What do Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, and Marvin Ellison, CEO of Lowe’s, have in common? They are both exceptional leaders. While one makes waves in the tech industry, the other takes on the challenge of retail. Both are forward-thinking, have visions for their work, and are compelling enough to command an audience.
Leadership is not one-size-fits-all. Every leader has their own personality and experience that influences their particular style. This style can evolve over time, so the leader you are today may be different from the leader you’d like to become.
To help you better understand what your current leadership style is and how you can use it to empower your team to make an impact, we cover 11 common leadership styles and theories.
A leadership style is a classification of how you put your leadership skills into action. As we already know, leaders have many strengths. They spend their days on various responsibilities, from motivating others and thinking creatively to solving problems and taking risks. No two leaders are the same, though—how one approaches the same set of tasks can be vastly different from the next.
This leads us into breaking down various leadership styles. Do you have a direct or indirect approach? Do you complete tasks with yourself in mind or for the betterment of the team? Do you prefer a collaborative environment or would you rather assign individual tasks? These are just some of the questions that can help lead you to understanding your leadership style.
We’ll dive into all of this and more, but first, it’s important to understand how leadership and management relate to one another (and don’t).
Leadership and management are often used interchangeably. However, the two have different meanings.
A leader uses their vision to push a company forward, while keeping the team inspired. They also have a positive social influence and are able to use it to benefit the organization. On the other hand, managers have an operational role in the company to keep projects on track using a specific management style.
“Management is operational; it’s about setting priorities, evaluating priorities, hiring and firing decisions, compensation decisions, things like that. A leader is more of a coach, or even a spiritual guide. She is responsible for maintaining energy, keeping everyone on the team inspired and helping them grow, and for ensuring everyone is aligned in the same direction. A leader must be a point of strength and stability across changes.” —Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder and CEO, Asana
You don’t need to be a manager to be a leader. Leaders can be found in every role in a company, not just top-level positions. If you’re working on becoming a better leader within your role, it’s helpful to understand the pros and cons of your current leadership style and what additional types of leadership you can aim to embody.
Next, we’ll dive into various leadership styles and theories to help you better understand your style. You may even adopt some new strategies along the way.Read: Leadership vs. management: What’s the difference?
If you were to look up leadership theory online (which might be how you landed here), you would come across one name time and time again: Kurt Lewin.
One of the oldest and most common ways to classify leadership is by using Lewin’s leadership theory. In 1939, psychologist Kurt Lewin and his research team identified three styles of leadership behavior: authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire. Their full study was published in an article in The Journal of Social Psychology and created a domino effect, opening up the door to further research on the topic by psychologists.
To get you up to speed, we have a rundown of the three pillars of Lewin’s leadership theory and give example statements these leaders might associate with.
Authoritarian—also referred to as autocratic—leaders have clear command and control over their peers. Decision-making is centralized, meaning there is one person making the critical decisions. An authoritarian leader has a clear vision of the bigger picture, but only involves the rest of the team on a task-by-task or as-needed basis.
Authoritarian leaders will be personal when giving others praise or criticism but clearly separate themselves from the group. While you might assume an authoritarian leader would be unpleasant, this isn’t typically true. Rarely are they openly hostile. Instead, they’re typically friendly or, at times, impersonal.
I prioritize my own learnings over those of the team.
In disagreements within the company, my view is typically the right one.
If there are too many voices speaking, we can’t get the job done.
I ignore those who have opposing opinions on a project I'm in charge of.
Authoritarian leaders have the ability to complete projects in a time crunch.
This style is helpful when decisive action is needed.
Autocratic leadership is successful when the leader is the most knowledgeable member of the group.
This style doesn’t promote creativity.
Leaders can be viewed negatively and as overbearing or controlling.
Has difficulty trying another leadership style and are typically set in their ways.
Participative or democratic leaders welcome everyone’s opinions and encourage collaboration. While they might have the final say, these leaders distribute the responsibility of making decisions to everyone.
Participative leaders are part of the team. They invest their time and energy in their colleagues' growth because they know it will, in turn, help them reach the end goal. If you excel in collaborative group environments, this might be your leadership style.
If I prioritize the group’s learnings, it will benefit my role.
In disagreements within the company, we should hear everyone’s opinion and then come to a solution.
The more people we have working on a project, the better the outcome will be.
I welcome those with opposing views because it will make the end product better.
This is the most effective leadership style, according to Lewin’s study.
Participative leadership leads to higher quality contributions.
There is more creativity and group members feel engaged.
Everyone understands the bigger picture and is motivated to reach the end goal.
Teams with participative leaders aren’t as productive as those with authoritarian leaders.
All team members need to be bought-in for collaboration to work.
