The Basic Idea
What makes a good leader?
This question isn’t easy. Is it personal characteristics, like being confident, or does it have to do with behaviour, like your interpersonal skills? Do soft skills contribute to effective leadership, or are hard, measurable skills the greatest indicator of success?
There are hundreds of factors that influence the effectiveness of a leader. Despite the sheer quantity, it might be possible to group these factors into different leadership styles. The Leadership Grid is a model of behavioral leadership which focuses on what leaders do rather than who leaders are.1 By reading the descriptions of five different kinds of leaders plotted on the grid, you can identify what kind of leadership style you embody, better understand its effectiveness, and adjust your priorities accordingly.
Theory, meet practice
TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.
Prior to modern society, leaders were born, not made. Leaders often only existed in the form of royalty. Since the path to leadership was narrow and strict, there was little interest in discovering what made strong leaders. However, in 1840, thanks to a Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle, who wrote “the history of the world is but the biography of great men,” 4 a new idea of leadership was born. Carlyle introduced the idea that progress occurs due to the efforts of great leaders. Suddenly, people were interested in the characteristics of ‘great men’ and wrote biographies of heroes.4 Yet still, the Great Man theory prevailed: people assumed there were innate characteristics that leaders were born with.
Then came along the American industrial revolution, demonstrating that leaders were not just ‘great men’, rulers, or heroes; an average-joe manager could make the difference between a good company and a great company. From the late 19th century into the early 20th century, leadership studies emerged, examining which traits made a leader rather than a follower. 4
The study of leadership from a behavioral approach hypothesized that it was less about who a leader was and more about what they did. The realization that personal characteristics are minimally important to leadership came from psychologist Ralph Stogdill and the Ohio State University Studies.4 In the late 1940’s, Stogdill analyzed data from over a hundred leadership studies and identified over a thousand different characteristics linked to leader behavior.5 There were too many characteristics for leadership to be linked to personal traits. With his team, Stogdill instead narrowed the list into two specific leadership behaviors: task-focused and people-focused.4 This was further built on by Blake and Mouton.
In the 1950’s, psychologist Robert R. Blake and mathematician Jane S. Mouton began developing their own theory on leadership using a behavioral approach.6 The two were humanists and emphasized that leaders needed to balance their concern for people with their concern for productivity, the two factors Stogdill had identified. With Blake’s insight into behavioral science and Mouton’s mathematical prowess, the two developed a grid that identified five different kinds of leaders varied along two axes: concern for production and concern for people.1 The five kinds of leaders that Blake and Mouton identified were: impoverished, produce or perish, middle of the road, country club, and team.1 Each leadership style was plotted on a grid to show whether the leader was most concerned for the task, the people, or had a healthy balance of both, as shown below: 7
An impoverished leader lacks concern for people or productivity. These leaders show little regard for their team and focus on self-preservation. They want to make sure their hands are clean of wrongdoing and they appear successful, but don’t care about the overall success of the team. On the grid, they are plotted at 1,1.1
A produce or perish leader ranks high on their concern for productivity but low on their concern for people. They are excessively harsh towards their employees and care only about the numbers they are producing. On the grid, they are plotted at 9,1.1
A middle of the road leader tries their best to balance out the needs of the team with the production needs of the company. However, in their effort to make sure both aspects are fulfilled, neither is adequately cared for. They are likely to have average employee satisfaction and production levels. On the grid, they are plotted at 5,5. 1
A country club leader is gung-ho about the people. Their actions are all directed towards ensuring their employees are happy and prioritize this over all else. They show little concern for productivity rates. On the grid, they are plotted at 1, 9.1
A team leader shows concern for productivity and people. They emphasize the importance of teamwork, which increases happiness levels and productivity. On the grid, they are plotted at 9,9.1
Blake and Mouton claimed that team leaders were the most effective kind of leader. Being a team leader makes subordinates feel like they are constructive, respected parts of an organization. As a result, employees feel like they have more stake in the game, develop greater trust with their supervisors, and become intrinsically motivated.7 Several leadership studies have shown that these effects lead to greater productivity. As the overjustification effect reveals, people are more productive when they are intrinsically motivated, opposed to being motivated by external rewards like salaries. Team leaders engage intrinsic motivation by instilling pride or purpose in their employees. This strategy is further supported by the Leadership-Member Exchange Model, which shows cultivating strong relationships between superiors and subordinates increases employee motivation, and the Pygmalion effect, which describes the tendency to try and live up to positive expectations.
The grid was originally named the Blake-Mouton Managerial Grid Model, but after the term ‘leader’ was popularized in the 19th century, the model became known as the Leadership Grid. Mouton passed away in 1987, but Blake continued to refine the model and added two managerial styles – paternalistic and opportunistic – that he believed were a combination of the previous five.8
A leader with a paternalistic style usually switches between country club or produce or perish styles. While they support and encourage their employees, they don’t usually delegate any real responsibility, nor ask their employees for input when making decisions. They believe they know best and act accordingly.8
A leader with an opportunistic style can switch between any of the five initially identified leadership styles depending on the situation. They put their individual needs first, which causes them to prioritize different things based on what they want out of the situation. If they need to impress headquarters with high productivity levels, they will focus on that, but if they are looking for a fun work environment, they will prioritize concern for people.8
A leadership grid can reveal why particular companies are more successful than others. By identifying their dominant leadership style, leaders can gain greater insight into which areas they prioritize and whether their style is suitable for their current situation. Through the Leadership Grid, individuals can create personal development plans to help them adjust their behavior to reflect the team leadership style.9
Many believe leaders are not usually fixed in one style but switch between the five managerial styles periodically to fit the needs of the company.10 Leaders can use the leadership grid to help them achieve their short-term goals. For example, during times of crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders might want to shift to a country club style due to low team morale. Alternatively, if it’s the end of the fiscal year and companies want to boost their productivity levels, it might be time for leaders to adopt the produce or perish style to meet their annual goals.
