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Nine Common Leadership Styles

Leadership Styles

In any organization, effective leadership is crucial for driving organizational success. From our experience in executive recruiting and talent management, we’ve seen how the concept of a leadership style can provide leaders with a roadmap—or a set of roadmaps—for navigating the many and varied challenges of a dynamic workplace.

Defined, refined, critiqued, and adapted by over 50 years of organizational researchers and business professionals, the following list can serve as a toolkit for thinking about possible approaches to leadership, regardless of title or organization.

As we delve into these various leadership styles, we explore the diverse approaches that leaders employ to inspire, motivate, and guide their teams towards achieving common goals. From transactional to transformational, bureaucratic to laissez-faire, each style brings its own unique characteristics and implications for organizational dynamics.

There are no absolutes when it comes to leadership styles. One approach to managing people is not necessarily better than another. Today’s responsive leaders might shift between styles as they seek to advance organizations and unlock their teams’ potential.

To lead, we must be attuned to the contexts in which people perform their work, to the communities served and engaged, and to our own skills and competencies. Our leadership styles can, and should, evolve and adapt in response to external and internal realities, needs, and aspirations.

We also grow from observing other leaders in action, identifying attributes that resonate most with us, and considering how we might absorb those qualities into our own leadership practice.

Read on to find out which styles resonate most with you:

Transformational Leadership: It’s about empowerment

Transformational leaders empower their teams by inspiring them to see individual goals as part of the collective mission of the organization. Leaders in this style motivate followers to reach higher levels of performance and personal growth, fostering a culture of initiative and ownership.

Through dynamic presence and inspirational motivation, transformational leaders empower their team members to realize their full potential and contribute meaningfully to the organization’s success. Transformational leadership is foundational, and many of the following styles can be seen as forms of this style.

Pros: Employees feel empowered to bring new ideas to the table. This openness to change can inspire personal initiative and creative thinking.

Cons: Done poorly, it can also lead to chaos. If a leader tries to inspire without a clear focus and structure, the initiative of individuals can be out of sync or even work against each other rather than toward a common goal.

Transactional Leadership: It’s about clarity

Transactional leadership is about exchange and hinges on clarity, as leaders clarify goals and expectations and establish clear rewards for meeting them.

This style emphasizes communication skills to ensure team members understand their roles and how to meet expectations. Effective transactional leaders excel at setting expectations, providing guidance, and offering feedback based on clearly defined criteria for performance evaluation. In many ways, transactional leadership is the most common leadership style, but when tasks and rewards are crafted with deep awareness and understanding of employee needs and motivators, it can be a powerful form of transformational leadership.

Pros: People under a transactional leader understand their roles clearly and what’s expected of them. This clarity helps everyone stay on track and work towards common goals.

Cons: Creativity and innovation might take a back seat to standardization of systems and workflows. The focus is on efficiency and consistency rather than pushing boundaries.

Servant Leadership: It’s about trust

Servant leadership relies on the leader putting their employees’ wellbeing above their own; they are servant first, leader second.

Like with transformational leadership, servant leaders seek to inspire their employees to pursue a shared mission, but they do so with a stronger focus on empathy and on helping employees become more balanced and autonomous. They aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty and work alongside their teams. 

Pros: Servant leadership builds trust and boosts morale. By prioritizing the growth and well-being of their team members, leaders can create a supportive and positive work environment.

Cons: Servant leaders can sometimes take too much of a back seat. They need to find a balance between knowing when to serve and when to step in and implement their own priorities for the sake of alignment.



Democratic Leadership: It’s about collaboration

Democratic (also called participative) leadership fosters collaboration by actively involving team members in the decision-making process, which helps creates a sense of ownership and accountability.

Leaders in this style encourage open communication and value diverse perspectives, resulting in collective problem-solving and innovation. By empowering team members to contribute their ideas and opinions, democratic leaders cultivate a collaborative environment where everyone’s voices are heard and respected.

Pros: In a democratic leadership setup, creativity and innovation are encouraged. By working together, teams can come up with some truly innovative solutions.

