Whilst there are many different leadership styles, everyone has a default leadership style that comes most naturally to them. Leadership styles determine how someone uses their power and authority to lead others. Your default leadership style then is the way you feel most comfortable leading others to achieve your vision.
There are many different styles of leadership, and understanding which type you are will make you better equipped to avoid the common pitfalls of that particular style.
The best leaders are able to adjust their style based on the situation they find themselves in, for example, turning around a failing organization might require a more forthright approach than being asked to grow an already successful organization.
Let’s now examine the different leadership styles.
Autocratic leadership is centered around and focused on the leader. With this style of leadership, all of the decision-making resides with the leader, and decisions are made by the leader without consulting subordinates.
An autocratic leader will reach a decision themselves, communicate it with their team, and expect the team to execute, with no questions asked. With autocratic leadership, authority is in the hands of a single person, the leader. Examples of autocratic leaders include Donald Trump and Martha Stewart.
Democratic leadership (often called participative leadership) is focused on the leader’s team and is characterized by decision making being shared across the team. In stark contrast to the autocratic leadership style, ideas are shared freely and open discussion is encouraged.
Although discussion is encouraged it is the role of the leader to guide and direct these discussions, and ultimately make a decision as to which way to proceed. Democratic leaders expect their subordinates to have in-depth valuable experience and to be self-confident. Examples of democratic leaders include John F. Kennedy and Larry Page.
A transformational leader is one who models the behavior they expect to see, sets clear goals, and has high expectations, whilst at the same time supporting and emotionally guiding subordinates to achieve.
At the very foundation of transformational leadership is the consistent promotion of a compelling vision, along with a set of values to live and work by. Transformational leaders create a culture of no-blame where the focus is on the problem at hand and how to solve it, and not who is responsible for creating the problem.
Transformational leaders are sometimes known as the “quiet leaders", known for possessing a willingness to lead by example. They often don’t make detailed strategic plans, but instead, facilitate conversations between key people both within and outside of their organization to achieve this end.
You can think of transformational leaders as having four key characteristics:
Laissez-faire leadership is where the leader doesn’t actually lead the team but instead allows the team to entirely self-direct. This style of leadership is also known as the “hands-off" style, and in contrast to the other leadership styles we’ve looked at all authority is given to subordinates including goal setting, problem-solving, and decision making. From the leader’s perspective, the key to success is to build a really strong team and then stay out of their way.
A common question people ask upon learning about laissez-faire leadership is “what does a laissez-faire leader do?". Well, this will differ from leader to leader but typically they are more concerned with the creation and articulation of their compelling vision. They are also typically concerned with which steps to take to help achieve the vision. It is then obviously left to the team to work out how to achieve a particular step.
A Laissez-faire leadership style typically works best near the top of the organizational tree where senior leaders appoint other senior leaders to run their respective departments and let them get on with it.
There are many other leadership styles in addition to the ones we have described, including amongst others:
To make matters more complex, no two leaders will be exactly the same and may, in fact, have characteristics borrowed from other leadership styles to suit their needs.
The following diagram can be really helpful in thinking about where different leadership styles have their main areas of focus.
You can use this framework to think about any leadership styles you encounter. As you can see:
There is a reason the boxes in the diagram are labeled 1 to 4, and it has to do with subordinates. The higher the skill level of our subordinates the higher the box number and the more appropriate that style of leadership is for those subordinates, so autocratic leadership is good for people with a very low skill level, whereas laissez-faire leadership works for people with a very high degree of skill. Essentially, the leader’s behavior should change according to which quadrant the followers’ capabilities fall.
Another point to note from this diagram is that the abilities of the leader, both in terms of soft and hard skills, must increase as we move from box 1 to 4.
There are as many different leadership styles as there are leaders, but broadly they can be categorized according to people focus and task focus. Although we’ve only looked at four styles in this article, the model described should help you to understand and categorize any of the leadership styles you encounter.
The 5 Levels of Leadership: Book Summary
Three Levels of Leadership Model
Blake Mouton Managerial Grid
Bureaucratic Theory (Max Weber)
Path-Goal Theory of Leadership
Situational Leadership Model
Fiedler’s Contingency Theory of Leadership