A leadership style is a manner of providing direction, implementing plans, and motivating others. It involves the tone of communication, the level of specificity in instructions, as well as the leader’s underlying assumptions about employees.
Leadership is a key component of management. Every project, no matter the profession or industry, requires the designation of at least one individual that is responsible for ensuring the project is completed.
Leaders can be found in corporations at all levels of the organizational structure, from CEO to the head of a work team. In small business settings, the leader is the owner or store manager. Sports teams, militaries and law enforcement agencies, all have well-defined leadership structures.
Definition of Leadership Styles
There are as many types of leadership styles as there are people writing about them. At last count, it would be easy to conclude that there are 20 different leadership styles.
Most experts in the area identify 8 or 9 main styles, but there are also individual authors that have created a unique leadership style based on their own theory and experiences.
There can be many overlapping characteristics among leadership styles. For example, being people-oriented is a component of the participative style, the affiliative style, and the servant leadership style.
Subtle differences exist in each style, and the suitability of one over the other usually depends on the nature of the business and the attributes of the team.
Types of Leadership Styles
- Autocratic Leader
- Laissez-faire Leader
- Visionary Leader
- Transformational Leader
- Participative/Democratic Leader
- Servant Leader
- Bureaucratic Leader
- Affiliative Leader
- Pacesetting Leader
- Coaching Leader
- Transactional Leader
- Adaptive Leader
- Situational Leader
- Great Man Leader
- Directing Leader
- Paternalistic Leader
- Maternalistic Leader
- Authoritative Leader
- Strategic Leader
- Charismatic Leader
Types of Leadership Styles Explained
1. The Autocratic Leader
The autocratic leader is someone that leads with an iron fist. Instructions are given top-down, with no discussion or input from others. Rules are strictly enforced and include punitive action when deadlines are not met or orders not carried out.
On the one hand, this leadership style can be very effective when the leader is the only one on a team with the necessary experience. In addition, expectations are clear and task demands easy to understand by members of the team.
On the other hand, autocratic leaders can produce a team that is unmotivated and fearful of making mistakes. This creates a working environment that is unpleasant and lacking innovation or divergent thinking.
2. The Laissez-faire Leader
This type of leadership style is just the opposite of the autocratic leader. Expectations are vague and instructions are minimal, if provided at all.
This is a very hands-off approach that allows the team to function independently. The leader’s primary objective is to please others and not create friction.
This approach can be useful if the members of the team are highly motivated, responsible, and have a great deal of experience in that particular project domain.
However, if the team does not have these characteristics, then many negative consequences are likely. Project deadlines will go unmet and the quality of output will be quite low. Team members will lose focus and a sense of purpose. Most likely, the project will fail to meet expectations and needs.
3. Visionary Leadership
This is a leadership style that creates a long-term vision for the team. Visionary leaders have a clear image of what success looks like and they can provide the team with focused direction so that all are working towards the same organizational goals.
They are able to inspire others to meet difficult challenges and create a real sense of teamwork. The focus is on the big picture and they rely on their excellent communication skills and emotional intelligence to motivate their team.
On the minus side, sometimes the personality of the visionary leader becomes overwhelming and the focus of attention. The vison can become so encompassing that other opportunities are overlooked. Unfortunately, the leader can become so important to the organization that if they leave the vison goes with them.
4. Transformational Leadership
This is a leadership style necessary if an organization is in need of (or is experiencing) significant internal change.
Perhaps the company is shifting to a new industry or developing a vastly different strategic plan. This situation requires that employees see the value of the new direction and align themselves with it.
For this to happen, the transformational leader needs some of the same attributes as the visionary leader. They must be inspirational and to some extent charismatic. Their personality is usually described as energetic, enthusiastic, and passionate.
One of the weaknesses of transformational leadership is that it can sometimes be overwhelming. Change is not easy, especially for a large organization with employees that have worked in a specific culture for a long time. The constant push and drive from a transformational leader can be exhausting to some and lead to burnout.
5. Participative/Democratic Leadership
The democratic leader is focused on building rapport with the team and helping members feel valued and respected. It is a team-based approach that utilizes the skills of the people on the team to accomplish project goals.
