The Best Leadership Style Depends on Leader Status

Should new leaders concentrate on exercising authority, or instead let their guard down and allow employees to participate in the management process? According to research by Sauer (2011), they should choose wisely, because depending on the status of the leader, one method will work much better than the other.


The author first differentiates between two classic leadership styles, directive and participative. Mangers who use directive leadership give orders or instructions to their subordinates, and work to secure compliance in order to achieve objectives. Mangers who utilize participative leadership consult with employees before making decisions, and work to support each employee’s individual approach to achieving objectives.

So which style works better? According to the author, it depends on the status of the leader. When the new leader is perceived as having high status (due to past accomplishments or education), the participative approach works better, but when the new leader is perceived as having low status, the directive leadership approach clearly wins. Results stemmed from two experimental studies that suggest that when low status leaders use directive leadership or high status leaders use participative leadership, the leaders are perceived as more self-confident, more effective, and will have teams that actually perform better on difficult tasks.


Why did this study find that the status of the leader dictates which specific style they ought to use? According to the author, this stems from the type of power used by low or high status leaders. Low status leaders rely on positional power, which is power due to occupying a certain position in the organization’s hierarchy. But high status leaders also have what is called personal power, which might stem from charisma or their ability to motivate and influence. Leaders maximize their effectiveness when they play to their strengths.

For example, low status leaders need to flaunt their positional power by directing people, because that is the only form of power they have. If a low status leader invited participation and consensus building, that leader may appear weak and unqualified. Similarly, high status leaders must promote their personal power to motivate people by inviting participation and “letting their guard down.” This makes them seem approachable and self-confident. However, if high status leaders fall back on their positional power and give too many orders, they may appear too assertive and overbearing.


The results of this study indicate that different leadership styles are appropriate for different situations. New leaders should be aware that there is no such thing as a “correct” leadership style. Still, different styles will yield different results in different situations. While this study considered leader status, the author explains that further research is needed to determine which other situations or factors might influence the type of leadership style needed to maximize success.


Sauer, S.J. (2011). Taking the Reins: The Effects of New Leader Status and Leadership Style on Team Performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 96(3), 574-587.

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