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In this topic, we explore the features and limitations of different leadership styles. We also look at the importance of collective and transformative leadership for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, community and nations.
While reading this topic, think about the following questions and how they relate to your organisation, community or nation:
- Do any of the leadership styles capture your leadership style or that of others you consider a leader?
- What do you think works well about this style of leadership? Is there another style that might be better suited? Are there other approaches that might be better suited to your/their role?
- What do the terms collective and connected-up leadership mean? What are the benefits of these leadership styles?
Common leadership styles
A leader is someone who has the style, personal qualities, values, skills, experience and knowledge to ‘mould consensus’ and mobilise other people to work together.
When a leader uses their authority in a positive way, they can:
- inspire people
- foster commitment
- encourage cooperation.
The qualities and skills of leaders are critical to the effectiveness of governance.
Every organisation, community or nation has its strong, visionary leaders. It’s these dynamic and passionate leaders who pave the way for substantial, long-term change.
A leader’s style – that is, the way they put their values, personal qualities, vision and sense of purpose into action – can make a difference to their own and other people’s performance and accomplishments.
There are many different styles of leadership and many different kinds of leaders.
Sometimes, different situations need different styles of leadership. Leadership is most effective when leaders consider a situation and work out which leadership style is best.
Some styles are generally regarded as more effective than others. Factors that may help when thinking about the best approach include:
- the end goal
- the leader’s formal role within the group
- the size of your group
- the skills and experience of group members
- motivating those involved.
Below, we go through some commonly recognised leadership styles.
It’s important to remember that in real life, people don’t simply behave as one single type of leader. Most people combine different styles in the way they lead. Gender and age can also play a role.
The below list will help you think about the advantages and disadvantages of different styles. You can use it to reflect on your own style of leading, and to check out the styles of other leaders you know. It will give you a more informed idea of your own and other people’s leadership strengths and limitations. That is an important step in deciding if you want to make any changes to the way you lead.
The controlling leader
These leaders make decisions without consulting their members, even when input would be useful.
This approach may be appropriate when a leader needs to make decisions quickly – such as in a time of crisis or disaster – or if they hold legitimate authority and are well-informed to make decisions on behalf of others about agreed matters.
This style of leadership can be dictatorial, bullying and dismissive of other people’s ideas and needs. It can quickly become discouraging and lead to resistance or resentment from those being led. In an organisation, this may mean high levels of team turnover. In nation/community settings, it may lead to conflict and division.
The fair leader
The fair leader involves those they’re leading in the decision-making process.
As a result, in an organisational setting, team members tend to have high job satisfaction and high productivity. In a nation/community setting, members have a sense of ownership, and fairness in decision making.
This style of leadership can take more time and effort. It may not work if decisions need to be made at short notice.
The relaxed leader
The relaxed leader gives those they’re leading a lot of freedom in how they go about their roles. They provide support with resources and advice, if needed, but otherwise they don’t get involved.
When combined with good judgement of knowing when they may need to become more involved, this leadership style can lead to a positive and less stressful environment, and higher morale.
This style of leadership can be damaging if those being led need more guidance and assistance than they’re given. For example, there may be a lack of agreed direction with clear goals or a plan of how to get there. Resources might not be used as well as they could be with more hands-on leadership.
The stickler leader
The stickler leader follows rules diligently and makes sure those they’re leading follow procedures precisely. They are more hands-on, getting involved in the minute details of initiatives and implementation processes.
This style is appropriate for governing projects involving serious safety risks or large sums of money. It can also help ensure resources are managed, deadlines met, and protocols followed.
This style of leadership doesn’t inspire investment in processes from those they’re leading, nor a sense of ownership of outcomes. It may also mean a leader is so involved in the small details, that they don’t see the bigger picture or set strategic directions.
The charismatic leader
The charismatic leader uses their personality to inspire and motivate staff or community toward a set of goals.
This style enables leaders to convincingly advocate publicly for the rights and interests of their members, to create wider partnerships and secure resources. Charismatic leaders may also build better relationships with their staff and wider community.
Leaders who rely on charisma often focus on themselves and their own ambitions. This may not always be in the best interest of the organisation, community or nation. It may be helpful to check in from time to time by asking: do their words match their actions? Are their actions in the interest of the wider group?
The understated leader
The understated leader is someone – regardless of their role – who leads simply by meeting the needs of their group. The term sometimes describes a person without formal recognition as a leader. Such leaders often lead by example – they lead with generosity and humility.
This approach can create a positive and inclusive governance culture, and it can lead to high morale among those people working with them.
Understated leaders may not be recognised for their efforts. They may fail to step up at the right time or may sometimes be seen as a threat by those who don’t want their own leadership or authority to be weakened.
The servant leader
The servant leader puts the needs of others before their own. A servant leader leads ‘on the ground’. Their primary objective is to serve and meet the needs of those around them.
People sometimes see this type of leader as positively working ‘for’ and ‘looking after’ them. This approach to leadership can help build trust, support and a strong sense of unity within an organisation, community or nation.
Because servant-style leadership is built on trust and team building, it can take time to put in place. The focus given to serving others can also mean the goals and purpose of the organisation, community or nation become secondary. This style of leadership may not be suitable for organisations that need a more structured approach.
The transactional leader
The transactional leader rests on the idea that those they lead agree to obey leadership once having accepted a role. The ‘transaction’ usually involves agreed terms from the outset. You do ‘this’ for me and you get ‘that’ in return.
