Leadership Styles: Then and Now


Leadership styles lie at the bedrock of any functional administrative unit. Over the years, different issues have informed the leadership styles adopted by multiple leaders around the world. Most of them revolve around the changing nature of security threats, the realignment of political alliances, and the growing importance of economic interests in global politics (Foley, 2013; DuBrin, 2015). These issues have radically changed how different leaders approach diplomatic matters and address their country’s national interests. However, few people understand how these issues have influenced how different leaders view their roles as influencers. This is why few studies have explored the extent of changes in leadership styles from the past to the present.

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This paper puts this issue in context by comparing the leadership styles adopted in the 1990s, early 2000s, and today. To do so, an analogy is undertaken to compare and contrast the leadership styles of three American presidents – George W. Bush, Barrack Obama, and Donald Trump. The analogy also includes a review of the leadership styles of Colin Powell and Micheal Boorda, as other former high-ranking executives in the American government. The leadership styles of Colin Powell and Michael Boorda will represent those of the 1990s, while those of George W Bush and Barrack Obama will symbolize those of the early 2000s. Lastly, Donald Trump’s leadership style will be used to symbolize today’s methods of governance. Nonetheless, the first step of this analysis is understanding the individual leadership styles of these personalities.

Individual Leadership Styles

George W. Bush

Bush’s leadership style was largely autocratic because his views often dominated national policy agendas. He did not hesitate to assume the position of a “boss” in American politics and almost “bulldozed” his agenda through different cadres of the country’s leadership, including Congress (when he was about to declare war on Iraq after the 9/11 attacks) (Renshon & Suedfeld, 2013). Like other autocratic rulers, Bush often made unilateral decisions and wanted them implemented in an autocratic manner. To further cement this point of view, few instances exist where he was seen to be compromising either with some of his internal political critics or with other presidents and rulers from other countries (Renshon & Suedfeld, 2013).

Barrack Obama

Obama’s leadership style was largely democratic in the sense that he made many compromises with other stakeholders in his decision-making process (Kane & Patapan, 2014). A classic example of his democratic leadership style was the formulation of the 2016 Iranian nuclear deal, where there was a “win-win” situation for all parties concerned. On the one hand, America “won” by stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and on the other hand, Iran also “won” by having the US lift some sanctions imposed on it. In both cases, the parties were satisfied with the agreement and agreed to work together. Of significant importance to this analysis is the fact that Obama’s leadership style allowed for a lot of compromises and negotiations. This is a key hallmark of his democratic leadership style (Rhodes & Hart, 2014).

Donald Trump

Trump’s leadership style is mostly transactional. It is largely associated with exchanges of favors or rewards, mostly to those who wish to follow the instructions of the “boss” (Rhodes & Hart, 2014). Donald Trump’s leadership exudes these traits, as has been seen in his recent appointments to the Whitehouse, wherein his first 100 days, he appointed people who supported him in his campaign. This is partly the reason why his administration has been characterized as having one of the highest turnovers of the Whitehouse staff in recent memory. This leadership style is different from that adopted by the former president Obama because his appointments were not necessarily skewed towards benefitting those who supported him.

For example, he appointed his rival, Hillary Clinton, to serve as the Secretary of State. Later, he campaigned for her in the 2016 presidential elections before she lost the race to Donald Trump. Trump’s transactional leadership style does not manifest such characteristics. Instead, the leader is mostly focused on rewarding loyalists and securing his leadership (Foley, 2013). This is partly the reason why Trump’s campaign was characterized by calls to renegotiate the most free trade agreements that the US was engaged in. NAFTA is one such agreement. The Iran nuclear deal, negotiated by the Obama administration, is another and so is Obamacare. His leadership style is mostly transactional because there is a constant push to get more value from preexisting and new deals, both locally and internationally.

Colin Powell

Powell’s leadership style was situational. Evidence of this fact stems from four main pillars, which defined the general’s tenure – directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating (Preston, 2012). As its name suggests, the situational leadership style means that those who subscribe to it often act according to the “situation,” as it is (Preston, 2012). Therefore, it is not surprising that different metrics characterized his leadership style. For example, he supported his subjects in a low task-high relationship way, while at the same time directing them in a high task-high relationship manner (Renshon & Suedfeld, 2013). In other words, there was no common thread of decision-making that Powell used; instead, each decision was based on the kind of situation that prevailed. Therefore, there was a lot of flexibility involved in his leadership style. The autocratic leadership style of George Bush differed from this philosophy because there was little flexibility involved in how he managed his affairs (Renshon & Suedfeld, 2013). However, at the same time, it matched with Powell’s leadership style in the sense that, although the latter was delegating some of his work, he was always in charge. Therefore, both Powell and Bush were “bosses” in their leadership philosophies.

