Cultivating Your Leadership Style

Of all the tasks involved in running or managing a pharmacy, leadership often gets the short stick. You won’t find many pharmacy CE courses on “cultivating an effective leadership style” or “organizing your team around a shared purpose.” But your leadership affects your pharmacy’s success as much as your clinical prowess or retail skills.

What you do at the top flows to the bottom (even the bottom line), says Gary Ohler, MBA, executive program leader at Maxwell Leadership and CEO of APPEX Partners. “Strong leadership is vital to ongoing success,” Ohler said. “The culture of the business reflects the owner’s values, beliefs, and attitudes. It creates the opportunity to retain and attract talent, increase productivity, and enhance job satisfaction.”

Most community pharmacy owners and managers are highly skilled pharmacists who excel at their work behind the counter. But becoming a leader is a different kind of work. “Moving from solopreneur to small business owner requires an evolving skillset, moving from the ‘do-er’ to the ‘leader,’” Ohler said.

The perennial myth is that leaders are born, not made—so there’s nothing you can do to become a better leader, or at least there’s a limit to how great you can become. This misconception often persists in our time even though it was debunked in the 1930s by the pioneering psychologist Kurt Lewin. “Lewin’s research helped to move us from trying to identify leaders by looking at the natural qualities they exhibited to focusing on their behaviors, their leadership style,” Ohler explained. “It was the beginning of the realization that these behaviors can be learned, so anyone has leadership potential. This behavioral approach was a major departure from previously held beliefs that leaders are born with innate gifts.”

Lewin’s research laid the foundation for a new field of study and personal development. Any person, even an introverted pharmacist, can lead. It is less about who you are but how you choose to relate to those in your charge. That means that every leader can work on their leadership as they would any other skill. “People can improve their leadership with practice, instruction, and feedback from others. Leadership can be studied and learned,” Ohler said.

Lewin defined three styles of leadership that are still used today: authoritarian, participative, and delegative. After Lewin came Bernard M. Bass, the most cited leadership scholar in the world, who built on Lewin’s work and discussed two more leadership styles: transformational and transactional. Much of what we know now about the dynamic between the leader, the followers, and the situation comes from Bass’s theory of transformational leadership,” said Ohler.

These five styles have become pillars in the leadership industry, even as more have been developed and discovered. No matter where you sit in our pharmacy’s hierarchy, and no matter your personality, you can find something of value in these styles as you lead your team. Finding a style, or fitting yourself to a style, can help you become the leader your pharmacy needs.

Although these styles each have strengths and weakness, and some are suited to certain personalities more than others, there is one priority for choosing your leadership style, Ohler says. “The real answer lies in what are you trying to accomplish? Leadership is both an art and a science. All leadership styles have a purpose, depending on the situation, the leader, the followers, and the type of organization. The most effective leaders understand how to adapt to these, allowing them to better diagnose needs, communicate effectively, and make decisions.”

1. Authoritarian Leadership (Autocratic)

Authoritarian leaders provide strong, direct leadership. They make the final decisions, typically without feedback from others. They maintain control at all times, often over people and processes all the way to the lowest level of the hierarchy. Decisions start and end at the top, and the rest get aligned through strict rules and processes.

Lewin spoke negatively about this type of leadership, showing that it hindered creativity and cooperation and created dysfunctional environments. But other research has shown this can be effective in some contexts and its best version can improve employee performance through clear goal setting, clear direction, and high standards.

When it’s good

This leadership is best in situations of urgent need, environments with little room for error, or contexts where the leader has exclusive knowledge. Think of ER doctors, military leaders, or warehouse supervisors.


  • Clear direction and vision
  • Quick decisions
  • Clearly defined roles


  • Lowers morale
  • Breeds resentment
  • Hinders creativity

Ohler’s takeaway: “My way or the highway method creates a hostile, dysfunctional work environment if this is the daily norm.”