Decisions are often made based on the input from the group and consensus building. This is great for building employee satisfaction and company loyalty. It works very well if the members of the team are experienced and motivated. If they have a professional demeanor and good sense of teamwork, then work processes function smoothly and efficiently.
However, sometimes employees do not get along and conflicts can upend projects. Putting too much responsibility for decision-making in the hands of others can lead to delays and a lack of focus. Decision-making can become too time consuming, unproductive, and lead to conflicts.
6. The Leader as Servant
The servant leader internalizes the philosophy of serving the needs of the team and the organization first. Personal objectives are put aside. Priorities of the job are completely focused on objectives external to the self and solely oriented on the greater good of the team and company.
This leadership style can create an amazing work culture. Employees feel valued and respected with high levels of job satisfaction and company loyalty. They can excel in their abilities and reach new career heights.
One of the challenges of the servant leadership style is that it can be exhausting for the leader. It requires a degree of authenticity and sacrifice that can be difficult to maintain over a long period of time. Moreover, it can be perceived as a weakness by some and so the leader’s authority is diminished. This creates numerous other issues regarding project outcomes and team cohesion.
7. Bureaucratic Leadership Style
The bureaucratic leadership style takes place in a highly structured organizational framework characterized by a clear chain of command.
Regulations are strictly enforced and employees are expected to follow all work procedures diligently and without question. Communication channels are formal and rigid. Everyone has a clearly defined job role and set of responsibilities.
This leadership style works well in industries that are predictable and stable. Therefore, work procedures are routine, well-defined, and require very little creativity or independent thought.
The disadvantages of this style are that it is outdated in a modern era of intense competition, organic industries and ever-changing market conditions. Because the decision-making chain is so structured, it becomes inefficient and unable to respond to changing external demands in a timely manner. Creativity is stifled and company loyalty can be low.
These characteristics can all result in a loss of competitive edge and missed opportunities.
8. Affiliative Leadership Style
This leadership style is primarily focused on developing a harmonious work environment. Leaders are skilled at building teamwork and conflict resolution.
Leaders stive to form strong emotional bonds with their team that are caring and nurturing. They allow a great deal of flexibility and encourage creativity. It is a 100% people-focused approach.
Employees working under this leadership style have high morale, motivation and job satisfaction. They become devoted to the company. The transparency between managers and employees builds trust and encourages the sharing of ideas.
The weaknesses of affiliative leadership include underperformance and losing sight of organizational goals. Leaders prefer to avoid conflict, which means that mistakes and missed deadlines can be overlooked in the hopes of maintaining a positive work environment. This creates a chain reaction of errors that increase inefficiency and employees can become overdependent on management to solve problems.
9. Pacesetting Leadership Style
The pacesetting leadership style is very results-oriented. The leader sets challenging goals and high standards.
He or she sets the pace by example and leading from the front to serve as a model of performance. Teams are expected to function with little oversight and prioritize the goals of the organization.
This style is most effective with highly motivated teams that have proven aptitude in the work domain. The team considers the high standards to be challenging and even invigorating. The pacesetting style is most suitable for demanding projects that need to be completed rapidly and to extremely high standards.
The disadvantages are that pacesetting leaders can turn to micro-management if they perceive those goals will not be met. Additionally, employees can sometimes experience burnout due to the enduring demands of a high-pressure, high-stakes work environment. Declining job satisfaction can also result from observing colleagues being quickly replaced if not meeting expectations.
10. The Coaching Leader
The coaching leadership style is defined as you might expect. It is characterized by the goal of helping people grow and achieve their long-term aspirations.
The leader strives to help employees build lasting strengths by being committed and devoted to collaboration. Practitioners of the coaching leadership style are excellent communicators and have a high level of emotional intelligence.
This style works best with team members that are willing to accept constructive feedback. Bringing out the best in people can more easily be achieved by those that want to be the best, and also recognize the value of being led by more experienced professionals.
The disadvantages are that this approach takes time and requires a strong commitment of resources. Team members usually need training, which can be time-consuming and costly. Also, it does not work well with strict deadlines and if employees are fearful of feedback.
11. The Transactional Leader
Transactional leaders are very task-oriented and implement a set of rewards and punishments to achieve results. They are less concerned with the well-being of their team or in building a harmonious work environment.
The transactional leader tends to be directive and action-oriented with a view of employees as needing constant supervision and instruction.
