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Leadership Styles: A Complete Guide

Ever wondered about the difference between Authoritarian and Laissez-faire leadership styles? Our guide to leadership styles will empower you with this knowledge and more! 

Contents

Defining Leadership
What does it mean to be a great leader?
The different leadership styles
Defining leadership strengths and weaknesses
What is the best leadership style for successful managers today
Can someone change their leadership style?
How to become a leader
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Defining leadership

The Cambridge Dictionary defines leadership as “the quality or ability that makes a person a leader”, but there is so much more to it than that.

Leadership is the vehicle for achieving progress and success on an individual level, as well as for your organisation and your subordinates. Done well, leadership is the lifeblood of an effective team, motivated to achieve success rather than merely be afraid of failure.

It is a way to accelerate your career, by gaining the confidence and experience to motivate action, delegate responsibility, and outline strategy.

It is also a way to create higher value for your organisation by empowering others to increase their productivity and effectiveness, paving the way for success.

And finally, it is a way to grow your organisation by articulating a vision for growth, and ensuring that your workforce is ready to meet the opportunities leading to it.

How many leadership styles are there?

Sorry to say, but there is not a definitive answer to this question. The literature on leadership is expansive, with various theories competing for dominance. 

A common trajectory is acknowledged and agreed upon, with instructing at one end, and softer traits like delegation, participation, and coaching moving along the spectrum.

Drilling deeper into the definition of leadership reveals several theories, each giving rise to several styles that leaders exist within. There is overlap between these and common threads running through certain styles. Each has benefits and drawbacks, and each lends itself especially well to certain situations. 

This page will introduce the most commonly accepted leadership styles in detail, as well as answering a breadth of questions about leading and leadership.

Why is it important to know your leadership style?

An awareness of different styles - and their strengths, weaknesses, and suitability - allows you to work in the way that best lends itself to your personality. This will bring the most benefit to the people you are leading and the organisation you are working within.

It is also important in helping you to determine and strive for the optimal leadership style. 

What does it mean to be a great leader?

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The boss says 'I'; the leader, 'we'

Henry Gordon Selfridge, retail magnate.

He says, 'I was beaten'; he does not say 'My men were beaten.'

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author and aviator.

Think of a strong leader - it could be Gandhi, Thatcher, Mandela, or Mother Theresa - and ask yourself what marks this person out as one of the greats?

It’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer. There are traits that align with effective leadership - charisma, charm, courage - but there are plenty of people with these traits who cannot lead. 

Great leadership sits at the cross-section of innate ability, development of the right skills, and emotional intelligence.

It is the act of achieving success through the successful alignment of the why, the what, the how, and the way.

In individual terms, being a great leader means understanding yourself, and the wide range of tasks you'll be responsible for. Bruce Woodcock at the University of Kent identifies the following, non-exhaustive list:

  • Persuading and motivating
  • Clarifying
  • Making decisions
  • Listening and supporting
  • Delegating
  • Being assertive
  • Learning from failure
  • Persevering
  • Accepting responsibility
  • Taking initiative
  • Planning and organising

There are more subtle things, too. Good leaders have body language that makes people feel like they matter, by demonstrating confidence, openness, and involvement. 

Strong leadership requires an understanding of the complex mix of traits and behaviours that can inspire and motivate success.

In organisational terms, being a great leader means empowering those around you to perform and achieve, while having the confidence to maintain overall accountability. 

For a deep drill into what leadership really entails, take a look out our Leadership Laid Bare infographic.

The different leadership styles

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The goal of leadership theory is to identify and understand the traits that make leaders successful so that these can be studied, understood, and emulated.

At a top-level, identifying and describing your leadership style will put you in a position of deeper understanding. 

Are you task-oriented or people-oriented? Do you primarily make announcements or allow contributions? Do you spend your time directing, coaching, supporting, or delegating? Do you most value managerial authority, or subordinate freedom?

Examination of these spectrums - and many others to be outlined in the following paragraphs - will give you the level of understanding required to make meaningful developments in your leadership.

Authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire

The three broadly recognised leadership styles proposed by Kurt Lewin in the 1930s still hold true today and form the groundwork on which much of the proceeding theory was built.

In authoritarian leadership, one person is in charge of the whole decision-making process, from evaluation to implementation. This is considered to be relatively ineffective in most settings.

In democratic leadership, input can come from others and decisions can be made collectively. The leader will guide the process but will make the final call. This is often called the "opposite" of authoritarian leadership, although the reality is slightly more nuanced. It is considered to be a broadly effective leadership style.

