02 Jun The 8 Most Common Leadership Styles & How to Find Your Own
“A good leader should always … “
How you finish that sentence could reveal a lot about your leadership style.
Leadership is a fluid practice. We’re always changing and improving the way in which we help our direct reports and the company grow. And the longer we lead, the more likely we’ll change the way we choose to complete the sentence above.
But in order to become better leaders tomorrow, we need to know where we stand today. To help you understand the impact each type of leader has on a company, I’ll explain eight of the most common types of leadership styles in play today and how effective they are.
Then, I’ll show you a leadership style assessment based on this post’s opening sentence to help you figure out which leader you are.
1. Democratic Leadership
Democratic leadership is exactly what it sounds like — the leader makes decisions based on the input of each team member. Although he or she makes the final call, each employee has an equal say on a project’s direction.
Democratic leadership is one of the most effective leadership styles because it allows lower-level employees to exercise authority they’ll need to use wisely in future positions they might hold. It also resembles how decisions can be made in company board meetings.
For example, in a company board meeting, a democratic leader might give the team a few decision-related options. They could then open a discussion about each option. After a discussion, this leader might take the board’s thoughts and feedback into consideration, or they might open this decision up to a vote.
2. Autocratic Leadership
Autocratic leadership is the inverse of democratic leadership. In this leadership style, the leader makes decisions without taking input from anyone who reports to them. Employees are neither considered nor consulted prior to a direction, and are expected to adhere to the decision at a time and pace stipulated by the leader.
An example of this could be when a manager changes the hours of work shifts for multiple employees without consulting anyone — especially the effected employees.
Frankly, this leadership style stinks. Most organizations today can’t sustain such a hegemonic culture without losing employees. It’s best to keep leadership more open to the intellect and perspective of the rest of the team.
3. Laissez-Faire Leadership
If you remember your high-school French, you’ll accurately assume that laissez-faire leadership is the least intrusive form of leadership. The French term “laissez faire” literally translates to “let them do,” and leaders who embrace it afford nearly all authority to their employees.
In a young startup, for example, you might see a laissez-faire company founder who makes no major office policies around work hours or deadlines. They might put full trust into their employees while they focus on the overall workings of running the company.
Although laissez-faire leadership can empower employees by trusting them to work however they’d like, it can limit their development and overlook critical company growth opportunities. Therefore, it’s important that this leadership style is kept in check.
4. Strategic Leadership
Strategic leaders sit at the intersection between a company’s main operations and its growth opportunities. He or she accepts the burden of executive interests while ensuring that current working conditions remain stable for everyone else.
This is a desirable leadership style in many companies because strategic thinking supports multiple types of employees at once. However, leaders who operate this way can set a dangerous precedent with respect to how many people they can support at once, and what the best direction for the company really is if everyone is getting their way at all times.
5. Transformational Leadership
Transformational leadership is always “transforming” and improving upon the company’s conventions. Employees might have a basic set of tasks and goals that they complete every week or month, but the leader is constantly pushing them outside of their comfort zone.
When starting a job with this type of leader, all employees might get a list of goals to reach, as well as deadlines for reaching them. While the goals might seem simple at first, this manager might pick up the pace of deadlines or give you more and more challenging goals as you grow with the company.
This is a highly encouraged form of leadership among growth-minded companies because it motivates employees to see what they’re capable of. But transformational leaders can risk losing sight of everyone’s individual learning curves if direct reports don’t receive the right coaching to guide them through new responsibilities.
6. Transactional Leadership
Transactional leaders are fairly common today. These managers reward their employees for precisely the work they do. A marketing team that receives a scheduled bonus for helping generate a certain number of leads by the end of the quarter is a common example of transactional leadership.
When starting a job with a transactional boss, you might receive an incentive plan that motivates you to quickly master your regular job duties. For example, if you work in marketing, you might receive a bonus for sending 10 marketing emails. On the other hand, a transformational leader might only offer you a bonus if your work results in a large amount of newsletter subscriptions.
Transactional leadership helps establish roles and responsibilities for each employee, but it can also encourage bare-minimum work if employees know how much their effort is worth all the time. This leadership style can use incentive programs to motivate employees, but they should be consistent with the company’s goals and used in addition to unscheduled gestures of appreciation.
7. Coach-Style Leadership
Similarly to a sports team’s coach, this leader focuses on identifying and nurturing the individual strengths of each member on his or her team. They also focus on strategies that will enable their team work better together. This style offers strong similarities to strategic and democratic leadership, but puts more emphasis on the growth and success of individual employees.
Rather than forcing all employees to focus on similar skills and goals, this leader might build a team where each employee has an expertise or skillset in something different. In the longrun,, this leader focuses on creating strong teams that can communicate well and embrace each other’s unique skillsets in order to get work done.
A manager with this leadership style might help employees improve on their strengths by giving them new tasks to try, offering them guidance, or meeting to discuss constructive feedback. They might also encourage one or more team members to expand on their strengths by learning new skills from other teammates.
8. Bureaucratic Leadership
Bureaucratic leaders go by the books. This style of leadership might listen and consider the input of employees — unlike autocratic leadership — but the leader tends to reject an employee’s input if it conflicts with company policy or past practices.
