The Two Types of Leaders

Which type of leader are you?

Posted Oct 07, 2009

There's an old joke, "There are two types of people: those who divide people into two types and those who don't." (OK, I guess it's only funny if you are a psychologist). But it is interesting that when it comes to thinking about people, in general, but our leaders/bosses, in particular, we have a tendency to divide them into two types: "good" or "bad," "effective" or "ineffective."

There is a cognitive "heuristic" (a heuristic is a sort of mental shortcut) that compels us to categorize things into dichotomies. This morning I was polled on whether I approved of the job President Obama was doing. The choices were approve or disapprove. No third or fourth option.

The history of research on leadership is full of these dichotomies. Leaders were classified into two types, based on their decision making styles, so you had theories that focused on "autocratic" vs. "democratic" leaders. Those who hold the decision making power and those who share it.

Or, Theory X and Theory Y leaders. Theory X leaders think of followers as basically unmotivated and rather unsophisticated so the leader needs to motivate and direct followers' activities. The Theory Y leader believes that followers are self-motivated and self-directed and so takes a more hands-off style.

Or, task-oriented and people-oriented leaders. Those who focus on getting the task done, and those who focus on the social process and team aspects of leading.

These dichotomies represent fairly old concepts of leaders. Newer approaches try to view leadership as being more complex - an interaction between different types of leaders, different types of followers, and the situational factors that interact with leadership (and followership).

Yet, people may still be compelled to think in dichotomies. In our own research on ethical leadership, we're finding that people tend to categorize leaders as "ethical" or "unethical," "good" or "bad," with little in between. We're finding it hard to tease out the subtle differences between leaders, for example, who are of substantially good character, but have certain flaws or have had a moral failure. People tend to either focus on the good, ignoring the bad, and tell us "this is a good leader." Or, they focus on the failure, and say "bad leader." When we first encountered this, we thought it was a flaw in our measurement. But now, we're fairly convinced that it's just how people think and categorize.

What are the implications for practicing leaders and managers? My friend, leadership scholar, Marty Chemers, emphasizes that image management is a key part of successful leadership. So, be a good leader (easy to say, huh?), but if you stumble, or blow it, own up to it. It's better to be seen as a basically good leader who has done something bad than to allow the failure to color your entire image and fall into the "bad" category. Of course, if you're bad, then that's a completely different situation altogether.

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