What Are the (7) Leadership Styles?

Written by Alex Dorian

what are leadership styles?

A leadership style is a manner in which an individual drives the mission of an organization. It’s defined by how that leader communicates with and trains their employees while ensuring the organization reaches its objectives.

The terms used to describe the recognized leadership styles in the business world come straight from the political arena. They align with the same characteristics associated with leadership methods and structures installed in nation states around the world throughout the 20th century. Some are top down in nature, others take on a more democratic characteristic, while some are decidedly laissez-faire.

The leadership style you adopt depends on a couple of factors: your personality and the company culture. You wouldn’t find much success installing an authoritarian leadership style in an organization with an established “round table” culture.

So, it would benefit you to find a leadership style that complements both your personality and the organization’s goals. The latter consideration should be top of mind: If your personal preference for a leadership style is not conducive to the organization’s success, then you need to humbly elect one that is.

But you don’t have to relegate yourself to one leadership style. It’s perfectly acceptable, and probably wise, to use a blend of the leadership styles we outline here.

1 - Coaching Leadership Style

coaching leadership styleThe coaching leadership style is best suited for those who want to help the individuals and teams they lead maximize their potential. It entails recognizing an employee’s strengths then developing them to suit their career goals, and the goals of your organization.

Some examples of coaching leadership in action include:

One of the paradoxes of the coaching leadership style is that you may recognize an employee has ambitions that don’t quite fit those of the organization. For example, say you’re running a marketing consultancy that specializes in serving clients that work primarily in the business to business space. If you have a talented and ambitious team of creative consultants with a passion for connecting with individuals in consumer markets, you might find yourself steering that creative energy in a way that serves the business or even adapting the business to make the best use of that talent.  

2 - Autocratic Leadership Style

autocratic leadership styleThe autocratic style is more akin to a militaristic operation. There’s no room for input from subordinates: If the orders are X, Y, and Z, employees must execute X, Y, and Z as you, the leader, expects them to be executed.

Autocratic doesn’t have to be synonymous with “totalitarian.” It’s more about ensuring the team executes a mission to the specifications you’ve found will lead to success. You may have developed those specifications over decades of experiences. As such, those reporting to you may be more willing to accept those non-negotiable directives because they trust your experience.

Of course, you don’t have to take an atomistic approach to any of these leadership styles. You may adopt a more autocratic approach when you’ve seen, at a higher level, the clear benefits of certain actions. This might be as simple as directing buyers in the organization to order all materials from a particular supplier after working out a deal for bulk order discounts… or instructing sales staff to focus on a customer segment that business analytics shows to be more loyal and lucrative.

Be cognizant that adopting the autocratic leadership style warrants unwavering confidence and trust from your employees. It also requires you to respect them. Think of yourself as a conductor instead of a despot. If you adopt a dictatorial disposition when running the company, you run the risk of losing talent.

3 - Pacesetting Leadership Style

pacesetting leadership styleThis is the “lead by example” approach to running an organization. It’s the “do as I do” practice. You explicitly guide those reporting to you by performing at a particular speed and method.

Many people associate pacesetting with high-energy practices: Go fast, go efficiently, and go hard. That is definitely an approach you can take, but you also have the option of establishing a slow and steady cadence to win the race over time.

Setting an industry-leading pace doesn’t have to mean running around like a maniac. Instead, it comes from an amalgamation of a dozen efficiencies that add up to a whole lot of time and resources saved. Five minutes here and there across an enterprise can shave hundreds of hours over the course of project. 

Pacesetting will really drive the energy of your organization. Reflect on those you’ve worked for in the past. Those with a laidback, almost lethargic attitude would inspire the same attitude in you. If your boss isn’t rushing, why should you? On the other hand, if your boss runs at 120 miles per hour, you’ll follow the same pace – unless you burn out, which is a different issue altogether.

4 - Democratic Leadership Style

democratic leadership styleThe democratic leadership style entails gathering everyone’s input before making a decision, whether it’s about launching a new product, adopting software, hiring new employees, or whatever.