2. Participative Leadership (Democratic)

Participative leaders interact with their teams, receiving feedback and collaborating on ideas. Though they make the final decisions, those come only after full participation and engagement with others, which includes members lower and higher in the hierarchy. This style gives responsibility to the team members but does not leave them to make decisions alone. The team is heard, empowered, and supported.

Lewin’s seminal study concluded that democratic leadership was the most effective leadership style, resulting in increased creativity, cohesion, and friendliness. Members feel appreciated and more invested in the goal when their input is valued. However, research also shows that this style can result in dissatisfaction when input isn’t used, and it lengthens the decision process.

When it’s good

This leadership is best for most situations that don’t require immediate action, where there is more room for error, and with followers who are intrinsically motivated.


  • Enhanced creativity
  • Strong unity
  • High morale


  • Slower decisions
  • Harder for large groups
  • Less productivity

Ohler’s takeaway: “Everyone has a voice; allowing followers to have input makes them feel engaged and motivated to be most committed to the goals of the group.”

3. Delegative Leadership (Laissez-Faire)

Delegative leaders trust their team to make decisions on their own without intervention. They delegate not just menial but momentous tasks. They hire and train highly skilled and trustworthy teams and rely on them to solve their own problems and choose their own direction. Although the leader trusts the team members to make decisions, they still hold themselves accountable.

In Lewin’s experiment, the laissez-faire leadership style led to low productivity. People blamed others for problems, lacked direction, and avoided responsibility. However, Lewin’s research was done on children, not highly skilled and competent adults. The delegative approach respects team members’ competency and encourages them to make the most of their skills and abilities.

When it’s good

This leadership is best in the early stages of projects, with highly self-motivated teams, or when the members know more than the leader.


  • Empowers employees
  • Allows faster decisions
  • Encourages innovation


  • Relies on highly competent team
  • Lacks clear direction
  • Results in low productivity

Ohler’s takeaway: “The absentee leader results in no direction and low productivity.“

4. Transactional Leadership

Transactional leaders rely on rewards and punishments to motivate their team. The relationship between the leader and the team is based on a transaction rather than a relationship. These leaders are typically task-oriented and focused on outcomes.

The effectiveness of transactional leadership hinges on the strength of the reward or punishment, and on the nature of the person receiving them. Some people are highly motivated by external incentives, while others need relationship, support, and shared goals. Ohler notes that this style may achieve short-term outcomes, but it does not inspire followers to excellence.

When it’s good

This leadership style is best used with followers who need external rewards and punishments for motivation to perform well. It may also benefit situations where a clear, simple objective needs to be completed in a short timeframe.


  • Clear expectations and duties
  • Effective for short-term
  • Motivating for some followers


  • Self-interest over shared interest
  • Lack of innovation
  • Not motivating for some followers

Ohler’s takeaway: “Quid pro quo keeps the status quo; everyone knows their place and rewards and punishments are contingent upon the performance of the followers.”

5. Transformational Leadership

Transformational leaders lead through inspiration, empowerment, and involvement. They earn the respect and admiration of their followers. They cast clear visions and unite followers in their shared purpose. They care not only about the profit but the people. Bernard M. Bass named four specific ways these leaders transform their followers: consider individuals, stimulate the intellect, inspire motivation, and serve as a role model.

Bass lauded transformational leadership as the best way to lead, resulting in in higher performance, satisfaction, and innovation. According to Ohler, “Bass suggested that organizations need leadership that inspires, encourages, and motivates followers to perform in ways that create meaningful change and help shape future success. Bass’s work also established the role of personal values in leadership and idealized the role of influence.”

When it’s good

This leadership is best for leaders with high integrity, a charismatic personality, and lots of energy. This style is most effective among higher levels of authority, responsible for grand visions and organizational goals rather than immediate, concrete tasks.