You may run into a bureaucratic leader at a larger, older, or traditional company. At these companies, when a colleague or employee proposes a strong strategy that seems new or non-traditional, bureaucratic leaders may reject it. Their resistance might be because the company has already been successful with current processes and trying something new could waste time or resources if it doesn’t work.
Employees under this leadership style might not feel as controlled as they would under autocratic leadership, but there is still a lack of freedom in how much people are able to do in their roles. This can quickly shut down innovation, and is definitely not encouraged for companies who are chasing ambitious goals and quick growth.
Leadership Style Assessment
Leaders can carry a mix of the above leadership styles depending on their industry and the obstacles they face. At the root of these styles, according to leadership experts Bill Torbert and David Rooke, are what are called “action logics.”
These action logics assess “how [leaders] interpret their surroundings and react when their power or safety is challenged.”
That’s the idea behind a popular management survey tool called the Leadership Development Profile. Created by professor Torbert and psychologist Susanne Cook-Greuter — and featured in the book, Personal and Organizational Transformations — the survey relies on a set of 36 open-ended sentence completion tasks to help researchers better understand how leaders develop and grow.
Below, we’ve outlined six action logics using open-ended sentences that help describe each one. See how much you agree with each sentence and, at the bottom, find out which leadership style you uphold based on the action logics you most agreed with.
The individualist, according to Rooke and Tolbert, is self-aware, creative, and primarily focused on their own actions and development as opposed to overall organizational performance. This action logic is exceptionally driven by the desire to exceed personal goals and constantly improve their skills.
Here are some things an individualist might say:
I1. “A good leader should always trust their own intuition over established organizational processes.”
I2. “It’s important to be able to relate to others so I can easily communicate complex ideas to them.”
I3. “I’m more comfortable with progress than sustained success.”
Strategists are acutely aware of the environments in which they operate. They have a deep understanding of the structures and processes that make their businesses tick, but they’re also able to consider these frameworks critically and evaluate what could be improved.
Here are some things a strategist might say:
S1. “A good leader should always be able to build a consensus in divided groups.”
S2. “It’s important to help develop the organization as a whole, as well as the growth and individual achievements of my direct reports.”
S3. “Conflict is inevitable, but I’m knowledgeable enough about my team’s personal and professional relationships to handle the friction.”
Rooke and Tolbert describe this charismatic action logic as the most highly evolved and effective at managing organizational change. What distinguishes alchemists from other action logics is their unique ability to see the big picture in everything, but also fully understand the need to take details seriously. Under an alchemist leader, no department or employee is overlooked.
Here are some things an alchemist might say:
A1. “A good leader helps their employees reach their highest potential, and possesses the necessary empathy and moral awareness to get there.”
A2. “It’s important to make a profound and positive impact on whatever I’m working on.”
A3. “I have a unique ability to balance short-term needs and long-term goals.”
Opportunist are guided by a certain level of mistrust of others, relying on a facade of control to keep their employees in line. “Opportunists tend to regard their bad behavior as legitimate in the cut and thrust of an eye-for-an-eye world,” Rooke and Tolbert write.
Here are some things an opportunist might say:
O1. “A good leader should always view others as potential competition to be bested, even if it’s at the expense of their professional development.”
O2. “I reserve the right to reject the input of those who question or criticize my ideas.”
Unlike the opportunist, the diplomat isn’t concerned with competition or assuming control over situations. Instead, this action logic seeks to cause minimal impact on their organization by conforming to existing norms and completing their daily tasks with as little friction as possible.
Here are some things a diplomat might say:
D1. “A good leader should always resist change since it risks causing instability among their direct reports.”
D2. “It’s important to provide the ‘social glue’ in team situations, safely away from conflict.”
D3. “I tend to thrive in more team-oriented or supporting leadership roles.”
The expert is a pro in their given field, constantly striving to perfect their knowledge of a subject and perform to meet their own high expectations. Rooke and Tolbert describe the expert as a talented individual contributor and a source of knowledge for the team. But this action logic does lack something central to many good leaders: emotional intelligence.
Here are some things a diplomat might say:
E1. “A good leader should prioritize their own pursuit of knowledge over the needs of the organization and their direct reports.”
E2. “When problem solving with others in the company, my opinion tends to be the correct one.”
Which Leader Are You?
So, which action logics above felt like you? Think about each sentence for a moment … now, check out which of the seven leadership styles you embrace on the right based on the sentences you resonated with on the left.
|Action Logic Sentence||Leadership Style|
|O1, O2, E1, E2||Autocratic|
|D2, D3, E1||Laissez-Faire|
|S1, S2, A3||Strategic|
|I1, I2, I3, A1, A2||Transformational|
The more action logics you agreed with, the more likely you practice a mix of leadership styles.
For example, if you agreed with everything the strategist said — denoted S1, S2, and S3 — this would make you a 66% strategic leader and 33% democratic leader. If you agreed with just S3, but also everything the alchemist said, this would make you a 50% transformational, 25% strategic, and 25% democratic leader.
Keep in mind that these action logics are considered developmental stages, not fixed attributes — most leaders will progress through multiple types of leadership throughout their careers.