The advantage of the democratic leadership style is that it allows you to tap into the scarcest resource of all: knowledge. If you’re running a marketing team, the pay-per-click manager will have different insight than the search engine optimization specialist, or the social media marketer, or the graphic designer. Each person may bring up consequences and benefits of a particular course of action that you wouldn’t have thought of on your own.

With that said, the democratic leadership style has its disadvantages. It’s not particularly effective when time is of the essence. Rather, it’s better to adopt this style when a project is in its infancy, such as a website redesign, a product launch, or the like. However, once a course of action’s been agreed upon, the divergent opinions of the group cannot delay progress.

When taking the democratic route, listen to everyone’s input. Acknowledge their ideas and opinions, guide conversations to a common accord, consider all the input… then decisively make the final call.

5 - Transformational Leadership Style

transformational leadership styleThe transformational leadership style has a strong association with the principles of organizational leadership in that it involves aligning operations with a company mission.

Is Union Pacific, America’s largest owner of rail infrastructure, actually in the rail business? The rail is simply a means of providing the transport services clients need, so they’re competing with on-road trucking and air freight, not just other railroads… An SEO agency might be working to enhance a website’s search ranking in Google, but to what end? The ranking itself is simply a means to helping companies generate more qualified leads. So, at the heart of the operation, it’s a marketing business.

Transformational leaders look for new ways to get the most from the core purpose of the organization. If you’re running the aforementioned SEO agency, then you’d set up a process of ensuring the websites you’re working on are generating solid leads for the sales team down funnel. That would entail:

Beforehand, that SEO agency may have solely focused on building quality websites that get tons of visitors. That’s a good start, but a transformational leader would want to secure the agency’s future by building out its marketing capabilities.

Challenges come with balancing transformational vision with the brass tacks of doing business. It’s easy to craft a vision for what a company should be, but there has to be a practical means of transforming that vision into revenue.

6 - Delegative Leadership Style

delegative leadership styleThis is the antithesis of the autocratic leadership style. A delegative approach assigns the bulk of the decision making to your direct reports. Don’t misinterpret this as a “just-do-what-ever-you-want” methodology. Good delegative leaders set goals and general operational parameters, and then provide their subordinates with the freedom to accomplish those goals however they wish.

Take a plumbing sub-contractor working in new construction, given specific parameters to…

Operating within the guardrails of these parameters, the team can rough in the install in whatever manner they see fit. If there’s an opportunity to eliminate time or parts without cutting corners, they can act on that opportunity and develop a systematic way of completing the project. The day-to-day operations and project management are in the hands of the employees.

With a purely delegative leadership style, productivity is at risk when leaders fail to set clear expectations. A directive like “run the project, see what you can do” absent any performance benchmarks could lead to a project that quickly goes over budget.

7 - Affiliative Leadership Style

affiliative leadership styleThe affiliative leadership style puts employees first. Morale, retention, and gratification are the top priorities for those embodying this style. They focus on helping employees advance their careers and foster a positive team environment.

The affiliative style is practical during tough times. Here are some examples:

In practice, this could mean assigning praise and recognition to employees whenever it’s deserved. It seems like a small consolation, but it goes a long way when people are working tirelessly to get the job done. Other tactics affiliative leaders employ include:

Obviously, the benefits of affiliative leadership show up in decreased attrition and stronger morale throughout the organization. No one wants to come into a job where they don’t feel respected. It also reminds us of the fact that working should not encompass someone’s entire life. Many people build careers just to earn a good living, not to dedicate every waking minute to an organization’s mission.

The dark side of affiliative leadership rears its head when individual employee needs take precedent over an organization’s mission.

For example, say you ask one of your direct reports what would make them most happy in their job. They reply that they only want to work three days a week. You decide to prioritize that schedule.

The problem is, that employee doesn’t complete the work assigned to them according to their deadlines. As a result, projects dependent on that employee’s work get delayed. In addition, other employees working five days a week feel incensed that someone else is getting preferential treatment. The lesson with this example is that affiliative leadership requires a delicate balance.