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Micheal Boorda

Micheal Boorda’s leadership style compares with that of Bush’s because he also had autocratic leadership traits. This type of leadership style is mostly associated with people who come from a military background (Renshon & Suedfeld, 2013). Therefore, it explains why there is some semblance in how they view leadership because Boorda was a military officer, and Bush’s family had military training. Furthermore, all of them came from an environment where directives were often given and followed (Renshon & Suedfeld, 2013). Boorda’s autocratic leadership style was further proven in the fact that he was willing to die for what he believed in. This means that he was largely a “straightforward man” with little flexibility in what he perceived was right. Having his choices questioned was also unacceptable, and that is why he was uncompromising. Such traits are often associated with autocratic leaders because their views of life and leadership are rarely questioned (DuBrin, 2015). Furthermore, if this happens, they are willing to stick to their version of the truth, regardless of the consequence (Preston, 2012).

Analysis (Comparing and Contrasting)

Based on the leadership styles of the aforementioned prominent personalities in American history, a comparative difference in what leadership entails emerges. The leadership styles of Colin Powell and Boorda largely represent those of the 1990s and entail an “I am the boss” attitude where autocratic traits reign supreme. Here, a leader’s decision is rarely questioned, and if that happens, the leaders are often willing to stick to what they believe, regardless of the consequence. Going into the early 2000s, this leadership style remained dominant throughout the Bush administration. The authoritarian leadership was evident in how he managed different public policy issues and was more vivid through his implementation of foreign policy matters. The push for his agenda to wage a war in the Middle East, through Congress, was one such example (Renshon & Suedfeld, 2013). From this analysis, we find that the autocratic leadership style reigned supreme in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The democratic leadership style was more pervasive during the Obama regime and although some analysts could attribute George Bush’s leadership style with the same (Renshon & Suedfeld, 2013), the evidence gathered in this study does not wholly support such an assertion. Instead, Obama appears to be more compromising than his predecessors were. He did not adopt a “winner-take-all” approach, as was evident in the Bush administration. Instead, he embraced a “win-win” approach where everybody had something to gain from his leadership. Based on this approach, it is not surprising that many people considered his leadership style to be diplomatic and charismatic (Kane & Patapan, 2014; DuBrin, 2015).

Lastly, the evidence gathered in this paper through the leadership style of Donald Trump is seen to be transactional where the common theme is embodied in the question – “what do I have to gain?” Already, in this paper, evidence has been provided showing how Trump applies this leadership style on his staff and on existing economic agreements between the United States and other nations. More evidence of this leadership style has emerged in several instances where Trump has been quoted saying that Mexico will pay for a wall, which is yet to be built by the United States on the border separating the two nations. Severally, he has also said he would renegotiate previous agreements and laws that the Obama administration made in health care and foreign policy agreements. Generally, his leadership style appears to reward those who help him and punish those who do not. His refusal to confront Russia about the allegations that it meddled in the 2016 presidential election is a sign of his transactional leadership style because such an action would have helped him to ascend to power. In other words, a subtle message he puts across here is that there is no point of punishing those who are on his side. Overall, this type of transactional leadership style appears to be gaining traction in today’s political landscape and it differs fundamentally from the autocratic and democratic leadership style witnessed in the 1990s and early 2000s.


This paper sought to compare and contrast the leadership styles of the 1990s, early 2000s and today. Evidence gathered from the leadership styles of three American presidents and two members of past administrations showed that autocratic, democratic and transactional leadership styles distinctively characterized the three periods. The leadership styles of Colin Powell, Michael Boorda, and George Bush were mostly autocratic, while that of Barack Obama was democratic. The present-day leadership style is represented by Donald Trump and is mostly transactional. Changing interests, values and attitudes about governance in the US and the global political space influence the changes in the leadership styles.


DuBrin, A. (2015). Leadership: Research findings, practice, and skills (8th ed.). New York, NY: Cengage Learning.

Foley, M. (2013). Political leadership: Themes, contexts, and critiques. Oxford, UK: OUP Oxford.

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Kane, J., & Patapan, H. (2014). Good democratic leadership: On prudence and judgment in modern democracies. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Preston, T. (2012). The president and his inner circle: Leadership style and the advisory process in foreign policy making. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Renshon, S., & Suedfeld, P. (2013). Understanding the Bush doctrine: Psychology and strategy in an age of terrorism. London, UK: Routledge.

Rhodes, R., & Hart, P. (2014). The Oxford handbook of political leadership. Oxford, UK: OUP Oxford.

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