What is your leadership style? If you’re the CEO of a company or perhaps a division manager, you may have already thought about this. If you’re not running much of anything, stay with me here — this question applies to you, too.

In an earlier blog, I talked with you about the important differences between a manager and a leader, and why it’s the things you do that make you a leader – not just the title on your business card.

So, really, anyone can develop an effective leadership style that has a positive impact on those around them, regardless of your own position in the organization – whether you’re the CEO, a junior sales rep, or a mailroom clerk.

In this article, let’s take a look at what leadership style means, some of the different styles of leadership that have been studied over the years, and how to adopt the best leadership style for you.

What Is Leadership Style?

In his book On Leadership, John W. Gardner offered the following definition of leadership:

…the process of persuasion or example by which an individual (or team of individuals) induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leader and his or her followers.

So first of all, leadership is a process – not a state of being. That’s very important. Instead of thinking, “I am a leader, aren’t I special?” it’s better to say “Leadership is something I do, and it’s something you can do, too.”

Second, leadership is a process of persuasion, not coercion. You don’t lead by ordering people around, but by earning buy-in from your team that their work is worthwhile and will help them to Thrive and not Just Survive.

Third, the leader demonstrates to employees how meeting the organization’s objectives will make their lives better. It’s not enough to just hope they’ll do their jobs out of compliance. A leader shows a sincere interest in the well-being of everyone.

Fourth, objectives can come from anyone – the leader, or from followers. Sometimes the purpose of objectives is to respond to a threat to the organization. At other times there is no imminent threat, but someone has the vision to identify opportunities that will strengthen the organization in the future. While others are saying “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” the leader says “Success is always under construction.”

So now that we have a sense of what leadership is, a good definition of leadership style is simply the manner in which you carry out the leadership process in your own life and work.

  • How do you view yourself and your role as a leader? Are you a boss giving orders, a coach developing other people’s talents, or a visionary inspiring everyone to reach for something better?
  • How do you relate to people? How do you persuade others that the objectives are worthwhile, that their work will make a positive difference, and that they personally will be better off for having participated in the effort?
  • How successful are you as a leader? And how do you view success? Does success stop with the bottom line, or does it include the happiness and well-being of others in the organization?

What Are the Different Leadership Styles?

This question has been written about extensively since long before any of us were born. Many people from business, politics, education, healthcare, and a host of other fields have spent lots of time studying the habits of different kinds of people when they get into leadership positions – to try and understand what they do, what works, and what doesn’t.

So let’s look at just three of the most widely published methods for categorizing leaders and examples of different leadership styles. Then we’ll talk about how to sort through all this and discover the best leadership style for you.

Kurt Lewin’s Three Leadership Styles

Famed social psychologist Kurt Lewin identified three leadership styles:

Autocratic leadership is defined by a high level of control in which the leader makes decisions without consulting team members. The autocratic leader emphasizes following rules more than anything else. This style of leadership can be useful when quick decisions are needed, as in emergencies. Otherwise, it tends to be ineffective and has fallen out of favor. Autocratic leadership tends to hurt morale and lead to higher turnover.

Democratic leadership engenders a “What do you think?” culture. While the final decision rests with the leader, he or she seeks out input from other team members, and strives to build consensus. This leadership style encourages creativity on the part of employees and values each individual’s knowledge and skills. Democratic leadership typically leads to high productivity and job satisfaction, but can be less effective when quick decisions are needed.

Laissez-faire leadership is a hands-off approach that lets followers make decisions independently, with little or no direct supervision. The laissez-faire leader trusts employees and feels less of a need to monitor activities or provide feedback. Highly experienced employees who need little direction actually thrive under laissez-faire leadership. However, less experienced employees who would benefit from more constructive feedback can suffer. Laissez-faire leadership can also lead to poor productivity and increased costs.

Daniel Goleman’s Six Leadership Styles

Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman is an expert emotional intelligence. He identified six leadership styles in research published in the Harvard Business Review:

  • Coercive – The coercive leader demands immediate compliance with orders. Decisions are made solo. Employees are expected to follow the rules without any input. As with Lewin’s autocratic style, coercive leadership tends to be only effective in times of emergency.
  • Visionary – The visionary leader looks to the future and inspires followers to strive for something better. He or she works to mobilize people to work toward a goal that will benefit everyone. The visionary leadership style tends to be most effective when change is needed.
  • Affiliative – The affiliative leader seeks to create emotional bonds and harmony. Rather than seeing their jobs as just a paycheck, the leader wants employees to view the organization as a part of their lives and something they are proud to belong to. Affiliative leadership can be effective at boosting morale, but should be used in combination with other styles.
  • Democratic – This leader takes ultimate responsibility for the outcome of his or her decisions, but seeks the input of team members and works to build consensus. As with Lewin’s democratic style, this approach builds work satisfaction and productivity, but can be less effective during emergencies.
  • Pacesetting – The pacesetting leader focuses on excellence in his or her own work and expects the same from everyone else. The leader strives to be a role-model of self-direction in hopes that others will do the same. When a team is already highly motivated and eager to accomplish the organization’s goals, the pacesetting style can be very effective. However, overuse of this approach can lead to feelings of burnout and exhaustion for some employees.
  • Coaching – This leader is a teacher more than a boss. His or her goal is to develop people for the future so that they can be successful in their work and personal lives. This leadership style can be especially useful when working with less experienced employees who are seeking to learn as they gain experience, but may be less needed with more seasoned professionals who already have well-established careers.