In laissez-faire leadership, input and decisions can come from any direction, and active leadership from one individual is minimal. This is considered to be more effective than other styles in specific settings.

See how these map onto the ratio between managerial authority and subordinate freedom we mentioned earlier? Under authoritarian leadership there is very little leeway for subordinates to question or correct the leadership; whereas a laissez-faire leadership style relies on this dynamic.

Lewin's three styles formed the basis of much leadership theory that followed. Our view of leadership is centred around the five styles below:

  • Authoritarian.
  • Procedural.
  • Transformational.
  • Participative.
  • Laissez-faire.

Note that Democratic leadership has given way to three subsidiary leadership styles.

Each item in this list is a broad bucket that an individual’s leadership will sit within. It's unlikely (and undesirable) that a leader will sit firmly and permanently within one style.

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We'll drill deeper into each of these five styles shortly: first, a look at what distinguishes the different types.

    • Amount of control exercised: This will be high, medium, or low, with words like controlling, reasoning, and counselling being indicative of each.
    • What the leader is trying to achieve: Whether they are demanding a task to be done, inspiring a team to reach their own conclusion on how an objective should be achieved, or merely taking ultimate responsibility for the decisions made by the subordinates.
    • Situations when it is used: Some styles lend themselves better to crisis situations, while others are more suitable for day-to-day.
  • The speed at which results are achieved: Some styles swap a degree of subordinate freedom for the ability to push through results more quickly.
  • Opportunity for subordinates to develop: Not all leadership styles will hold personal development of those being led as a priority (or even a consideration).
  • Rewards and punishments used: The severity or even existence of incentives for performance is another variation between leadership styles.

With these aspects in mind, we will now outline the five key leadership styles.

What is authoritarian leadership?

May also be called: Autocratic leadership, transactional leadership.

In this leadership style, commands come from the top-down, issued by a leader with full control over workload and responsibility. 

Authoritarian leadership is useful in a crisis situation, where a leadership figure needs to make quick and assertive decisions to quickly diffuse the situation. One example could be a fire in the office, where one person needs to direct everyone safely out without being questioned; another could be when a company is in dire straits and one person needs to take the lead to steer a course to brighter pastures.

While this leadership style may not initially sound ideal, there are situations where it can be effective.

However, it quickly becomes limited in situations that do not warrant strict leadership. Leading by decree rather can quickly become counterproductive, and by its nature, open and honest communication is not encouraged because the leadership is not designed or intended to be questioned. This removal of responsibility, autonomy, creativity, and innovation from subordinates can quickly foster dissent, even in situations where the leadership style feels necessary.

Questions an authoritarian leader might ask

  • "Are you questioning my authority?" 
  • "Why have the things I asked not been done?" 

What is procedural leadership?

May also be called: Task-oriented leadership, bureaucratic leadership, managerial leadership.

Organisations, where tradition is heavily established, may self-select for procedural leadership, and the focus will be on doing things by the books rather than taking suggestions from subordinates. Whether this is effective or not depends on a variety of factors.

This leadership style is useful when a strict process must be followed carefully to achieve desired results, for example in the military chain of command, or when working with dangerous materials or machinery. Whereas an authoritarian leader tells subordinates what to do based on their own ideas about what will work best, a procedural leader puts their faith in the rules and regulations that have been built over time: They can be thought of as managers, instructing others to take the steps they know need to be taken.

Procedural leadership thrives in organisations where the procedures are sound, sensible, and open to refinement. If a leader is responsible for implementing strategy according to procedures that are decided further up the chain as part of an ongoing process, then procedural leadership can be an effective way to motivate staff.

If the procedures are out of date, or if dogma prevents them from being examined and refined, this style of leadership becomes less effective. This is especially true if subordinates are aware of the procedural shortfall: If suggestions are made to improve things based on lived experience, and then ignored by leadership because they do not fit with how things are usually done, people may become stifled and disillusioned.

Questions a procedural leader may ask:

  • "What did we do last time we were in this situation?" 
  • "What does company policy say?" 
  • "Why don't we follow procedure instead?"

What is transformational leadership?

May also be called: Charismatic leadership.

Transformational leaders present a vision for the organisation and set goals to enable their subordinates to make this a reality. Employees feel motivated and empowered, and as a result, this leadership style is associated with happy and engaged teams. A relatively large amount of control and freedom is afforded to employees, but there is a risk that transformational leadership will neglect the smaller picture.