There is strong clarity of roles and responsibilities for everyone in this style of leadership. It is very clear to the members of a nation/community or staff of an organisation exactly what they can expect from the leader, and exactly what work they have to do.
In this style of leadership, there’s a lack of focus on building relationships, sharing knowledge or negotiating outcomes. It can discourage creativity. It may also be difficult to find rewards that motivate those engaged by such leaders.1Karen McCandless, “Pros and Cons of Transactional Leadership,” The Ascent, updated August 5, 2022, [link]
The transformative/transformational leader
This leader is grounded in the values of equity, inclusion and social justice. The basic idea of this approach is that everyone can and should have a part in leading. It’s a participatory process about creating change for mutual benefit.2Carolyn M. Shields, “Transformative Leadership,” Oxford Research Encyclopedias, published May 29, 2020, [link]; Alfonso Montuori and Gabrielle Donnelly, “Transformative Leadership,” in Handbook of Personal and Organizational Transformation, ed. Judi Neal (Springer International Publishing, 2017), [link]
These leaders inspire their community members because they expect participation and the best from everyone, and they hold themselves accountable for their actions. They set clear goals and they have good conflict-resolution skills. This leads to high productivity and engagement.
Open lines of communication, including channels of continuous feedback, are important for this leadership style. If your group struggles with this, this leadership style may not be as effective. It is also important that those being led and those being impacted are committed to the leadership vision.3Brandon Gaille, “Advantages and Disadvantages of Transformational Leadership,” Brandon Gaille Small Business & Marketing Advice, published May 22, 2018, [link] When there are conflicting opinions about what the leader is trying to achieve, it is harder to get thing done.
Elders play an important leadership role in First Nations communities. While Eldership and leadership may be different, depending on the circumstances, Eldership can be seen as a distinct leadership ‘style’.
Eldership is steeped in tradition and cultural protocols. Importance is placed on spiritual, familial and cultural connections for decision-making authority.4Tess Ryan, “Deadly Women: An Analysis of Indigenous Women’s Leadership in Australia,” (PhD, University of Canberra, 2018), 335-336.
This style of leading provides a strong sense of collective identity and purpose to an organisation, community or nation. It can result in strong commitment and unity among members towards achieving a common goal. Actions are also more likely to be seen as legitimate.
Who’s considered an Elder can sometimes be contentious. What kinds of decisions fall into the realm of Elders can be a matter of debate. Sometimes, younger people may feel they are held back from taking on leadership roles or being given more governing experience.
“KJ was established first and foremost as a Martu cultural organisation. Martu cultural values are critical to how programs are run and how the organisation operates. This is nowhere more apparent [than] by the involvement of Martu Elders as cultural advisors to the board as well as to individual ranger teams working in communities… The Elders see their role as providing cultural authority and guidance, ensuring that people are safe and do not visit closed sites, and passing on knowledge and teaching the younger generations… Their position and status has been reinforced by the Martu Leadership Program [that] involves Elders wherever possible as mentors to the group activities… KJ’s objectives are achieved by working in a manner that is Martu-focused and recognises and reinforces Martu values.”
– Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa (KJ), Indigenous Governance Awards, 2016.6Australian Indigenous Governance Institute and Reconciliation Australia, Strong Governance Supporting Success: Stories and Analysis from the 2016 Indigenous Governance Awards, (Canberra: Australian Indigenous Governance Institute, 2018, Prepared by A. Wighton), 26.
Connected-up and collective leadership
Connected-up leadership is an important value in Aboriginal and Tores Strait Islander groups. It is usually associated with different people and groups who have clearly agreed roles and responsibilities that complement each other.
In other words, leadership is not just for people at the top. Everyone can be a leader by using their talents to make a difference each day. This is sometimes known as collective leadership.
Collective leadership is about people coming together to pursue change.7“Collective Leadership,” NYU Wagner, accessed 2022, [link] Instead of one individual being the ‘leader’, it’s about many individuals collaborating to lead and achieve a shared goal. This means a collective leadership effort can be used to get things done. For example, to protect important places on Country, perform regional ceremony, or make major decisions about future development.
Many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations, communities and nations are calling on this style of leadership in order to renew or rebuild their leadership.
Indigenous leadership needs
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples ways of governing have been altered by non-Indigenous values and standards of leadership and governance. At the same time, groups have won many valuable rights and interests in lands, waters, heritage and so on. As a result, there’s an increased focus on leadership that transforms or delivers practical outcomes that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups desire for their families and children.
People are also looking for leadership that happens in a culturally meaningful way, inspires their trust, and helps rebuild unity and solidarity within groups. Among other things, this kind of leadership is about:
- recognising the role of women and youth as leaders
- focusing on collective services and benefits, rather than what is best for an individual
- mutual accountability and transparency
- transforming communities through healing
- drawing on new forms of connectivity, such as social media and information technology
- delivering on the promise of rights and recognition to govern in self-determined ways.
Thinking about leadership as an enabling, connected style of working suggests there are many opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to see how they could make a personal contribution as leaders within their organisation, community or nation.
“Leaders are essentially creatures of habit. They don’t really do extraordinary things that often. They do ordinary things often and consistently and persistently… Good leaders keep turning up, they’re there… at the coalface, they want to take on the challenges, they want to fight the fight, regardless of how overwhelming the opposition seems, from both in and outside.”
– Mick Dodson, Yawuru man and Chair of the Indigenous Governance Awards, 2007.8Mick Dodson (presentation, Mt Isa Sharing Success Workshop, Mt Isa, September, 2007).
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