Lewin’s third style is delegative or laissez-faire leadership. Delegative leaders offer very little guidance to the group. They allow team members complete freedom in the decision-making process.
Delegative leaders separate themselves from the group and choose not to participate or interrupt the current trajectory of a project. Their comments are infrequent. Group members might even forget what this leader looks like by the time they finish the project.
The group can decide what’s best for them, but I expect a stellar end product.
In disagreements within the company, others can make a decision without my input.
I’ll pass along resources to my team. From there, I want group members who are self-starters and can determine how to proceed.
Those with opposing views can try their methods individually.
Delegative leadership can be beneficial if all group members are qualified experts.
Those who value autonomy will have high job satisfaction under this leadership.
If the team has the same goal as the leader, it can be achieved. Goal tracking software can be used to monitor progress.
Teams with laissez-faire leadership are the least productive, according to Lewin’s study.
With a delegative leader, roles and responsibilities are unclear.
This style can lead to team members blaming each other and not taking any responsibility.
Now that you understand Lewin’s three leadership styles, let’s take a different approach by looking at the emotional leadership theory. This approach will help you use emotional intelligence to read the room and apply the correct leadership style.
Another popular leadership theory is Daniel Goleman’s six leadership styles. In the book, “Primal Leadership,” Goleman collaborated with Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee to highlight the necessity of leadership that is self-aware.
Goleman outlines six leadership styles, how they are used, and what impact they have on company climate. Each style fits a situation, so an effective leader has the emotional intelligence needed to determine what type of leadership they should employ.
Successful leaders will use all of these six styles to a certain extent, adapting their personal style to accommodate varying situations and personalities they encounter.
Visionary leadership is comparable to Lewin’s authoritative leadership style. Visionary leaders have clear, long-term visions, and are able to inspire and motivate others.
This type of leadership is best used when there is a big change in the company or a clear direction is needed. In this case, people are looking for someone they trust to follow into the unknown.
It is less successful when other team members are experts who have differing ideas or opinions than that of the leader. These team members won’t want to blindly follow a leader they don’t agree with.
Members of the organization feel inspired and understand their roles.
Temporary problems don’t dishearten the leader because they have their eye on the end goal.
Visionary leaders are skilled at creating contingency plans to address challenges from outside factors such as politics or world events.
There is a lack of short-term focus by teams.
Vision can be lost if it’s too intertwined with the leader’s personality.
Visionary leaders have the potential to reject other group members' ideas.
A coaching leader is able to identify other team members’ strengths and weaknesses and coach them to improve. They are also able to tie these skills to the company’s goals.
Coaching leadership is successful when the leader is creative, willing to collaborate, and can give concrete feedback. It’s also important that the coach knows when to step back and give the person autonomy.
If you’ve ever had a bad coach, you know that coaching isn’t for everyone. When done poorly, coaching leadership can be seen as micromanaging.
Coaching leadership can create an environment that is motivating and group members enjoy being a part of.
There are clear expectations, so team members’ skills can develop.
This style of leadership gives companies a competitive advantage, as it results in skilled individuals that are productive and willing to coach others.
Coaching leadership requires patience and time.
It only works if others are open to receiving this type of leadership.
Coaching leaders rely heavily on relationships which can be difficult if there isn’t team chemistry.
Affiliative leadership is relationship-focused. The intention of an affiliative leader is to create harmony. This charismatic leader works to build and foster relationships within the workplace which leads to a more collaborative and positive work environment.
An affiliative leader is helpful when creating a new team or when in crisis, as both of these situations require trust. This leadership style can be harmful when the leader focuses too much on being a friend and is less concerned with productivity and company goals.
Team morale is boosted by positive and constructive feedback.
Interpersonal conflict is quickly stopped.
Team members feel important and have less stress.
Affiliative leadership creates tightly knit teams that are empowered to help each other.
Some team members may be underperforming under the radar. A lack of clear roles can lead to social loafing.
Affiliative leaders are reluctant to say anything negative which doesn’t help others grow.
The organization’s goals are often forgotten.
Team members become emotionally dependent on the leader. If the leader were to change teams or leave, the rest of the team would be lost.
Democratic leadership is the same concept as Lewin’s participative leadership. All team members are encouraged to participate and share ideas. As a result, the team feels empowered, even though the leader ultimately has the final say.
Democratic leadership is successful in highly skilled teams, where members can provide fruitful contributions. It is less impactful for junior teams that don’t have as much experience or knowledge on the topic. It also shouldn’t be used in situations that need immediate action.
Collaboration leads to creativity and innovation.
There is high employee engagement and trust.
Common goals lead to high accountability and productivity.
Collaboration takes time.
Team members can lose trust if the leader makes a decision without their input.
