“Rarely does a leader fall completely into either Theory X or Theory Y approaches to leadership. Most people’s leadership is somewhere on a continuum between these two extremes.”

[These reflections are intended more for typical CEO-led, employer/employee sorts of organizations rather than for churches.]

The faculty in the department of Leadership, Policy, and Organizations at Vanderbilt University, where I received my doctorate, talked a great deal about leadership style. I’ll never forget the lecture on Theory X and Theory Y Leadership given by Dr. Kenneth Wong, now Annenberg Professor at Brown University, detailing the framework for leadership style first introduced by Douglas McGregor [1].

In shorthand, Theory X leaders are more about command and control and hierarchy. They make a decision, then inform their employees, expect them to carry it out, tell them what the consequences will be if they don’t carry it out properly (basically a threatening of punishment), and keep close tabs on them in the process of their carrying it out.

Theory Y leaders are about empowerment and listening and creating an atmosphere of trust, flattening the leadership structure of an organization in more democratic ways that give employees decision-making authority.

Rarely, as McGregor acknowledged, does a leader fall completely into one or the other of these two approaches to leadership. Most people’s leadership is somewhere on a continuum between these two extremes.

Recently I re-read the classic Harvard Business Review article “How to Choose a Leadership Pattern” by Robert Tannenbaum and Warren H. Schmidt. They outline a continuum of seven different patterns of leadership (let’s leave aside the distinction between “leadership” and “management,” a distinction I espouse, even though they seem to conflate the two). On one end of the continuum are what McGregor would have called Theory X styles, and on the other are Theory Y styles.

Here are the leadership styles, with Theory X styles toward the top end and Theory Y styles toward the bottom:

1.     The manager makes the decision and announces it to employees.

2.     The manager makes the decision and “sells” it to employees.

3.     The manager makes the decision and invites questions from employees.

4.     The manager presents a tentative decision subject to change after input from employees.

5.     The manager presents the problem, gets suggestions from employees, and then makes the decision.

6.     The manager defines the limits and requests employees to make the decision.

7.     The manager permits employees to make decisions within prescribed limits.

It can be helpful to think about leadership styles in terms of a continuum like the one above. Or, as Ken Blanchard reminds us with his Situational Leadership model, depending on different situations, employees, or junctures in the organization’s life, leaders may find it useful to be in different leadership modes. Blanchard’s continuum is (from Theory X to Theory Y): Directing, Coaching, Supporting, Delegating. (See Leadership and the One Minute Manager: Increasing Effectiveness Through Situational Leadership).

A helpful tool for analyzing your own leadership style can be found here. This tool greatly simplifies Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s continuum into four basic categories (again, starting at Theory X and ending at Theory Y): Tell, Sell, Consult, and Empower. If you are interested in “diagnosing” yourself to see where you fall on the leadership style continuum, I would encourage you to go online and take this test.

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