Transformational vs. Transactional Leadership

Historian and scholar James MacGregor Burns introduced the concepts of transformational and transactional leadership in his book Leadership. Since that time, these two opposite styles have gotten lots of attention in the business world and from researchers.

Burns argued that the leader’s job is to motivate others to join in the pursuit of important goals. That’s really the heart of transformational leadership. Burns contended that true leadership achieves goals, changes people for the better, benefits followers and leaders, and includes an ethical-moral dimension, not just financial.

Transactional leadership, by contrast, is all about a simple exchange: you show up, do your work, and go home at quitting time. In return for your compliance, the boss gives you a nice paycheck, maybe a bonus now and then, and a positive performance review. If you don’t do what you’re told to the boss’s satisfaction, you get a poor review, no bonus, and maybe even no job.

In studies comparing the two styles, transformational leadership has been positively linked with a greater sense of organizational citizenship and sales productivity, and a lower perception of organizational politics among employees (Vigoda-Gadot, 2007; Zacher and Jimmieson, 2013).

Transactional leadership has been associated with higher employee turnover among nurses in a hospital setting (Kleinman, 2004). Other studies have shown a negative relationship with organizational citizenship and job performance. In organizations where transactional leadership is practiced, employees are more likely to perceive a strong influence of organizational politics (Vigoda-Gadot, 2007).

However, which leadership style is most effective can vary based on geographic and cultural context. For example, one study found that while transformational leadership was more effective for firms based in the United States, transactional leadership was more effective in Chinese workplaces (Cho and Jung, 2014)

What is My Leadership Style?

You may also be wondering, “What is the most effective leadership style?” The short answer is, “it depends.” On what, you ask? Well, a few things:

  • The requirements of the organization
  • The needs of your people
  • Your own aptitudes and personality

Besides all the different leadership styles we just looked at, another idea has emerged over the years: situational leadership. It basically means what it sounds like – the most effective leadership style depends on the situation. Although some leadership styles appear to be more effective most of the time, almost none are effective all the time. In addition, the different styles are not usually mutually exclusive.

As a leader, you may have to borrow from different leadership styles at different times, depending on the needs of your organization. For example, while the democratic leadership style works well most of the time, there are instances where a quick decision must be made, and there is little or no opportunity to call a meeting or run a survey to get everybody’s opinion. Even if you normally involve everyone and get consensus, sometimes you have to act on your own in a short period of time. In those instances, according to Lewin and Goleman, you are required to borrow from the autocratic or coercive styles temporarily, because the situation demands it.

You may also need to vary your approach to fit the needs and experience level of individual employees. Lewin’s laissez-faire approach, as we’ve seen, happens to work really well with experienced professionals who know what they’re doing and who can excel without any hand-holding. But if you have a new hire, fresh out of school, that individual probably still has a lot to learn and will benefit from a coaching style of leadership, as described by Goleman.

Finally, there is perhaps the most influential factor – you. Last month we talked about how the difference between a job and a career really comes down to your own natural aptitudes and interests, and the attitude you bring to work every day. You can follow a similar path in finding your leadership style. It really comes down to finding just the right match between your natural aptitudes – as with finding the right career – and the needs of your team members as well as the organization.

  • What are you good at? Not so good at? What do you know? What do you still need to learn?  What is important to you – hitting financial targets, buying a vacation home, helping other people develop their talents, or helping those less fortunate than yourself? It could be one of those things, or all of them.
  • Think about your team members. What are their aptitudes and interests? How can they best help achieve the goals of the organization – in a way that also helps them to Thrive in their lives and careers?
  • What about the organization? Are things going well or poorly? Is change needed, or is it best to stay on the present course? What opportunities and threats are out there?

As you consider the answers to these questions, you’ll start to identify the best approaches – or leadership styles – for helping your team members get the most out of themselves in helping the organization achieve its objectives. Along the way, they’ll feel a greater sense of purpose and accomplishment in their own careers, and greater fulfillment in their lives.

By finding the leadership style that works best for you, you’ll be helping yourself – and those around you – to Thrive and not Just Survive.

Burns, James MacGregor. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper and Row.
Cho, Young Sik, and Joo Y. Jung. (2014). The Verification of Effective Leadership Style for TQM: A Comparative Study between USA-Based Firms and China-Based Firms. International Journal of Quality and Reliability Management, 31(7), 822-840.
Goleman, Daniel. (2000). Leadership that Gets Results. Harvard Business Review (March 1), 78-90.
Kleinman, Carol. (2004). The Relationship between Managerial Leadership Behaviors and Staff Nurse Retention. Hospital Topics, 82(4), 2-9.
Lewin, Kurt, Ronald Lippitt, and Ralph K. White. (1939). Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created social climates. Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 271-301.
Vigoda-Gadot, Eran. (2007). Leadership Style, Organizational Politics, and Employees’ Performance. Personnel Review, 36(5), 661-683.
Zacher, Hannes, and Nerina L. Jimmieson. (2013). Leader-Follower Interactions: Relations with OCB and Sales Productivity. Journal of Managerial Psychology, 28(1), 92-106.