Different types of leadership: Prescriptive and situational

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Different types of leadership: Prescriptive and situational
The study of leadership is a complicated field. (Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

The academic study of leadership, combined with the proliferation of management training and leadership education offered by business schools and commercial training companies, has yielded a large crop of different leadership styles, models and theories. While some leadership styles, such as "authoritative," seem pretty clear and easy to understand, others are not. The exact definitions of "prescriptive" and "situational" leadership, for example, can seem ambiguous and contradictory.

Prescriptive leadership model

"Prescriptive leadership" is most frequently used to describe a type of leadership model, not a style of leadership. A prescriptive leadership model tells the user exactly which style of leadership to use in any given situation. It contrasts with descriptive models, which identify situations and different leadership styles, but do not give any recommendations about which style to use. Many managers prefer prescriptive models, which is why they are used frequently in leadership training.

Prescriptive leadership style

But "prescriptive leadership" can also be used to describe a leadership style that contrasts with restrictive leadership. Writing on the website of his company, Human Synergistics, Dr Robert A. Cooke describes prescriptive leadership as adopting strategies that encourage people to do want you want. For example, "facilitation," and "creating a setting" are prescriptive strategies that are constructive. Restrictive strategies, however, are all about stopping people from doing what you don't want them to do. They include providing negative feedback and criticism.

Situational leadership theory

The situational leadership theory, initially developed by Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey, argues that leadership styles should change according to circumstances and the environmental context. Leaders should consider factors such as the competence and maturity of employees and the complexity of the task before choosing one of four leadership styles. The styles are: "telling," "selling," "participating" and "delegating." For example, a leader might adopt a telling style for very junior employees, who are inexperienced at their jobs and do not know much about the market in which they are working.

Arguments against situational leadership

Dr Cooke argues against situational leadership, saying that adopting a particular style might be effective in the short term, but could have negative long-term impacts. For example, adopting a telling leadership style towards junior employees puts them in a subservient and dependent position. They learn to do as they’re told rather than to act on their own initiative and participate in decisions.

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