Leadership has been getting a lot of attention lately. Much of it is directed at what good leadership is, and what good leaders do. I have always maintained that every teacher is a leader, and every good teacher is a good leader. Teachers have more influence over how their students will turn out that possibly anyone else in their lives with the exception, though not always, of a child’s parent or parents.
Traditionally, three types of leaders have been identified: Autocratic, also known as authoritarian, democratic, or participative, and laissez-faire, or hands off. There are other leadership styles, (as you can see in the diagram below), but presently, I will discuss those three.
In most situations, a leader is most effective when they are able to blend qualities of each style, customized for the experience and skills of those being led, and for the situation. In this article, I will take a look at the positive attributes of each style, explore where each would be most useful, and discuss a characteristic that is common to all good leaders, regardless of style.
Autocratic leaders have their own vision and program, and expect everyone to fall in line and buy into it. These leaders don’t want to be questioned, they just want to be obeyed. This style of leadership in the classroom works best when the situation is urgent or chaotic and when what is required is for someone to reign in the class and make a prompt and effective decision. It is also highly desirable in an emergency, such as an evacuation or emergency drill. Autocratic leaders will find sustained success if their actions result in desirable outcomes, that bring satisfaction, recognition, or pride to those being led.
New England Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick is a good example of an Autocratic leader. “Here’s what I want you to do, no go do your job.” These leaders are highly involved and hands on, but they are directive, and do not leave those they are leading the freedom or opportunity to problem solve. A classroom led by an autocratic leader is tightly structured. This tends to work better for lower achieving students who have not developed the skills to work independently, make decisions, or find creative or original solutions to problems. It is also well suited to large group situations, such as large marching bands or choruses, where keeping everyone headed in the right direction (literally in the case of marching band) is crucial. But there is a danger with using the autocratic style. When taken too far, it can demoralize, even dehumanize students, making the want to give up and quit. To avoid this from happening, a bit of democratic leadership style can and often is blended in. For example, this can be done by delegating student leaders, such as drum majors in a marching band or section leaders in a chorus. Tempering the autocratic style with student leaders is a good way to instill a bit of democratic leadership style into an essentially autocratic model.
Democratic leaders gather input from those they lead as a way of involving them in decision-making. Democratic leaders still make decisions, but they are advised or guided by the input they receive from others. It is important to collect input in good faith, and visibly use it in reaching decisions, so that those who have provided the input can see that it was not ignored. Teachers can learn a good deal by asking students for input. I have sometimes asked students how they would like me to teach a particular concept. In other words, I ask what would be the way you would like me to teach you this? This often improves both learning and the teacher-student relationship.
On the other hand, asking for input and then disregarding it simply moves the leader into the autocratic style, and disenfranchises those who gave the input. Once they see their input is not taken in good faith, they will stop giving it and become unmotivated to much at all for the leader., and the teacher then finds themself right back where they would be if they had overdone autocratic teaching. A democratic leader facilitates discussions, and suggests alternatives when needed. They see themselves as members of the group, but leading others so that they can do most of work. They possess a natural curiosity that drives their desire to engage people on all sides, and are often excellent communicators and easily approachable. Examples of well-known democratic leaders include Bill Gates, Nelson Mandela, and Walt Disney. Democratic leadership works best when the group is invested in being part of the solution, and where creative thought and work is desired. It is less effective if people come to feel left out because their input was not adopted, or when the group is not skilled or trained to carry the load needed to support a democratic environment. Because democratic leaders can be somewhat directive while at the same time empowering those they lead, it is often the choice of teachers for their students.
If autocratic leadership runs the risk of being stifling and too directive, laissez-faire leadership runs the opposite risk of being too lenient and absent to provide any sort of leadership at all. But that extreme, “who cares” attitude is not what true laissez-faire leadership is. Done well, laissez-faire leadership affords a group complete freedom to operate independently. In a way, this is the goal of education: to bring students to the point where they can be independent learners, generating their own questions, research, theories, and answers. The leader supplies materials and acts as a consultant when asked, but otherwise allows groups to operate on their own.
For music educators, the Little Kids Rock curriculum is an example of a setting where laissez-faire leadership works well. Students are taught how to play songs in a full-class section, using a blend of autocratic and democratic leadership style, and then released into small groups or bands to prepare performances of songs on their own, with the teacher making very occasional visits to each group in a laissez-faire style (while all the time watching over all the groups who are in adjacent practice rooms or spaces). Examples of laissez-faire leaders have included Ronald Reagan, Andrew Mellon and Warren Buffet. Laissez-faire leaders are adept at delegating, and instill confidence by not constantly overseeing work. They don’t hover, but demonstrate a genuine desire to place responsibilities on their charges.
Laissez-faire leadership works best in settings where a streamlined decision-making process is needed. Students don’t need to await conferencing with or approval from the teacher, but can design their learning projects, have a brief conversation with the teacher, and be off and running. For this style to work, the students need to already be well trained and skilled at the tasks they will need to work on and successfully complete their learning projects. It will not work well when students don’t fully understand their objective, or when students lack the motivation to faithfully work at their projects without a task master to urge them on.
Leadership expert John Maxwell famously was fond of saying, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” (Actually, Theodore Roosevelt said it first.) No matter which style, or blend of styles you use, this much must be apparent to the students: they must see that you like them, and especially that you care about them. Whether you are directing them out of danger in an emergency, or introducing them to how to play in the clarion register on the clarinet; whether you are observing them independently practice electric guitar or drums, or bass, or voice to their favorite rock song, or leading a 70-voice chorus or band, it must be abundantly clear that you care, and your greatest joy is their welfare as human beings first, and their success in your class second. Any of the leadership styles I’ve discussed can communicate that message if used well and properly. As teachers we must be able to adapt whatever strategy works best. The different leadership styles are one of the tools that helps us do just that.