7 types of leadership styles

A good leader can step into any given situation and construct a vision for a better future, brainstorm strategies for realizing that future and execute a plan to see it to fruition. 

But great leaders take it a step further by understanding their strengths and weaknesses and learning to practice the leadership styles that best suit them and their team, allowing them to accomplish more, compel greater change and create a legacy that extends beyond their lifetime. 

Great leaders follow many different types of leadership styles, but what they all have in common is that they have built some of the most powerful companies, sports teams and organizations in the world.

Why are leadership styles important?

Understanding the leadership style best suited for your particular personality will not only make you a more effective leader, it will help you better understand and master yourself. You’ll learn about your strongest qualities so you can maximize them, while also becoming more aware of what to work on so you can be the best version of yourself. Your leadership style affects how you connect and communicate with your team, relate to your team’s working style, resolve conflicts and more.

It’s important to note that just because you feel more naturally inclined to a certain style doesn’t mean you can’t use another if the situation calls for it. Some types of leadership styles are more effective for a particular set of challenges than others, so don’t be afraid to pull from another style if you feel it will help your cause.

Types of leadership styles

Most leaders fall into one of six types of leadership styles: democratic, visionary, coaching, affiliative, pacesetting and commanding. Though you may recognize one as your predominant style, you’ll likely utilize different leadership styles depending on how you handle stress, who you are interacting with and your current goals.

Yet there is one overarching style that all effective leaders use: servant leadership.

Servant leadership

No matter which style resonates with you the most, everything you do as a leader must be rooted in servant leadership. Servant leadership means using your leadership skills to serve a greater good. To truly be a servant leader, you must find your purpose and integrate it into everything you do. This could mean working to benefit your workplace, community, culture or the world at large. Having a purpose is vital in business: It informs your company’s values, culture and its success or failure.

Servant leadership is the most effective and powerful way to lead. It is the universal leadership style that you must master – because servant leaders are inspiring leaders. They have a vision so clear, others see it, too. They’re able to persevere through hard times that may come their way because they have a deep belief in themselves. They make a big impact through their contributions and leave the world a better place.

To be a leader, first find your purpose and develop a strong vision. Then identify which of the six following types of leadership styles you fit into.

Democratic leadership style

Democratic leaders place high value on the diverse skills, qualities and knowledge of their team. They cultivate consensus within the group by consistently asking for opinions and deeply listening to the answers. Democratic leaders tap into the collective wisdom the group has to offer in order to discover the next best step, and allow others to develop confidence in the leader.

United States senators, regardless of their party affiliations, are theoretically democratic leaders in that the decisions they make are heavily informed by the thoughts, opinions and desires of their constituents. Of all the different leadership styles, democratic leaders are the most collaborative and effective at long-term planning.

However, this style is not ideal for crisis leadership as it can be more time-consuming than other styles. It’s beneficial to know where your team stands on any given issue, but sometimes you have to make decisions – especially fast ones – alone.

Visionary leadership style

Visionary leaders excel at finding new directions and new potential solutions to a given problem. This leadership style relies on abstract thinking and is able to visualize possibilities that others aren’t yet able to see. They’re “big picture” thinkers who can see future potential and articulate it to the group. They tend to be passionate, creative and open-minded and are most effective at inspiring forward momentum.

Steve Jobs is a quintessential visionary leader. Known for his big ideas and his knack for creating an innovation culture, he’s infamous for being able to envision a future that didn’t quite exist (yet!) through the lens of his groundbreaking technology.

Visionaries conceptualize new goals and ideas, but they’re likely to enlist others to make an actionable plan – they typically don’t like to be bothered with minute details. Visionary leadership is an essential piece of a team, but also highlights how important different leadership styles are. When you create a cross-functional team with a variety of talents, one person can formulate big ideas while others execute.

Coaching leadership style

coaching leadership style

Coaching leaders focus on cultivating deep connections that allow for a more thorough understanding of an individual’s hopes, beliefs, dreams and values. One of the types of leadership styles that focuses on guiding rather than instructing, coaching leaders will lift their team to great heights by knowing what inspires them into action. They cultivate a positive environment where encouragement and communication can flow freely.