While it makes sense to value both the people and productivity, it is easier said than done. In an ideal world, leaders would be able to put 110% effort into both categories, but in reality, they must balance priorities in individual situations and varied contexts.
Moreover, while the grid identifies different kinds of leadership style, it does little to help guide people to improve their leadership style. Blake and Mouton did not reveal what kind of personal characteristics or behaviors accompany each style. It can therefore be difficult to correctly identify your style or change your style.
The grid is also criticized for being overly simplistic due to the uncountable number of factors that contribute to effective leadership. This limitation was pointed out in the 1990’s by two Scandinavian researchers, Dr. G Ekvall and J. Arvonen, who suggested that two dimensions did not adequately capture the essence of leadership behavior. They suggested that in a changing world, leaders would exhibit development-oriented behavior, a dimension not included in Blake and Mouton’s Leadership Grid. Their findings suggest that while the humble Leadership Grid might have been a good tool in the 20th century, it is outdated for the needs of the 21st century.10
Psychological Impact of Leadership Style
In 2002, researchers at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, wanted to see how managerial style impacted the corporate climate of the Durban Mill and its psychological influence on employees.11
- Rajcoomar, the principal investigator, identified that the Durban Mill had been very profitable five years prior to his research and was competitive in the Milling and Baking industry in South Africa. However, after government deregulation allowed smaller competitors to make a name for themselves in the industry, the company became less profitable. Rajcoomar hypothesized that the fall from success might also represent the fact that managers were not supporting the creative potential of employees; they were too focused on productivity to respond to the changing needs of the industry. Rajcoomar identified employees at Durban Mill were not interested in the business and therefore showed little initiative.11
The weaknesses that Rajcoomar thought contributed to Durban Mill’s loss reflected the disadvantages of particular leadership styles identified by Blake and Mouton. Rajcoomar thus decided to use the Leadership Grid to confirm whether leadership style was in fact the problem. He also wanted to assess how leadership style influenced leadership facilitation and support, professional organizational spirit, conflict and ambiguity, regulations and organization pressure, job challenge, importance and variety, workgroup co-operation, and friendliness and warmth.11
Self-administered surveys, in the form of questionnaires, were distributed to Durban Mill employees. The questionnaires revealed employees felt as though managers seldom focused on ‘people’ dimensions. Managers did not offer counsel or support to their employees, nor implement their opinions when making decisions. From the questionnaires, Rajcoomar concluded that the prominent leadership style for managers at Durban Mill was impoverished. The impoverished leadership style led to employees not feeling like their managers offered solutions to potential problems, as if their company was not well perceived in the eyes of the public, and blind-sided by changes in the company that affected them. The psychological and cultural climate of the mill was unfavorable, which Rajcoomar believed was a factor behind why the company was no longer successful.11
Related TDL Content
The American workforce is facing a low productivity level crisis and high burn-out rates, which are estimated to cost companies between 480-600 billion dollars every year. In this article, our writer Stacy Post, outlines why transformational leadership – which focuses on the people – can help get employees engaged in their work which directly improves their health and wellbeing.
What makes an effective managerial leader can be very different from what makes a successful political leader. Confidence, aggressive and assertive politicians are often favored over docile ones who focus on human rights, which is contradictory to the qualities the Leadership Grid suggests are favorable. In this article, our writer Kaylee Somerville examines why political ‘hawks’ tend to be more successful in foreign policy, international relations, and elections.
- Kenton, W. (2020, July 20). Leadership Grid. Investopedia. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/l/leadership-grid.asp
- Chris Hadfield Quotes. (n.d.). BrainyQuote. Retrieved June 21, 2021, from https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/chris_hadfield_637159?src=t_leadership
- Howell, E. (2016, June 15). Chris Hadfield: Canadian Astronaut-Guitarist. Space.com. https://www.space.com/33174-chris-hadfield-astronaut-biography.html
- The History of Leadership Theories. (n.d.). Lumen Learning. Retrieved June 21, 2021, from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/wmopen-organizationalbehavior/chapter/the-history-of-leadership-theories/
- Scouller, J., & Chapman, A. (2018, January 12). Challenges to Trait Theory – Stogdill. Business Balls. https://www.businessballs.com/leadership-models/trait-theory-ralph-stogdill/
- Clayton, M. (2016, May 16). Robert Blake & Jane Mouton: Managerial Grid. Management Pocketbooks. https://www.pocketbook.co.uk/blog/2017/05/16/robert-blake-jane-mouton-managerial-grid/
- Blake and Mouton Managerial Grid: A Behavioural Approach towards Management and Leadership. (2020, March 22). Business-to-You. https://www.business-to-you.com/blake-mouton-managerial-grid/
- Scouller, J., & Chapman, A. (2018, January 12). Behavioural Leadership: Managerial Grid – Blake and Mouton. Business Balls. https://www.businessballs.com/leadership-models/behavioural-leadership-managerial-grid-blake-and-mouton/
- Denis. (2019, May 10). Blake Mouton Managerial Grid. Expert Program Management. https://expertprogrammanagement.com/2019/05/blake-mouton-grid/
- Leadership Models. (n.d.). Tallinna Ülikool. Retrieved June 21, 2021, from https://www.tlu.ee/~sirvir/Leadership/Leadership%20Models/the_leadership_grid.html
- Rajcoomar, S. (2002). Management Style and its Influence on Organisational Climate: An exploratory study [Master’s thesis].