Forms of leadership

There are three kinds of leadership: coercive, charismatic, and conventional.

Coercive leadership is what you get in a dictatorship, or a pack of dogs. The leader is whoever took the post by force. They stay in power as long as they can defeat or deter challengers, which requires that the leader is the strongest, literally or in the sense of being the most ruthless. There is a top-down power structure that keeps the majority in line by reminding them that they have no choice.

Charismatic leadership is what you find in a band, or other relatively fresh voluntary association. The leader is perceived as being the best at whatever is the aim of the organization. Followers follow the leader because they value their inspiration and direction. Any challengers would have to demonstrate superior ability, rather than attack the leader as such.

Conventional leadership is the kind found in democratic states and other large, mature organizations. The leader has no distinguishing characteristics other than fairness and commitment. The members of the organization subscribe to the leadership because they see the benefits of structure and coherence. The leader is expected to identify and publish a consensus direction, but not primarily to steer the group.

All three kinds of leadership have validity, including the coercive one in certain contexts. Problems in leadership typically occur when the leader misrepresents, is not true to, or changes the kind of leadership that they are in charge of.


States are almost always structured as coercive, because of their roots in ethnic and class conflict. They emphasize forced compliance with laws and have a large domestic enforcement apparatus. This does democratic polity a disservice. Substantially, modern states are conventionally led. Laws are obeyed and institutions observed when the majority think that those are useful. Coercing the majority is unproductive. Dissent ought to be accommodated and outright enforcement reserved for those who are too selfish or short sighted to abide by the norm.

From time to time states get a charismatic leader. It’s not clear whether these are good or bad. Kennedy was charismatic but he escalated the Vietnam war, nearly triggereed WW3, and sent people on impressive but useless trips to the moon. Gorbachev was a conventional leader who embarked on the task, deemed necessary by consensus, of modernising the Soviet state through a reformist path. I prefer Gorbachev. Charismatic leaders are also prone to idolization, so that the nation feels that only a supposedly higher grade of person can provide leadership.

Businesses, unfortunately, use a mixture of the three forms of leadership and change the balance between them from time to time. New businesses in the traditional economy such as bakeries or factories are usually coercive, since whoever has the founding capital has the power. Tech startups are usually founded on charismatic leadership, and not much more. As businesses grow, whoever is in charge of each department or function implements it according to their concept of leadership, resulting in an inconsistent mix.

Mature businesses ought to be conventionally led, providing their members with a large measure of autonomy in exchange for responsibility. Many have this culture, and most are less coercive than states. Businesses work with carrots, states with sticks. Even so, the transition that businesses make to conventional leadership is often imperfect. Classic businesses retain too much of their coercive heritage, while new economy firms find it hard to make the transition from charismatic to conventional while retaining value.

If you want to be a leader, you must be very clear and forthright about the model of leadership that you and the group are signing up to. When you get a mandate, you get a mandate to lead a certain way. If you’re coercive don’t try to smooth the bargain by pretending otherwise, and if you aren’t don’t touch coercive instrumens. If you’re charismatic, inspire and if you can’t do that step down. If you’re signing up as a conventional leader, be fair and represent; don’t steer.

Some people will enthusiastically follow you whichever type of leadership you are true to. Others will respect you but look elsewhere for the type that suits them. Nobody will appreciate it if you try to play more than one of these roles at once, or change it once in power. To change your form of leadership you need a new mandate.

If you dislike the leadership you’re under, coercive and charismatic leaderships are relatively easy to change. These forms are inherently unstable, and held together by fear or by the leader’s personal ability. If you’re brave enough to do so, you can challenge the leader and seek to replace them in their post, or bid to implement a different form of leadership. A transition from these forms to conventional leadership is usually popular.

The hardest kind of leadership to change is conventional leadership. The majority has so much invested in it that it’s almost impossible to even articulate a challenge that’s meaningful and yet within constructive bounds. That’s why democracies struggle with challenges that turn into riots. In business you have to break off and create a pocket of coercive or charismatic leadership to innovate. You will eventually have to return it to conventional leadership when it matures.

4 thoughts on “Forms of leadership

  1. Pingback: Gerhard Pyper ICT Practices in Education Blog » Forms of Leadership

  2. Pingback: Extraordinary Leadership is Not Replaced But Repurposed | LANDsds Sustainable Voice

  3. I admire the part that tackles the change of leadership it is very realistic.

    “If you dislike the leadership you’re under, coercive and charismatic leaderships are relatively easy to change. These forms are inherently unstable, and held together by fear or by the leader’s personal ability. If you’re brave enough to do so, you can challenge the leader and seek to replace them in their post, or bid to implement a different form of leadership. A transition from these forms to conventional leadership is usually popular.”

    Reply

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