Your guide to leadership styles

Within companies, leaders are responsible for setting the course for others. Ultimately, a leader is someone who motivates others toward a goal or commands people to action. Leaders include those with formal roles who have been placed into managerial positions and those who lead from within teams.

Over the course of your career, you’ll undoubtedly encounter leaders of many kinds. It is easy to think of leaders as either good or bad. You might have memories of a boss who constantly punished people for not reaching goals, and you might summarize them as a bad leader. On the flip side, you might remember a leader who mentored you and inspired you to grow professionally and categorize them as a good leader.

While it is certainly true that some leaders are more effective than others, there are many leadership styles, each with their own merits. In this guide to leadership styles, we’ll take a look at six of the most common styles of leadership.

#1: Autocratic leadership

Autocratic leadership is also sometimes referred to as authoritarian. In this leadership style, one person makes decisions and passes those decisions along to the rest of the team. These leaders tend to be decisive and do not require input from others to make difficult judgments.

Pros:

Under this leadership style, little time is wasted. Autocratic leaders are extremely skilled at taking the reins, moving a project forward, and communicating the strategy to their team. There is also very little room for confusion in an autocratic style of leadership.

Cons:

Because autocratic leaders tend to make decisions unilaterally, their team can feel unheard. For those who enjoy collaboration and discussion, it can be hard to work for an autocratic leader. Additionally, these leaders tend to dislike criticism of their decisions.

Example:

John, head of the marketing department, is told by his boss that the team needs to produce ten new leads each month from their digital marketing channels. Dave takes this information and decides on a strategy to make it happen. He then calls a team meeting and explains to each employee their role in enacting the plan. 

#2: Democratic leadership

The democratic leadership style is the mirror opposite of autocratic leadership. Also referred to as participative leadership, this style of leading is all about inviting others to help make decisions. A democratic leader will present problems and ask teams to collaborate on the solution.

Pros:

Democratic leadership allows everyone’s voice to be heard. Employees who enjoy collaboration will feel that their input is valuable and that they have the chance to help steer the direction of the ship. This can lead to higher buy-in as employees begin to own their solutions.

Cons:

While teams often enjoy adding their own input into the decision-making process, democratic leaders can slow down projects with indecision. Too many cooks in the proverbial kitchen can lead to ineffective strategies and confusion about project roles.

Example:

Susan is asked to pitch a new digital product to the C-Suite to solve a current user issue. Susan calls a meeting with her team, presents the problem, and asks for everyone’s input. She weighs the insights every team member brings to the table, and works with everyone to collaborate on their end solution. 

#3: Bureaucratic leadership

Bureaucratic leadership is a style in which company policy and procedures take precedence over everything else. These leaders are usually leaders by title and prescribe to a set way of handling things. A bureaucratic leader will check every box and dot every “i,” always following the book. You’ll often see this leadership style in bureaucratic organizations, such as governmental agencies or long-established corporations.

Pros:

There is an immense amount of stability with bureaucratic leadership. Employees can expect things to follow a specific format. This leadership style is also often rewarded in organizations where company policy is strict, and deviation from regulation or rule is prohibited.

Cons:

With no room for thinking outside of the box, this leadership style can feel stifling for creative types. It also lacks room for innovation and can cause employees to feel trapped into doing things the way they have always been done.

Example:

Melissa is told that the new company policy requires every retail location to increase rental rates by 12%. One of Melissa’s store managers explains a set of reasons as to why this will damage the bottom line for their store. Melissa provides the employee with the corporate memo and lets her team member know that she expects them to abide by the policy regardless of how it will affect revenue. 

#4: Hands-off leadership

Commonly referred to as laissez-faire leadership, this style of leading focuses on letting employees work independently. A hands-off leader will explain a goal, provide necessary resources, and walk away. They will check back in when the project is due and will otherwise leave their employees unsupervised.

Pros:

For those who thrive working independently, this can be a great leadership fit. Employees who are highly motivated, skilled, and problem solvers will be able to work on their own to tackle projects. This can lead to a high level of satisfaction, as employees see their work come to fruition.

Cons:

A lack of accountability can spell trouble for employees who struggle with self-motivation or have difficulty with time management. Additionally, employees who crave coaching and mentorship will feel abandoned by this leadership style.

Example:

Ben tells his employee that all accounting reports are due at the end of the month. He hands over the data set his employee needs, along with the template for submitting the report. At the end of the month, Ben expects them to hand in the report on time. 

#5: Transactional leadership

A transactional leader functions off the methodology of entering into an agreement or contract with their employees. This style of leader will explain what needs to be done and, in return for pay, expects employees to obey. A transactional leader will also often use rewards and punishment to motivate employees.

Pros:

With transactional leaders, everything is extremely cut and dry. For those who enjoy knowing their role and are motivated by rewards, this can be an effective strategy. Often, sales teams operate under a transactional leadership model.

Cons:

For some, transactional leadership can feel heartless. Everything seems as if it boils down to numbers or agreements, and there is a lack of motivation to work beyond the transaction.

Example:

Bobby tells his sales team that if they exceed their monthly sales goal, he will throw an after-work party for the team. He explains, however, that if the team falls short of their goal again, no one will be receiving their quarterly bonus. 

#6: Transformational leadership

Also called visionary leadership, transformational leadership is about inspiring employees and motivating teams. Transformational leaders tend to have high emotional intelligence, integrity, and humility. These are the leaders who empower their team members to become their best, constantly working to move roadblocks and continually setting clear goals. Transformational leaders also welcome feedback and innovative ideas, always asking their teams to question the status quo.

Pros:

Transformational leaders tend to be highly effective at building trust with employees and creating strong teams. They are a perfect fit for businesses undergoing change or looking to transform processes.

Cons:

Transformational leaders believe in improving processes and are unafraid of change. Their bold approach can be intimidating and unsettling for those who enjoy the status quo.

Example:

Maria is in charge of leading digital transformation in her company. She motivates her team through a story that showcases the importance of helping lead this transformation. She asks each team member to consider how they can contribute and invites all ideas to the table. Later, she speaks with her team lead one-on-one, asking what roadblocks are in the way of him reaching his current goals and how she can help. 

Why understanding leadership styles is important

Whether you are a leader by title, a leader by necessity, or simply an employee attempting to understand your boss better, having a grasp of leadership styles will play a critical role in your work. When it comes to leading others, being self-aware and recognizing where your natural leadership tendencies fall ensures that you lead your team in the best way possible.

On the flip side, if you are not currently in a leadership role, it can help you assess your leader. This will help you understand why your leader behaves in specific ways based on their style of leadership. In some cases, you might even realize that your boss’s leadership style isn’t a good fit for your needs. This might inspire you to hunt for a new job position. Additionally, as you take on new roles throughout your career, you might be asked to lead. Understanding leadership styles now can help you prepare to become the leader you want to be in the future.

Keep in mind that leadership styles are not always cut and dry. Many leaders use a blend of the above methods or even adapt to a situation leadership style where they transition between styles based on the needs of their team. The key to becoming a better leader is to be self-aware and recognize when your leadership style is not a good fit for your team or the task at hand.