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Think of all of the different leaders that you’ve interacted with, and you’ll quickly realize that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all mold for leadership.
Perhaps you’ve worked under a leader who was very hands-on, supportive, and maintained an open-door policy. But maybe you’ve also reported to a leader who prioritized hierarchy, policies, and procedures over personal interaction.
Indeed, it feels like no two types of leaders are the same—and those differences all come back to their unique leadership styles.
The term “leadership style” focuses less on a person’s traits or qualities, and instead looks specifically at their behaviors.
For example, how do they interact with their subordinates? What sort of environment do they thrive in? What matters most to them?
All of this ties back to something called the Behavioral Theory of Leadership. This theory operates with the assumption that leadership is something that can be learned. Basically, if you’ve heard the old cliché that “leaders aren’t born, they’re made” that’s at the crux of this theory. It looks at the specific behaviors of a leader and categorizes them into different leadership styles.
Before we jump into 11 of the most common leadership styles, let’s take a moment to consider how your communication style as a leader needs to shift during difficult times.
It’s time to get honest: Your typical leadership style might not be effective during a global crisis like the current Covid-19 pandemic.
Not only that, it has the potential to be pretty damaging to your team.
In our 20-years of research into high performing teams at F4S, we’ve uncovered the science of two key motivation styles.
Let’s break it down:
To summarize, some people are motivated by moving towards goals, and others are more energized by moving away from problems.
As a leader, your personal preference for goals vs. problems is likely to influence your preferred leadership style. If you are someone who gets jazzed up by overcoming big obstacles, that could mean you often try to motivate your team by highlighting the consequences of not doing good work, rather than inspiring them about the goal itself.
In normal circumstances, this might be super effective if you have a team of people with a similar motivational style. But during a crisis?
That style of leadership has the potential to seriously stress your team out, since they’re already having to overcome difficult challenges outside of their work environment. Adding stress to the mix only makes that worse, and you risk pushing your team into burnout territory, or worse — you could send them into ‘flight-or-flight’ mode which is unsustainable and dangerous for their health.
Now that you’ve got your leadership communication style sorted out, it’s time to dive into the 11 different leadership styles I alluded to earlier.
So, what are the different leadership styles that are out there? Well, as mentioned above, every one has their unique style. But we’re breaking down the details of 11 of the most common approaches—including what they are, what situations they’re effective in, and how you can tell where you fit.
When you’re the leader, what you say goes. Do you agree with that statement? If you’re enthusiastically nodding your head right now, then you might be an autocratic leader.
Leaders who subscribe to this style believe that they’re the ones responsible for making all of the decisions for their teams. There isn’t a lot of open conversation or debate—they have absolute power to dole out directions.
If you’re familiar with the term “democracy,” then you can guess that this style is the polar opposite of autocratic leadership.
Democratic leaders are all about working collaboratively (which is why you might also hear this referred to as “participative leadership”). Rather than shutting their team members out of the decision-making process, they welcome them in because they believe their opinions and insights will lead to a stronger decision.
Do you love rules, guidelines, and systems? Bureaucratic leadership is typically the chosen style for leaders who prefer to do things “by the book.”
You can almost think of this as a checklist approach to leadership. Bureaucratic leaders have hierarchical authority, a clearly-defined list of responsibilities they need to fulfill, and proven systems for getting those things done. It’s almost as if their company has a manual for effective leadership, and they’re more than happy to stick to it.
As the root word of transactional leadership (yep, transaction) implies, this style is sort of the “if/then” approach to leading a team.
For example, leaders who use this style might say, “If you meet your sales quota for the month, then you get a bonus” or “If you miss that project deadline, then you need to work overtime.” It’s highly prescriptive and based on dishing out rewards and punishments to shape a team’s behavior.
If you’re the type of leader who believes in leaving a team and work environment better off than how you found it, you likely employ more of a transformational leadership style.
These leaders have their sights set on finding better ways to do things. They aren’t content with the status quo, and lean on the contributions of their team to make improvements and transform the workplace. Out-of-the-box ideas are welcomed, and even encouraged.
Laissez-faire is a French term for “let it be,” a philosophy that these types of leaders live by. Laissez-faire leaders don’t micromanage their team members and instead take more of a hands-off approach.
They trust that their subordinates know the best ways to get their tasks accomplished, and they mostly stay out of their way. They’ll provide resources and guidance when necessary, but otherwise they aren’t the type of leader who will be breathing down their team’s necks.
Have you ever interacted with somebody who had just an undeniably magnetic personality? They were inspiring, elicited a lot of trust, and were generally just enjoyable to be around? That person would likely possess a charismatic leadership style.
These leaders are highly persuasive. They lean on their charisma to share a vision, rally a team around that goal, and get people excited about following their lead. They don’t need strict instructions or punishments—they rely mostly on their charm.
Servant leadership has become an increasingly popular leadership style. It’s arguably the most supportive of all of the styles of leadership, because servant leaders consistently prioritize the needs of others above their own.
These leaders aren’t thinking about how they can elevate their own status or reputations. They’re genuinely invested in helping, developing, and serving the people they lead.
Coach-style leaders work closely with their subordinates, but that doesn’t mean they’re monitoring and micromanaging their every move.
Instead, they take on a highly developmental role—much like a coach would. They seek to understand the unique desires, goals, and motivations of each of their team members, and then aim to lead with those in mind.
Strategic leadership can be a little more difficult to wrap your arms around. But, the easiest way to think about this approach is that leaders who always keep an eye on the big picture typically fall into this category.
These leaders are skilled at expressing an overarching strategic vision, determining what resources are necessary to achieve it, and then managing their team members to successfully execute that vision.
Maybe this question is looming in your brain: Is one of the above styles automatically superior? Not exactly. That’s where situational leadership comes into play.
Situational leaders don’t necessarily stick to one style. They believe that effective leadership happens when they’re willing to be flexible and switch between several styles (and research actually backs this hypothesis up). They understand what their team needs to be successful, and then they adapt their leadership style to meet those needs.
It should be obvious — this is the approach to leadership that is especially effective when crisis hits. That's because you're perfectly fine adapting your style to suit the needs of your team, and are ready to do so at the drop of a hat.
Your team will appreciate this because they'll feel supported and safe knowing you're prioritizing their needs. This means they'll be more resilient, find it easier to open up about how they are feeling and continue to thrive, in spite of difficult circumstances.
There are tons of different types of leadership styles out there. But, there’s one more question you have: Do you need to identify your own style?
If you’re wondering what benefits you stand to gain by understanding your leadership style, we’ll put it simply: knowledge is power. The more you understand your typical approach to leadership, the easier time you’ll have identifying your blind spots, making improvements, and increasing your effectiveness.
Remember, there isn’t necessarily one leadership style that’s the default gold standard. A style that works great in a certain work environment might not be nearly as beneficial with an entirely different team.
If you’re struggling to figure out exactly what style fits you best, try asking your team for some feedback. How do they think you react in specific scenarios? What are you doing well? What do they think you could be doing better?
Having these candid conversations (whether anonymously or not) means you’ll not only get insights you can use to become even more successful in your leadership role, but it can also boost morale and your team’s performance.
One study found that managers who regularly received feedback were 8.9% more profitable than managers who didn’t. And, a separate study found that employees who have an open relationship with their manager are much happier in their positions (and more likely to stick around for the long haul as a result).
See? Understanding your own leadership style isn’t just a self-centered exercise or an unnecessary formality. It can have real, measurable impacts for you, your team, and your company overall.