Cons: Collective decision-making can take time. With everyone having a say, processes might not be as streamlined as they could be, leading to missed opportunities, slower workflows, and unresolved disagreements.

Directive Leadership: It’s about decisiveness

Directive (also called autocratic) leadership emphasizes decisiveness by providing clear guidance and specific instructions to team members. Leaders in this style make quick and firm decisions, ensuring tasks are executed efficiently and effectively. By taking a hands-on approach and directing the course of action, directive leaders instill confidence and clarity in their team, driving productivity and achievement.

Pros: Decisions are made quickly, and projects move at a brisk pace. Directive leaders know how to get things done efficiently.

Cons: Employees who thrive on creativity might feel stifled under this type of leadership, leading to disengagement.

Bureaucratic Leadership: It’s about stability

Bureaucratic leadership prioritizes stability by implementing clear rules, roles, and systems within an organization. Leaders in this style rely on established procedures to maintain consistency, predictability, and fairness in operations. By emphasizing adherence to established protocols, bureaucratic leaders ensure stability in both workflow and decision-making processes.

Pros: By sticking to established systems and roles, leaders can create a sense of order and predictability. Strong, well-conceived guidelines can also help reduce bias and prejudice in a workplace.

Cons: Too much emphasis on bureaucracy can hinder agility and flexibility, making it harder to adapt to change. Additionally, adhering to poorly crafted systems can lead to inefficiency and employee disengagement.

Laissez-Faire Leadership: It’s about innovation

Laissez-faire leadership encourages innovation by granting team members autonomy and freedom to explore new ideas. Leaders in this style provide necessary resources and support, allowing individuals to experiment and innovate without micromanagement. By fostering a culture of creativity and independent thinking, laissez-faire leaders inspire innovative and self-led solutions and initiatives within the organization.

Pros: Laissez-faire leadership can unleash team members’ creativity and drive. By giving employees autonomy, leaders can inspire innovation and initiative.

Cons: Laissez-faire leadership has also been called “non-leadership” and if not combined with transformational leadership, can come across as indifference. Driven to be “hands-off,” laissez-faire leaders can sometimes avoid making decisions, hesitate in taking action, and generally be absent when needed.

Charismatic Leadership: It’s about buy-in

Charismatic leadership is a form of transformational leadership that cultivates buy-in by captivating followers with a compelling vision and impassioned communication. Leaders in this style inspire loyalty and commitment through their persuasive influence and magnetic personality. By effectively articulating a shared vision and igniting enthusiasm, charismatic leaders secure the enthusiastic support and buy-in of their followers.

Pros: Charismatic leadership is great at getting buy-in for big ideas and ambitious initiatives. A leader’s passion and enthusiasm can be infectious, driving the team forward.

Con: Charismatic leaders should work to avoid tunnel vision. With such intense focus, charismatic leaders might overlook other important issues that pop up along the way. Employees can also recognize and be put off by charisma if there is no strategic vision behind it.

Situational Leadership: It’s about flexibility

Situational leadership is all about flexibility—it’s about adapting our leadership style to match the readiness level of our team members and the specific needs of the situation at hand.

In this model, leaders adjust their approach, balancing between giving clear direction on tasks and providing supportive relationships as their team’s readiness evolves. By knowing when to dial down task-focused behavior (transactional leadership) and ramp up relationship-oriented support (transformational leadership), we build confidence and commitment among our team while effectively guiding them towards success.

Pros: Situational leadership allows leaders to adapt their style based on the specific needs of each situation and the needs of their team members.

Cons: Implementing situational leadership effectively requires ongoing assessment and adjustment, which can be time-consuming for leaders who may already have demanding schedules.

The Bottom Line

Whether we are established leaders or are new to managing, it’s important for us to consider what kind of leaders we are or could become—and what different styles of leadership we might add to our toolkit to suit a particular context, initiative, or opportunity.

Observe and consider the qualities you admire in leaders around you and consider how your own strengths might be deployed in these leadership approaches. Explore a few ways that you could incorporate those qualities into your own approach to leading, managing, and mentoring, and begin to build your own leadership portfolio. 

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