The Leadership Style Myth

It's not about pitting one style against another, but using a style that will work best in each situation.

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The term leadership is used to acknowledge glory or excuse away defeat. If something goes well it's due to good leadership. If something goes wrong, it's due to bad leadership. We focus on outcomes instead of process. We are almost consumed by the effects of leadership because we fall for the myth that any one style is better than another.

True leadership can't be defined by or limited to one style. Life does not challenge us in cookie cutter fashion. Take for example three popular leadership styles: authoritative, transactional, and transformational. Is one better than the rest or does each deserve a place in our repertoire?

Authoritative leadership is a rule-based preference combined with a hierarchical (military-like) approach in which orders are given and orders are followed. Transactional leadership relies on a rewards-based system. Rewards or punishments are handed out based on performance. Transformational leadership focuses on a people-centric approach that aims to inspire, empower, and motivate. Your support makes your subordinates more effective at their job (also known as servant leadership). One isn't better than the rest. You follow any one of these, at any time, depending on the situation.

We tend to look at these styles as being in competition. We are led to believe that one is better than the other. I take issue with this premise because it ignores practical experience in favor of academic theory. Sometimes an argument is built around an approach that proved successful in a certain arena and tries to cross over into other professions. I suffered through a time where agency administrators were sold on the idea that the agency needed to be run like a business. Luckily, they learned we were not like McDonald's. To suggest that law enforcement is a business waters down its mission and hurts everyone in the long run.

The fact is what happens in one profession seldom translates well across the board in another. The danger for us in law enforcement is this myth that there is one style of leadership better than another. That if this style is applied the right way, it will work. Even worse is that this style will work all the time. If it were that simple, we wouldn't have different styles in the first place. Leadership books would be reduced to brochures.
The truth is a leader doesn't use just one style but instead incorporates many. How a leader chooses their style is based on their circumstance. It's not about pitting one style against another, but using a style that will work best in each situation.

Leadership is mission based. There will be times when you can afford to be transactional; be warm and fluffy all you want. Obtain buy-in, ask for input, and follow that expensive management book down to the letter. Then there will be other times when you must be authoritative and give orders that need to be followed, period. For example, you don't have time to be warm and fluffy during an active shooter incident.

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If you're in a situation where someone isn't following your lawful orders, find someone else who will and deal with the other person's insubordination later. I have told many misinformed officers that when they made lieutenant, they could run their platoon however they saw fit; but until then, it was my platoon.

Leadership experts sometimes forget that leadership is not a democratic process. Leadership is not something accomplished by committee. Leadership is not something you use to become popular.

Where we go wrong as students of leadership is when we believe "what works for someone else will work for me." That couldn't be farther from the truth. What works for Microsoft is for Microsoft. What works for Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle works for them. What works for Pixar Animation Studios works for Pixar.

Though there might be some applicable elements you can learn from studying them, none of those companies deal with emergency situations or natural disasters as part of their jobs, or make split-second decisions that affect life or death. Leadership is mission based and calls for you to adjust your leadership style to fit the mission and not the other way around. Don't worry about style; concentrate on being effective instead.

Amaury Murgado retired a senior lieutenant from the Osceola County (FL) Sheriff's Office with over 29 years of experience. He also retired from the Army Reserve as a master sergeant. He holds a Master of Political Science degree from the University of Central Florida.

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Lieutenant (Ret.)
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