One of the best examples of this leadership style is Mike Krzyzewski, better known as “Coach K.” As head coach of the Duke University men’s basketball team, he has the most victories in NCAA Division I history, plus five national championships. And he doesn’t just coach his team to victory: There are nine current Division I head coaches that served under Coach K and consider him a mentor. Clearly, Coach K knows how to inspire greatness. 

Coaching is one of the more effective leadership styles in the right circumstances, but it does run the risk of making others feel micromanaged. Coaching leaders spend a great deal of time and energy on the individuals in a given group. If coaching speaks to you most out of the different leadership styles, remember to occasionally step back and let your team breathe.

Affiliative leadership style

For affiliative leaders, the team always comes first. This type of leadership style focuses on building trust within the group and creating emotional bonds that promote a sense of belonging. Affiliative leaders are very effective in times of stress or when group morale is low. This is one of the best leadership styles for repairing broken trust in the workplace, improving communication and fostering a sense of team harmony.

The most famous example of affiliative leadership also comes from sports. As manager of the New York Yankees, Joe Torre led his team to a World Series victory in 1999. Torre made multiple statements to the press praising his team and emphasizing the importance of every player. He would occasionally spotlight players who were going through trying times, as well as those whose contracts were up. Torre made it clear he wanted to keep the team together – the perfect example of affiliative leadership.

This leadership style must be careful not to let poor performances go unaddressed, however. Praise and encouragement are very important in a group setting, but affiliative leaders tend to overlook issues in their efforts to build a strong, happy team. They must ensure they address problems that could harm the company’s bottom line.

Pacesetting leadership style

pace setting leadership

Pacesetting leaders are known for taking action. They lead by doing and set high standards for themselves, inspiring others to follow their example. This is a good choice for groups of self-motivated, high-performing people who are dedicated to improvement, which is why it’s one of the most common military leadership styles.

Julius Caesar is famous for never having asked his soldiers to do something that he wouldn’t do himself. He’d frequently fight with them, join them in their daily activities and be the kind of soldier he wanted them to be. This empowered his troops to give their jobs their all, because if their leader was willing to try and excel at the task, that meant they could, too.

Of the six types of leadership styles, this one relies the most on autonomy, which can be problematic for those who require a lot of guidance. Pacesetting leaders must ensure that their expectations are reasonable and that their team has all of the skills and tools they need. Pacesetting leadership can also create an environment in which some might feel they’re being pushed too hard by a leader whose standards don’t mirror their own.

Commanding leadership style

Commanding leaders are the kind we most often see in movies and read about in books. They approach leadership with an attitude of “do as I say because I’m the boss,” giving directives and expecting others to follow orders without question. 

Commanding personalities are one of the most effective leadership styles in times of crisis when quick decisions need to be made. This type of leadership style is also common in top-down organizations, such as the government and the military.

However, long-term usage of this style can leave group members feeling as though they have very little say or influence in the group’s direction and goals. In many business models, this will undercut morale and job satisfaction. You want your employees to be raving fans of your company, and to achieve this, you need to treat them with respect and offer a listening ear.

commanding leadership

Combining leadership styles

There is no “right” or “one-size-fits-all” leadership style. The world needs all types of leadership styles to fit various situations, challenges and obstacles. Sometimes, a problem is best solved by combining different leadership styles. For example, when faced with planning a company’s next steps, it’s common for CEOs of major companies to deploy visionary, coaching and democratic leadership styles at the same time. They’ll cultivate a community by fostering meaningful connections (coaching) that make its members feel comfortable collaborating (democratic). Then they’ll utilize the resulting strength to carry out the vision in their mind’s eye (visionary).

Exploring the types of leadership styles is a vital first step in developing your own skills – and in determining how to lead your company effectively. When contemplating solutions, be mindful of each style’s strengths and weaknesses and explore whether combining two, three or even four can help you achieve your goals. You and your company will be better for it.

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