Transactional leaders are very good at setting goals, clearly defining standards, maintaining productivity, and achieving scheduled performance milestones. These are valuable attributes for projects that are routine and time-sensitive.
However, being so focused on completing tasks and staying on schedule can lead to low creativity and innovation. In today’s environment, this can be a huge disadvantage. Companies must constantly innovate to stay competitive, and discouraging employee input can shackle innovation from within.
12. The Adaptive Leadership Style
The adaptive leadership style is perfect for dealing with unanticipated circumstances. This style is characterized by being flexible, open to suggestions, and capable of making dramatic shifts in policy or decisions.
Being an agile leader in an organic industry where change can come at any moment, from any side, is a rare ability. Circumstances can be the result of government regulations, shifts in consumer preferences, or surprising technological innovations.
The biggest disadvantage of the adaptive leadership style for a company is that it is so rare. Most leaders are incapable of handling these kinds of challenges. In addition, stakeholders may be late to see the need for change and therefore be reluctant to get on board.
This can result in adaptive leaders breaking the rules and taking risks without going through the usual chain of command. That can lead to numerous other problems that distract the company from its newly envisioned strategic plan.
13. The Situational Leadership Model
Hersey and Blachard (1969) developed the situational leadership model which postulates that there is no single best leadership style. A good leader should adapt their style to the demands of the situation and people on their team.
Based on that analysis, one of four leadership styles will be implemented: telling, coaching, participating or delegating. Each of these four styles vary in terms of their task or people orientation.
For example, if the task is simple and routine, the leader should use the telling style, which is very directive and less concerned about the team’s feelings. The coaching style should be used when the team lacks skills and is motivated, but needs instruction on how to perform.
The participating style is useful when the team is competent but may need some confidence building. Delegating is the style best for a motivated and competent team that needs very little direction or supervision.
The situational model is similar to the contingency theory of leadership.
14. The Great Man Theory
When scholars first began studying leadership in the 1800s, most examples were of men. They were great military leaders or in political positions, or both. Society was not as enlightened back then as it is today, so considering just one gender did not seem inappropriate or sexist in the slightest.
There many common leadership traits that could be easily seen among these great leaders. They were confident, charismatic, decisive, determined, and highly motivated. They were also quite adept at solving problems and taking action quickly and efficiently. They each seemed to possess a great sense of calm and composure. Even when a situation looked on the brink of disaster, they maintained focus and did not panic or show anxiety.
All of these attributes inspired their followers and instilled a great sense of confidence in the leader’s ability to overcome and prevail. Hence, the “great man” theory was born.
There are a multitude of leaderships styles. Some are suited for companies that need stability and routine because they operate in an industry that has been long-standing and unsusceptible to dramatic change. Other companies require a leadership style that is highly adaptive and can change with the times as external parameters change quickly and with little warning.
Leadership styles vary in their priorities. Some are results-oriented and focused on meeting deadlines. Other styles are more people-oriented and seek to help their team members achieve their fullest potential and dreams.
Each style has a different effect on employees. Some foster creativity, high job satisfaction, and company loyalty. Whereas others produce employees that lack motivation and feel undervalued and unappreciated. Other leadership styles work well with highly motivated employees that thrive on challenges in high-pressure, high-stakes environments.
Finding a match between leadership style, task parameters, and worker profiles is ideal.
Barling, J., & Frone, M.R. (2017). If only my leader would just do something! Passive leadership undermines employee well-being through role stressors and psychological resource depletion. Stress Health, 33(3), 211-222. https://doi.org/10.1002/smi.2697
Cote, R. (2017). A comparison of leadership theories in an organizational environment. International Journal of Business Administration, 8(5), 28. https://doi.org/10.5430/ijba.v8n5p28
Heifetz, R. A., & Laurie, D. L. (1997). The work of leadership. Harvard Business Review, 75(1), 124-134.
Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. H. (1969). Life cycle theory of leadership. Training & Development Journal, 23(5), 26-34.
Lewin, K., Lippitt, R., & White, K. (1939). Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created “social climates”. Journal of Social Psychology, 10(2), 271-301.
Yukl, G., & Mahsud, R. (2010). Why flexible and adaptive leadership is essential. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 62, 81-93. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019835