Transformational leadership is useful in situations where staff achieve at different levels. An effective leader will set paces specific to the capabilities of each individual, meaning that while all staff are working toward the same goals, individual staff members have deadlines and targets to reflect their ability.

The phrase "outside of your comfort zone" is applicable here: A transformational leader may aim to keep their subordinates just beyond their comfort zone so that continuous progress - or transformation - is possible. All of this goal setting is done with a vision in mind, and constant course correction increases the likelihood of the vision becoming a reality.

Transformational leadership requires a level of vigilance not necessarily required by others. If bespoke deadlines and targets are set, these must be managed and supervised to ensure they are correct: Left unchecked, staff can become stressed, demotivated, and ineffective if things are too hard or too easy.

Thanks to a strong focus on the bigger picture, a transformational leader risks losing sight of the smaller things. Though subordinates have some level of freedom in deciding how to achieve their goals and targets, leadership is required to make sure things stay on track.

Questions a transformational leader might ask:

  • “How can we do better?”
  • “Can you up your targets for next month?”
  • “Do you believe in my vision?”

What is participative leadership?

May also be called: Consulting leadership.

Participative leadership sees leaders working alongside their team in a way that has not been seen in previous leadership styles. Employees are involved in decision making, and tasks are delegated downward from the leadership, implying a sense of trust.

This leadership style is useful when expertise is distributed throughout an organisation but leadership needs to have a final input to ensure things are done correctly. Success is arrived at through the creation of an environment where everyone feels a sense of ownership over the organisation and its achievements. 

Focus is given to the development of subordinates, too: They are able to exercise authority and to strengthen their participatory skills, which will stand them in good stead for the rest of their career. 

In participatory leadership, the leader may make a unilateral decision after evaluating the input of everybody who contributed, or they may decide to open up the decision to a vote. This exchange of managerial authority for subordinate freedom can become a drawback if the leadership team are unable to maintain effective control, or if subordinates do not engage in a meaningful way.

Questions a participative leader might ask:

  • "Here are some ideas on how this could be done: What does everybody think?" 
  • "Does anybody have suggestions on how these suggestions could be improved?" 
  • "Are we sure this is the right path?"

What is laissez-faire leadership?

May also be called: Delegative leadership, servant leadership.

In laissez-faire leadership, structures and processes are determined by the skills of the team, rather than being dictated from above. Leadership comes from facilitating this environment and steering the course of decisions being made. In many ways, it is left up to subordinates to decide the best way to work.

This is a non-intrusive style of leadership, useful in a healthy organisation where employees are motivated, capable, and willing. Also in organisations where a non-hierarchical structure is being nurtured, and where expertise is not centralised at the top of the chain of authority. 

In a start-up where staff are few and highly qualified for example, there is a lot of merit to letting each team member contribute to the direction of the company. In this situation, laissez-faire leadership can shine.

Because of this very hands-off approach and its very specific organisational requirements, laissez-faire leadership can quickly devolve into a malaise where nobody feels motivated to contribute. Leaders using this style must be aware of its limitations. 

Questions a laissez-faire leader might ask:

  • "Is there anything that would help you to work more effectively?" 
  • "Why don't you sit down with the rest of the team and come up with some ideas about how things could be done better?" 
  • "Do I need to step in and the correct course just yet, or is it better for me to stay at the sidelines and let my team make these improvements themselves?"

Other types of leadership

While consensus suggests there are five key leadership styles - those outlined above - you may come across some other terms. Some of these are full leadership styles proposed by other theorists, while others are traits or behaviours that sit alongside leadership styles.

Charismatic leadership is considered by some theorists to be a standalone style, where the action is achieved by inspiring people to make a change. Think of Barack Obama and his "Yes We Can" campaign, which was able to inspire millions.

Transactional leadership is also considered a standalone theory by some, rather than an alias for authoritarian leadership. When this is the case, rewards and punishment are used to encourage or discourage actions taken toward the achievement of the goals that have been determined. 

In coaching, a leader links the goals of the individual with those of the organisation and develops both with a focus on the future. Think of the football coaches like Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsène Wenger, who became famous for getting the most out of their team.

There are many similarities between coaching and transformational leadership: The key differentiator is the setting they exist within.

Defining leadership strengths and weaknesses

Ask yourself, what happens if you're not a great leader?

When this is the case, words like disenfranchised, disengaged, disillusioned, and dissenting start to enter the picture. Your subordinates will not feel valued and their full potential will not be realised, and negative feelings will eventually make themselves manifest.

