At first glance, we may think some leadership styles are better than others. However, all types of leadership styles can have their place in a leader's toolkit. A wise leader knows how to flex from one style to another as a situation shifts.
Leaders often adopt one dominant leadership style that stems from their innate preferences, personality, and background. Knowing which leadership style naturally works best for you is part of being a capable leader, but rigidly sticking to one style can stifle your growth, as well as your company and employees' growth.
It's important to develop a malleable style that integrates effective leadership practices. This will help you adapt to new situations as they arise and enhance your effectiveness as a leader.
The seven primary leadership styles are:
- Autocratic Leadership
- Pacesetting Leadership
- Transformational Leadership
- Coaching Leadership
- Democratic Leadership
- Affiliative Leadership
- Delegative Leadership
Here’s a look at these types of leadership styles, their advantages and drawbacks, and how to develop your signature style while allowing you to stretch into other styles as needed.
1. Autocratic Leadership Style
The phrase most illustrative of an autocratic leadership style is "Do as I say." Autocratic leaders, also called authoritarian leaders, establish a clear vision of an end goal and how to achieve it. They set specific guidelines and clear expectations for what, when, and how tasks should be done. These leaders expect others to accept their directives at face value and carry them out promptly.
Leaders who adapt this type of leadership style are not necessarily “know-it-alls” who see themselves above their peers. They’re often deeply focused on achieving efficient results through established actions they believe are in the business’s best interest. An autocratic leader might sometimes make decisions with a small group of trusted peers.
Autocratic leadership is most effective when:
- Consistent, predictable results are critical, especially in highly regulated industries like healthcare and construction.
- New or inexperienced employees need clear guidance, but there's little time for discussion.
Advantages of autocratic leadership:
- Quick decision-making, especially critical for effective crisis management
- Clear rules and guidelines for consistent results
Disadvantages of autocratic leadership:
- If employees don’t have sufficient confidence or trust in the leader, they might not feel comfortable carrying out instructions.
- This style can lead to abuse if an employer or manager alters work demands or hours without consulting employees.
- This style can sacrifice creativity by minimizing group input.
2. Pacesetting Leadership Style
The phrase most indicative of the pacesetting leadership style is "Do as I do, now!" Pacesetting leaders expect consistent excellence and self-direction. They push team members to run hard and fast to the finish line. A quote that evokes this style comes from former racing driver Mario Andretti, who said, “If everything seems under control, you’re just not going fast enough.”
Pacesetting leaders are typically highly energetic. They roll up their sleeves and dive into the action, leading by example and setting high expectations. The goal is to drive results efficiently, whether working against deadlines or developing a new product or service.
Do you describe yourself as a leader who uses a pacesetting style? If so, be aware that a pacesetting type of leadership style creates a high-pressure environment. Not all employees can thrive in that type of culture.
Pacesetting leadership is most effective when:
- Working with highly motivated employees who also like to move and see results quickly
- A crucial deadline must be met, especially in a production or manufacturing environment or in the legal sector.
Advantages of pacesetting leadership:
- It can be an effective way to quickly hit goals, accomplish objectives, and achieve results.
- High, dynamic energy can be engaging for employees who thrive in a fast-paced workplace.
Disadvantages of pacesetting leadership:
- Can lead to employee burnout if everyone is constantly running at full speed.
- Fast-paced, high-stress situations can frequently lead to mistakes.
- Employees who thrive on mentorship and individual feedback may not thrive.
3. Transformational Leadership Style
The phrase that best describes this leadership style is "Follow me." Transformational leaders, known as visionary leaders, are firmly committed to organizational purpose and big-picture goals.
They tend to set objectives by outlining the direction the business will take and what will happen when they get there. As management consultant and leadership expert John C. Maxwell puts it, a visionary leader “knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.”
This inspired, future-focused vision sets expectations that engage and energize employees. Transformational leaders also encourage and empower team members to step out of their comfort zones for professional development and organizational achievement.
According to Maxwell, “the success of a vision is determined by its ownership by both the leader and the people.” Visionary leaders frequently solicit employees’ feedback on accomplishing shared objectives to achieve the vision.
Transformational leadership is most effective:
- In fast-growing organizations or organizations that have been drifting and need direction
- During corporate restructuring, mergers and acquisitions, and other high-risk business transformations
Advantages of transformational leadership:
- There's a high value on the company’s long-term goals.
- It can help accelerate business growth.
- It may boost employee morale and retention if workers feel genuinely connected to company goals.
Disadvantages of transformational leadership:
- Focusing on the big picture can result in overlooking the nitty-gritty operational details and neglecting to hold people accountable.
- You may lose track of short-term results while concentrating on long-term goals.
- If leaders don’t devote appropriate time to align middle managers with the strategic vision, strategic change can slow down or even fail.
4. Coaching Leadership Style
The most descriptive phrase for the coaching leadership style is "Consider this." Coaching leaders view their teams as a reservoir of talent to be developed. Like sports coaches, these leaders give employees the direction needed to tap into their abilities and reach their full potential. However, coaching leaders must be careful not to overdo giving directions to avoid micromanaging.
“Coaching,” says Daniel Goleman in Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence “creates an ongoing conversation that allows employees to listen to performance feedback more openly, seeing it as serving their own aspirations, not just the boss’s interests.” Through regular feedback, coaching leaders recognize and nurture an employee’s strengths while providing inspirational guidance for improving weaknesses.
The coaching leadership style is similar to transformational leadership, but it emphasizes the employees’ long-term potential and how their individual goals fit into the company’s overall vision.
Coaching leadership is most effective when:
- Leaders have the time to devote to individual employees.
