”) in 1939, distinguished three leadership styles: the authoritarian, the cooperative and the laizze-fair leadership style.

Authoritarian or autocratic style of leadership

In the Autocratic Leadership Style, the leader is – surprise, surprise – an autocrat. That is, a person who has complete control and power over the decision-making processes in the organization. Announcements are made top-down. Orders are to be carried out without objections. There is no discussion and no input of employees’ own opinions.  

Sounds scary at first? But this management style also has a decisive advantage: decisions are made quickly. The hierarchy is clear. There is no wrangling over power, as this only emanates from one central authority. However, this person also bears the responsibility for the failure/success of the company, which can take the responsibility away from the employees (at least partially). In addition, in autocratically run organizations, there is usually a clear description of the role or task. Thinking outside the box is not expected.

This can be one of the biggest disadvantages of autocracies, as creativity and independent thinking are severely restricted. The individual employee is usually only a tool to execute commands. One can virtually hang one’s brain on the clothes rack when entering the office.

An autocratic leadership style always makes sense when quick decisions must be made without discussion and one person is willing to take complete responsibility. Classic examples are military, disaster staffs, crisis managers, hostage situations. In such scenarios, where lives may depend on decisions being made and implemented quickly and efficiently, autocratic leadership lends itself. In modern (IT) companies, it is better to keep your distance.

Democratic or cooperative leadership style

The democratic or cooperative management style is characterized by the fact that employees are involved in the decision-making processes. The supervisor agrees rules, goals and procedures with the employees. Employees are assigned tasks that they solve on their own responsibility. They assume responsibility for their success (responsibility). However, this does not mean that they alone are accountable in the event of failure. The superior responsibility (accountability) still lies with the superior, who supports and advises the employee, but does not supervise him or her. Tasks are delegated to the employee, not dictated. Decisions are also delegated to employees, but the manager has the final say.

The clear advantage of this leadership style is that employees can take credit for succeeding. When a difficult task is solved independently, this usually has a positive impact on motivation. In addition, employees with a cooperative management style learn and develop much more quickly because they have to tackle and solve the problem on their own. They are not told what to do, as in the autocratic management style.

However, the model presupposes intrinsic motivation on the part of employees and also requires the supervisor to have an understanding of what tasks his respective employees are up to. Because if the boss overtaxes his employees and there are no successes, insecurity and frustration can spread very quickly.

You recognize that you have landed in a democratically managed environment when there is a (serious) feedback culture, or you are actively asked for suggestions for improvement, or can contribute them. The important thing here is that the employee is really taken into account.

Some autocrats try to adapt to modern leadership styles, but are not serious about it. If your feedback memo ends up in the trash after the conversation, or if the boss nods off every suggestion for improvement and then forgets about it, then management is generally not democratic.


The laissez-faire (“just let it happen”) leadership style goes one step further. This management style gives employees a very high degree of decision-making freedom. They make all decisions themselves, but also bear all responsibility for their actions. In principle, the laissez-faire leadership style is the exact opposite of the autocratic style. Whereas in the autocratically managed environment the supervisor takes the active role and the employee only acts passively, in the laissez-faire management style the activity comes from the employee. The supervisor moves into the background.

The manager only delegates the tasks, but generally keeps a low profile when it comes to how these tasks are carried out.  Freely following the motto: “Many roads lead to Rome,” the manager gives the employee the authority to decide how the task is to be solved. This creates a high level of trust and, even more so than with cooperative leadership, allows employees to develop and grow with their tasks.  

However, this leadership style must be built on two important pillars: Trust and vision.

The supervisor must be able to trust that the employee can solve tasks on his or her own, or ask for help on his or her own when problems arise. The employee, in turn, must trust that the manager will provide support when needed and will not punish when mistakes are made, but will help to avoid the mistakes the next time.  

In Lascive-Fair Leadership, employees actively seek out the tasks that need to be done.  Meaning and purpose dictates the tasks that need to be done. The high degree of freedom to make decisions leads to a very high level of employee motivation, but it can also lead to a lot of chaos. And it can also turn into the opposite. Because since the manager is no longer heavily involved in the employee’s work, praise and recognition can fail to materialize if the employee doesn’t get it from elsewhere. Then the whole system can falter.  

The second pillar in laissez-faire companies is a clear vision. It is important that all employees understand the vision of the team, the department, the company and also find it motivating. Because only when the employee has really understood in which direction the ship should sail, can ever greater tasks be taken on.

Laissez-faire is particularly suitable in environments where the promotion of creativity is important. These often include the music, film, and entertainment industries and the tech industry. But beware: This style is not suitable for every IT company. The more strictly the industry is restricted by regulations – e.g. to protect human life (medicine, air travel, railroads) – the less suitable it is for creativity.

So if you want to promote a laissez-faire management style in your company, take a close look at whether your industry also fits in.

Even very young startups with few employees can be lassize-faire. Everyone takes on tasks that are needed to move the company forward. The developer may deliver the goods on his own, or the founder may be in the back room packing the first packages of his new e-commerce business.

In addition, laissez-faire is usually also applied to open source projects. Often there are no hierarchies or only very flat ones. The contributors work freely and choose the tasks they feel most like doing or for which they are best paid.

Autocracy, Democracy and Co

Let us briefly summarize once again. Lewin thus distinguished between three different leadership styles: authoritarian (autocratic), participative (democratic) and delegative (laissez-fair).

Lewin considered the participative leadership style to be the most effective, which may be due in part to the fact that in the middle of the last century, the information age had not yet begun and start-ups and open-source projects did not exist in their current form.

However, with the shift from the industrial to the information age, the laissez-faire leadership style has become more important, while autocratic leaders are (fortunately) becoming less and less common. For most companies, however, a democratic leadership style is still the most appropriate. It combines additional involvement in decision-making processes, which increases motivation, but gives the leader ultimate responsibility, which takes pressure off employees. In such an environment, employees can feel taken seriously, but also protected – both things that are important to many people.

Now that we’ve looked at the first leadership style model, in part two we’ll look at another common model, where we’ll also run across one of the styles we’ve already discussed. Are you curious? Well then, on to the second part of the series.

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