• Charles Edge

The Seven Leadership Styles

Leadership is about motivating people towards a common goal. Many think of leadership as motivation. Many confuse management and leadership - but they're different.



Why Television?

Much of the conversation around leadership can be a bit meta. But it’s important to observe great leadership out in the real world. We’re gonna’ look at the 7 most common leadership styles here: authoritarian, democratic, laissez-faire, inspirational, narcissistic, paternalistic/maternalistic, and servant.


These words might not mean much when we’re first getting started. Maybe we’ve been motivating people our whole lives and just not sure what words to put on how we do it. But when we see the words paired with those we’ve seen in the real world, they can become powerful examples that make it easier to understand and places where we can find authentic examples that help us improve our own leadership capabilities.


Leadership Styles Through Television

Many won’t think of, say, Walter White of “Breaking Bad” as a great leader - but understanding the various styles of leadership great characters like him represent are valuable lessons for many an entrepreneur. Let’s look at the seven most common leadership styles, along with some great television personalities that we can learn from:


  • A servant leader puts the needs of team members ahead of their own. They typically develop teams to perform at their maximum potential and sharing power throughout their organizations. Mandy Patinkin’s characters in Homeland, Criminal Minds and Chicago Hope are great examples of servant leaders. They’re always looking out for the best interest of the team, even if it means Patinkin ends up somewhere getting tortured. And, Omar Little of The Wire is a Robin Hood stereotype (which is usually a servant leader - if not a tad bit narcissistic for depth). Little serves the community and himself concurrently because let’s face it most leaders are doing that at least a little. Also look for the Rock in every movie he’s ever been in as another great example that personifies servant leadership.

  • Democratic leaders foster collaboration through getting buy-in from teams. This is a common leadership style for start-ups and many a technology company. Here, we develop mutual respect (not that there isn’t any with other styles of leadership) and work together to develop the best outcomes. Some examples of democratic leaders from television include Peggy Olson from Mad Men, Selina Meyer from Veep and Richard Hendrix from Silicon Valley. And of course, most politicians we see on television from democratic countries have democratic leadership styles as well (by virtue)!

  • Inspirational leaders often take on some characteristics from other styles of leadership, but rely on motivation for results. Inspirational leaders thrive in startups, on new teams, and in environments where charisma increases results and gets products to market faster. Joe MacMillan from Halt and Catch Fire pushes teams to produce more, faster. Khaleesi Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones builds armies out of inspiration (and the fear of dragon breath). Or Ted Lasso from, er, Apple’s Ted Lasso. Or the paladin in any game of Dungeons and Dragons! Just remember that many who think they’re being inspirational forget the inspiration part and just end up being laissez-faire.

  • Laissez-faire leaders are one of the most common in early stage technology startups. Often just because we don’t have time to dedicate to leadership as a discipline - or don’t think we need to focus on it. Here, we trade autonomy and the latitude to do what needs to get done for trust. It’s all about building a great team, capable of focus and self-direction. We say we’re “staying out of the way” but in all likelihood, we’re too busy. Over time, this is not scalable, no matter how good the people we hire. John Snow in HBO’s Game of Thrones is this kind of manager, as is Captain Kirk of the original Star Trek.

  • Paternalistic and maternalistic leaders often act more as a parental figure than a boss. This often manifests itself in showing concern team members in exchange for loyalty. Or leaning on mentoring as a means to inspire. These leaders are excellent direct supervisors on production lines and sales teams - anywhere that efficiency is more important than creativity -- like the field hospital from the old TV show M*A*S*H, led by the great Col. Sherman T. Potter. Other examples are actual parents and grandparents, such as Phil Dunphy from Modern Family, Violet Crawley from Downton Abbey, and Diane Lockhart from The Good Wife.

  • Authoritarian leaders are the opposite of laissez-faire, communicating tasks in a downward fashion through clear and direct lines of reporting. This isn’t always the best in a startup. It tends to work well as we grow into an environment where tasks need to be managed more closely. If the word compliance enters into our needs then it’s likely a better match or when people can get hurt by falling out of the lanes of their jobs. We see this in the military or with police. But not as much in creative and knowledge work environments, and we don’t see much innovation come out of the teams run by authoritarian leaders. Yet they are everywhere on television. Red, the head prison chef in Orange is the New Black, rules her kitchen with an iron fist. Commander Adama from Battlestar Galactica is another great example. The most recent example might be Wanda (The Scarlet Witch) from WandaVision - or Bishop from Mayans.

  • Most of the bad guys on television are narcissistic leaders. These leaders attempt to squeeze every last ounce of utilization from their teams, and do so to benefit themselves rather than the organization (often taking personal credit for everything as well). Ramsey Bolton from Game of Thrones became the the most hated character for his narcissistic (and usually sadistic) ways. Gavin Belson, the billionaire CEO from Silicon Valley, is also very unpopular on the show -- and, as with most narcissistic leaders on comedy shows, is the butt of many a joke. Other examples: Negan from The Walking Dead, Claire and Frank Underwood in House of Cards, Wednesday from American Gods, Harvey Specter from Suits and Fiona Goode from American Horror Story, and the list goes on. Not exactly uncommon in real life as well.


There are other types of leadership as well: Olivia Pope from “Scandal” is a great example of a Super-team leader, building teams with exceptional and complimentary skills. Of course every super hero team could fit into this one. And then Captain Picard from “Star Trek: The Next Generation” is one of the best transactional leaders I’ve ever seen, strictly enforcing rules and punishing offenders when need be.


Who knew that by watching TV, you can hone your ability to adapt to meet the needs of your teams in order to achieve your goals as a leader? Now excuse me, I have a show to watch.



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