Democratic leadership isn’t successful if team members aren’t skilled.
A pacesetting leader sets an example of high productivity, performance, and quality. Team members are supposed to follow in their footsteps. If team members can’t keep up, pacesetting leaders will step in and complete the task correctly.
Pacesetting leadership is successful when the leader creates clear requirements and motivates team members to meet deadlines. It’s unsuccessful when team members lose trust in the leader and become stressed, overworked, or unmotivated.
Pacesetting leaders are able to achieve business goals on time.
Teams can be fully utilized with a pacesetting leader.
Progress reports allow issues to be identified quickly.
Pacesetting leadership can lead to stressed and unmotivated team members with low morale.
Team members can lose trust if the leader is watching and correcting their every move.
A strong focus on results and deadlines can lead to less creativity.
Limited feedback is given.
Commanding leadership is comparable to directive or coercive leadership. In this style, the leader has clear goals and objectives that they communicate to the team and expect others to follow. They put procedures and policies in place to create structure.
Commanding leadership is typically used when other team members don’t have skills or expertise. In this scenario, the members need structure in order to know how to complete their tasks. It is also successful in emergency situations when there is no time for discussion. This leadership style should be used in combination with the others, if used at all.
There are clear expectations that can improve job performance.
It’s useful in times of crisis as decisions can be made quickly.
Commanding leadership can be helpful in groups of low-skill or inexperienced workers.
Commanding leaders can quickly identify if a team member is falling behind.
If the leader isn’t more experienced than the group, this leadership style fails.
There is no collaboration, which stifles creativity.
Team morale can drop and employees aren’t as engaged.
There is a high dependency on the leader, causing a bottleneck.
A commanding leader can easily turn into an autocratic leader.
Emotional leadership theory can easily be implemented into your day-to-day work. First, identify the type of team you’re working with. Then consider which leadership styles could best support your tasks. From there, try adjusting your emotional leadership style to match scenarios that arise. With a little practice, this theory could transform your leadership approach.
In addition to Lewin’s leadership theory and the emotional leadership theory, there are two more noteworthy styles of leadership: transformational and transactional.
Both of these styles were documented by Bernard M. Bass, an American psychologist who studied organizational behavior and leadership. While you might not know them by name yet, you’ve probably seen them in the workplace.
Bernard M. Bass’s most popular theory is transformational leadership, also referred to as the four I’s. This theory was built on James MacGregor Burns’ concept from 1978 in which he explained, “leaders and followers help each other to advance a higher level of morale and motivation.”
In this leadership style, transformational leaders effectively gain the trust and respect of others who want to follow them. The four I’s of transformational leadership are: individualized consideration, intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation, and idealized influence. The four I’s are used to measure how transformational a leader is.
Transformational leaders use coaching and encouragement to empower their team.
Team members are seen as individuals, so all their unique skills can be put to use effectively.
Teams are united in a common cause which leads to growth within the company.
Individuals are given freedom.
Smaller tasks are easily forgotten which means it’s difficult to make the vision a reality.
The constant involvement of a leader can result in pressure and burnout.
The leader’s goals must align with the company’s goals, or else it becomes risky.
All team members must respect the leader and agree with their approach.
Transactional leadership was first conceptualized by sociologist Max Weber. It was then elaborated on by Bernard M. Bass in opposition to transformational leadership.
Transactional leadership uses rewards and punishments to motivate team members. This type of leader believes that a clear chain of command will lead to better performance. Team members need to follow instructions and are closely monitored by the leader.
Transactional leadership is useful in situations that have a clearly defined problem.
This style of leadership can be helpful in a crisis as everyone has clear roles.
Group members know what is expected of them.
Transactional leadership style stifles creativity of team members.
Transactional leaders don’t support team members’ emotional needs.
These types of leaders don’t reward the initiative of individuals.
This leadership role doesn’t typically have long-term success because it’s too focused on short-term goals.
As you can see, there are many different leadership theories and ways of thinking about leadership.
Lewin’s theory places leaders into one of three groups, participative being the most effective. Emotional leadership theory gives six leadership styles that an effective leader will deploy at different times, depending on the situation. Bass gives us two opposing styles—transformational and transactional—one which motivates by empowering others while the other motivates with rewards and punishments.
There isn’t one correct leadership style, but there is a style that you’re likely naturally drawn to. Which style did you relate to the most? What’s your default? Understand the pros and cons so that you can become a leader that empowers your team to thrive. If you’re having trouble leading consciously with your current method, consider trying a new leadership approach.
Both leaders and managers are tasked with ensuring teams are meeting the goals of an organization. Work management software will help ensure your team is on the same page, no matter where you’re leading them from.