- Employees know their limitations and are open to change and challenges.
Advantages of coaching leadership:
- Regular encouragement can boost individual and team confidence and morale.
- Individualized attention can aid in skill development.
- Coaching can inherently foster a positive work environment.
Disadvantages of coaching leadership:
- Coaching leadership is time intensive and requires patience.
- Some employees are unwilling to change their ways and may not be receptive to being coached.
- Managers would need to complete proper training and develop their coaching skills to effectively coach employees.
5. Democratic Leadership Style
The hallmark phrase of this leadership style is "What do you think?" Democratic leaders, or participative leaders, look for employee input before making decisions. The leader might present a problem and get suggestions from the entire team before establishing an official course of action. The goal is to have a dialogue and discussion that encourages group participation and gains everyone’s buy-in to the chosen course of action. Still, democratic leaders get the final say.
Democratic leadership is most effective when:
- A company needs to surface fresh ideas on how to implement or execute a vision.
- The leader is unsure of the best course of action and requires input from trusted employees.
Advantages of democratic leadership:
- Gives all employees a voice, boosting engagement, morale and retention
- Can help build trust and confidence in leadership
- Fosters creativity
Disadvantages of democratic leadership:
- May prolong the decision-making process
- Can backfire if employees feel their input is ignored, resulting in lower employee productivity and satisfaction
- A lack of direction that may confuse some employees and lead to inefficiencies
6. Affiliative Leadership Style
A phrase often used to describe this type of leadership is "People come first." Affiliative leaders, also known as facilitative leaders, aim to put employees first. As Daniel Goleman writes in his seminal Harvard Business Review article, Leadership That Gets Results, an affiliative leader “manages by building strong emotional bonds and then reaping the benefits of such an approach, namely fierce loyalty.”
Affiliative leaders pay close attention to employees and support their emotional and professional needs. Most decisions are left to employees, but the leader is still part of the decision-making process. Affiliative leaders frequently use praise, encouragement, and support to boost individual and team-wide confidence. Ultimately, this is an effective leadership style that promotes harmony and establishes harmonious, cooperative team relationships.
Affiliative leadership is most effective:
- When morale is low or there are conflicts among team members
- During stressful periods, like when the organization is short-staffed
- When affiliative leaders have strong communication skills and can calmly address conflict
Advantages of affiliative leadership:
- Morale, retention, and employee happiness will likely thrive because affiliative leaders prioritize employee well-being.
- It can boost creativity and innovation as employees are invited to participate in discussions and given room to share creative ideas and suggestions.
- Conflict may be resolved more quickly.
Disadvantages of affiliative leadership:
- If not kept in check, a deep focus on individuals' needs can overshadow the team’s needs.
- If underperforming team members aren't effectively managed, productivity may suffer.
- Exclusively positive feedback can stifle employees' learning and growth.
7. Delegative Leadership Style
A phrase that evokes delegative leadership, or "laissez-faire leadership" is "I trust you to do your job." Delegative or laissez-faire leaders provide minimum guidance. They use a hands-off approach, trusting employees to solve problems independently.
Delegative leadership empowers people and makes them feel trusted. As author and executive educator, Jim Kouzes says in The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, “Those who are expected to produce the results must feel a sense of power and ownership.” Leadership is a relationship based on trust and confidence.
Leaders who delegate effectively should set clear limits and expectations. They should monitor their teams' progress and give regular feedback.
Delegative leadership is most effective when:
- Employees are highly qualified self-starters with a solid record of achievements.
- Trusted employees work in creative environments that require innovative thinking and rapid development of ideas.
Advantages of delegative leadership:
- Empowers employees and promotes autonomy
- Enables seasoned employees to make the most of their experience and expertise
- Reduces micromanagement and frees leaders to concentrate on the big picture
Disadvantages of delegative leadership:
- Can lead to a decline in productivity if roles, tasks, or expectations are unclear
- Disagreement on what must be done or how it should be done, causing arguments and conflict.
- Often ineffective for team members with less training or experience
Crafting Your Leadership Style
Our leadership style is usually rooted in personal preferences, which can take time to change. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth thinking through what's working and what isn't. Understanding your natural leadership style and when other styles are more effective can help you broaden your skillset and become a better leader.
Are you wondering how to identify your leadership style? Use these three strategies to help find it and adapt as needed:
- Know yourself. Start by learning your dominant leadership style. Do you prefer to give orders or delegate authority? Do your preferences lie somewhere in between? Ask trusted colleagues to describe your leadership strengths and/or take a leadership assessment such as these:
The LSI Leadership Style Inventory, The Leadership Style Test, The Leadership Practices Inventory, or The Leadership Styles Workbook.
- Know your employees. Communication is a vital component of leadership. Therefore, it's essential to adapt how you communicate with your employees based on their personalities and specific situations. For example, you can take a delegative leadership approach with team members who thrive working independently. In contrast, an autocratic approach may benefit new employees or individuals who prefer pointed directions.
- Know the leadership styles. Familiarize yourself with the common leadership styles, and focus on which work best for different situations. What new skills might you need to develop? For example, if you're a pacesetter, it's wise to work on affiliative leadership skills to help prevent employee burnout. Identify new skill sets and work to incorporate them into your leadership.
In choosing from the different types of leadership, it's important to remember that the ideal leadership style depends not only on the leader's personality but also on their team members and the situation. Developing a signature leadership style while adapting your practices for certain circumstances can help enhance your overall effectiveness, benefitting you, your employees, and the business.
A version of this article was originally published on October 16, 2019.
Photo: Getty Images