Although the founder of Scouting Baden-Powell and the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu lived centuries apart on opposite sides of the world, each describe the same three distinct leadership styles.
More often than not we’ll find some aspects all three styles in the same person. I know I have used all three styles at one time or another myself.
Leadership is the keynote to success– but leadership is difficult to define, and leaders are difficult to find. I have frequently stated that “any ass can be a commander, and a trained man may often make an instructor; but a leader is more like the poet– born, not manufactured.”
— Baden-Powell, B.P.’s Outlook
The best leader is one that the people are barely aware of
The next best is one who is loved and praised by the people.
Next comes one who is feared.
Worst is one who is despised.
If the leader does not have enough faith in his people,
They will not have faith in him.
The best leader puts great value in words and says little
So that when his work is finished
The people all say, “We did it ourselves!”
— Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
These are Lao Tzu’s feared leader and Baden-Powell’s commander. As a young, newly minted director of a program department at our camp, I was an insufferable authoritarian leader (I see myself at that time when I read Baden-Powell’s “any ass can make a commander”).
I was certainly demanding, not particularly friendly, and mistook my abrasiveness for clarity of mission. In fact, I was so brash, loud, and dictatorial I wonder any of my counselors lasted through the summer. I got my comeuppance at the end of the season when one of them had the sand to write exactly what he thought in his evaluation of my job. I owe him a great debt of gratitude; it changed me for the better.
Authoritarian leaders do get things done, but a Scouter’s goal is much broader than efficiently completing tasks. Scouting has well-defined expectations, but these are not enforced in an obedience-oriented, authoritarian manner. We want our Scouts to be obedient, but we do not want them to be frightened. We encourage them to ask questions and respond by helping them find answers.
Lao Tzu’s despised leader and Baden-Powell’s “trained man.”
When I was hired to coach a middle school soccer team I was young enough to remember authoritarian coaches and teachers I did not like. I resolved I would be the kind of coach everyone liked, the ”cool coach.” I traded the discipline and authority a coach must have for currying favor with the team. The result was a real mess. What my players needed was a coach who would give them structure and discipline, not another ”friend”; they already had plenty of friends!
Permissive leaders are usually unsure of themselves and look for reassurance in the approval and friendship of their followers. For all their effort, permissive leaders earn neither respect nor friendship. More often than not, they end up with people laughing behind their backs.
Lao Tzu’s “leader the people are barely aware of,” and Baden-Powell’s “poet.”
Responsive leadership is a barely perceptible influence that empowers people to do things for themselves. By listening more than talking, exercising good will, and having an unshakable faith in their people, responsive leaders create an atmosphere of shared accomplishment.
Rather than dictating their own wishes, they inspire others to adopt high expectations. Their example of service is a powerful motivational force. When difficulties arise, they respond with empathy and compassion.
After many fits and starts, and years of trying, I find myself practicing responsive leadership more often than not. No doubt, there’s plenty of room for improvement. If I trade self-aggrandizing authority and my desire to be accepted for an honest aspiration to serve others I find I am happier, and so are my Scouts.
My ideal Scouter practices responsive leadership enabling Scouts to do things for themselves, while offering an appropriate amount of direction to assure they remain safe and get the most from Scouting.
Overview of Three Leadership Styles
|Motivated by making others successful||Motivated by status, respect, and rewards||Looking for approval and friendship|
|High expectations||High demands||Low expectations|
|Assertive, not intrusive or restrictive||Strict rules and punishment||Few demands, rules or guidelines|
|Expects independent, age-appropriate behavior||Expects conformity and compliance||Low expectations of maturity and self-control|
|Encourages independent reason-based decision making||Little opportunity for autonomy or decision making||Sometimes over-indulgent response to wishes or needs|
|Explains motives clearly||Requests for explanation considered disrespectful||Tries to adapt expectations to behavior|
|Discussions encouraged||Orders obeyed without explanation||Allows impulsive misconduct|
|Responses to misbehavior are measured and consistent||Responds to misbehavior with punishment||Demands little accountability|