  • High well-being for followers
  • Increased innovation
  • Inspired, united teams


  • Assumes intrinsic motivations
  • Requires charisma from the leader
  • Can fail to focus on details

Ohler’s takeaway: “Aspirational TEAM (Together Everyone Achieves More) results in higher performance and higher group satisfaction but requires a leader committed to a vision and seeing followers live into their potential.”

Ohler’s bottom line

“Leadership is about people. The successful leader knows two things: people are complex and people are different. Leadership is the positive application of social influence which maximizes the efforts of people and energizes them towards the achievement of a common goal. Whether you are leading a small team, a large team, a not-for-profit, or a corporation, it is about getting results through people.”

5 Sources of Power

In 1959, psychologists John French and Bertram Raven described five sources of power that can influence others. “Just as with leadership styles, application of these power bases depends on the situation,” Ohler said. “Think of leadership styles and the power bases as a leadership toolbox—the more well-rounded the leader, the more tools they have at their disposal in which to influence and achieve desired outcomes.”

These are the five sources, provided by Ohler:

  • Legitimate: power of position; formal authority, title
  • Reward: power over resources; perks, incentives
  • Referent: power of the relationship; friendship
  • Expert: power of knowledge; expertise
  • Coercive: power to sanction or penalize; opposite of reward

6 Common Leadership Mistakes

Even the best leaders make mistakes. Gary Ohler lists six common pitfalls.

  • Lacking self-awareness. Have the humility to get feedback, step back and allow those with the skills to take the lead. The leader’s greatest mistake is not asking, “What mistakes am I making?”
  • Thinking “I deserve” rather than “I serve.” Look for opportunities to serve and thank your people. How you treat them will be reflected in how they treat the customer.
  • Not communicating clearly and consistently.
  • Not creating a safe place for people to fail—and learn from that failure.
  • Feeling like you need to have all the answers.
  • Staying in the office and being inaccessible to your people. Get out and walk slowly through the crowd. This is a powerful opportunity to connect with people, ask questions, offer help, understand what makes them tick.

How to Become a Leader

Leadership is learned. Here are some of Ohler’s best tips for becoming a great leader.

  • Learn to lead yourself. Your potential to lead others is a direct result of how you lead yourself.
  • Develop good followership habits. Choose who to follow and make followership part of your personal development.
  • Observe and learn from established and respected leaders.
  • Seek out a mentor who is where you want to be.
  • Discover your leadership style through an assessment that can help you understand how to effectively interact with others based on your style.
  • Solicit honest feedback from others to identify areas of strength as well as opportunities for improvement.
  • Partner with a leadership coach to focus on enhancing your effectiveness, along with the effectiveness of the team and organization.
  • Acquire new skills through workshops and programs to help you gain a broader perspective on leadership responsibilities and what it takes to succeed as a leader.

From the Magazine

This article was published in our quarterly print magazine, which covers relevant topics in greater depth featuring leading experts in the industry. Subscribe to receive the quarterly print issue in your mailbox. All registered independent pharmacies in the U.S. are eligible to receive a free subscription.

More articles from the June 2022 issue:

A Member-Owned Company Serving Independent Pharmacies

PBA Health is dedicated to helping independent pharmacies reach their full potential on the buy-side of their business. Founded and run by pharmacists, PBA Health serves independent pharmacies with group purchasing services, wholesaler contract negotiations, proprietary purchasing tools, and more.

An HDA member, PBA Health operates its own NABP-accredited warehouse with more than 6,000 SKUs, including brands, generics, narcotics CII-CV, cold-storage products, and over-the-counter (OTC) products — offering the lowest prices in the secondary market.


Editor’s Picks


Elements is written and produced by PBA Health, a buy-side solutions company.

Sign up for a FREE subscription to Elements magazine!


Sign up to receive PBA Health’s e-newsletter to get the latest Elements web articles in your inbox every other week, along with industry news, supply chain insights, and exclusive offers.

Related Articles

Popular Articles