To avoid this situation, a solid understanding of your strengths and weaknesses is vital. Strengths can be built upon and leveraged; weaknesses can be improved upon and avoided. 

Listing your own perceived abilities and shortfalls is a good place to start, and asking your team for their thoughts will offer a deeper level of insight. 

Your list may include these strength/weakness pairings:

  • Celebrates the performance of subordinates / Taking credit for others' work.
  • Demonstrates fluidity between leadership styles based on the situation / Refuses to deviate from familiar processes even when the situation demands it. 
  • Is consistently effective thanks to the flexibility in style / Is inconsistent in style and effectiveness. 
  • Commands respect from subordinates / Commands fears from subordinates.
  • Empathises with the needs of subordinates / Complete lack of empathy.

How to identify your leadership style

An understanding of your strengths and weaknesses will help you to identify your leadership abilities, as will an understanding of where you sit on the various spectrums outlined above.

  • Are you task-oriented or people-oriented? 
  • Do you announce or allow? 
  • Do you mainly direct, coach, support, or delegate? 
  • Do you most value managerial authority, or subordinate freedom?
  • Do you value contributions from subordinates??

As you begin to understand your strengths, weaknesses, priorities, and the interplay between them, you will see how your traits map onto the leadership styles outlined above.

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What is the best leadership style for successful managers today

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It is generally accepted that authoritarian or laissez-faire leadership are effective in fewer organisational contexts than democratic leadership, but this does not mean they don’t have their place.

There is no clear-cut answer for “the best” leadership style. Instead, there is information to guide you toward a better understanding of the aims of your organisation, your leadership style, and the optimal combination.

A successful manager will provide the right infrastructure for subordinates to build upon and perform within, based on a solid understanding of the situation, effective strategy, and the required technical information and tools.

They will also accept responsibility for failure within the infrastructure that has been created, and use this to implement changes rather than to punish.

Effective management relies on understanding the capability of subordinates, the complexity of the situation, and to lead in a way that yields the best results. The best managers become invested in the development of the people around them, and helping them to realise their potential. They will demonstrate the ability to move effectively between leadership styles, rather than trying to force one style onto a situation regardless of its effectiveness.

A great leader will also reflect on their own capabilities with a view to improving on all of these points.

Can someone change their leadership style?

Unposed group of creative business people in an open concept office brainstorming their next project.

If you’re wondering whether it’s possible to change your leadership style, you’ll be pleased to know that the answer is ‘yes’. Doing so is actively encouraged, too:  It is very unlikely that a leader who maintains the same style continuously - whether knowingly or otherwise - will be effective.

The best leaders will use different styles of leadership across their career. They will use different styles across the working day as well. One analogy of effective leadership is a river that flows along the most natural path: over rocks, under bridges, and around obstacles - responding to situations as and when they occur while still flowing toward the end goal.

Changing leadership style relies on identifying aspects you like - those which are compatible with the situation and the goals of the organisation - and building upon then. Those that aren't ideal - which demotivate or alienate staff, and sit at odds with organisational aims - should be identified too, and improved upon.

Changing leadership style also relies on developing your emotional intelligence, which determines traits like the ones below:

  • Good emotional intelligence.
  • Self-awareness.
  • Good self-assessment.
  • Self-confidence.
  • Empathy.
  • Organisational awareness.
  • Service orientation.
  • Self-control.
  • Trustworthiness.
  • Conscientiousness.
  • Adaptability.
  • Initiative.
  • Vision.
  • Influence.
  • Communication.
  • Conflict management.
  • Collaboration.

It is thought that leaders who are proficient at ten or more of these traits are able to change leadership styles quickly and effectively based on what the situation demands.

Leadership can be learned: Part of changing leadership style is actively seeking instruction on how to identify, define, and emulate the traits of effective leadership.

How to become a leader

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Can you take initiative? Can you go the extra mile to improve and innovate? Can you inspire the people around you?

If you answered "Yes" to those questions, then you should know... 

That it takes more than reading a list of words to become a leader!

There is no fixed formula that guarantees effective leadership. 

There is a wealth of literature about leadership theory and a huge bank of expertise that can be tapped into. 

Our FREE video training series will put you on the path toward implementing positive change, empowering you to make a difference to yourself, your team, and your organisation.

  • Learn how to take the initiative and outline a vision for the future.
  • Learn how to drive innovation and achieve success.
  • Learn how to make it a reality by inspiring others to achieve it.
  • Learn to see challenges to your authority as opportunities for improvement - for yourself and your organisation - rather than as threats.

And most importantly, learn to lead by example, not by improvisation.

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