The answer to that question might surprise you.
No, you’re not.
Guess what? There’s no one right type of leader. Everyone has multiple types of leadership within them.
All of the different types of leadership in you can appear at separate times or multiple at once. The better questions to ask yourself are:
- What type of leader do people need you to be?
- What type of leader do you want to be?
- What type of leadership does the situation call for?
Different situations call for different types of leadership. A good leader can switch between those leadership types when they need to. And typically, every leader will need to, because one size does not fit all businesses.
What types of leadership are the best? Here are 10 of them to help you decide what type of leader you want to be.
The top 10 types of leadership styles
‘Leadership is not a position or a title, it is action and example’ — Unknown
Being a leader doesn’t always mean you’re the official head of a company or of a team. You can be a leader in smaller ways, like when you:
- Lead a project
- Take the lead in a meeting
- Present a new idea
Whatever leadership situation you’re in, know how you want to lead – and how others need you to lead.
The 10 types of leadership styles are:
“My way or the highway.”
Autocratic leadership (sometimes called authoritarian) is an aggressive leadership style that’s based on control. This style of strong-willed leadership only leaves room for one person in charge. A person with an autocratic leadership style expects promptness and perfection from the people around them.
These are things you don’t see much of in an autocratic-led environment:
- Multiple opinions
- Fluid change in routine
- Open forum for feedback
An autocratic leadership style is not meant to be flexible. It enforces a strict, obedient environment, which is why it works well in situations that benefit from a lot of control. Examples include:
- The military
- Operations where efficiency (as defined by one key number) is crucial
The ability to make decisive, crucial calls is the key trait of an autocratic leader. Autocratic leaders aren’t always well liked, but sometimes an autocratic leader is what the job requires.
A strong hand in business can build an idea into a strong, thriving company. Have you ever heard of Helen Gurley Brown? Maybe not, but chances are that you’ve heard of Cosmopolitan magazine.
Helen Gurley Brown. (Source: LA Times)
Helen Gurley Brown was the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan, and was known as someone who thrived on getting things done with little room for error. This autocratic style led her to turn a profit in publishing for more than 3 decades.
Some call an autocratic approach to leadership dictatorial or controlling, but a little bit of this type of leadership can be an asset when you use it well.
Democratic leadership is a participative style of leading that involves a team of people who collaborate with a leader to make critical decisions. This type of leadership style is very different from autocratic leadership – because with a democratic approach you DO get these things:
- Multiple opinions
- Fluid change in routine
- Open forum for feedback
Democratic leadership gives you a range of ideas to choose from, and a team to consult when making your decision.
A democratic approach to leadership is definitely one of the better-liked types of leadership in business.
The Mayo Clinic thrives on a democratic leadership style. This hospital, healthcare, and research facility brings in some of the brightest minds in medicine because its democratic leadership creates a collaborative environment.
(Source: Mayo Clinic News Network)
Dr William Mayo, along with his sons, founded the Mayo Clinic in 1889 to give cutting-edge medical research around the world in a non-profit style.
Mayo Clinic is a success because people’s ideas and opinions are listened to. People want to work there because it focuses on giving everyone an equal voice.
“The problem before us is so to exchange information, and so to educate men through travel that there shall develop a final, cosmopolitan system of medicine which will combine the best elements to be found in all countries.” – Dr. Charlie Mayo
Therefore, the medical facility the family set up didn’t turn away experts or ignore what they were saying. The family understood that transformation of healthcare requires fresh thinking and collective knowledge.
Mayo understands the need to combine different levels of knowledge. The hospital doesn’t subscribe to the idea that a single expert can make the right decisions.
Don’t like to micro-manage people? Laissez-faire leadership takes the opposite approach. This type of leadership is a hands-off style, where delegating tasks is a regular occurrence.
The literal meaning of the French word laissez-faire is ‘let them do’ which can be translated as ‘let it be’ in English.
Donna Karan, the founder of the DKNY jeans and apparel company, DKNY jeans and apparel, has a reputation for being an attentive, hands-off leader.
Karan keeps her eyes on profits while she follows fashion trends. She trusts managers to make good decisions while she periodically monitors performance and offers ongoing feedback.
As a laissez-faire leader, Donna Karan:
- Knows what’s going but is not directly involved
- Trusts others
- Monitors performance
- Gives regular feedback
A laissez-faire leader lets people work how they need to, with little to no interference.
Leaders who use this style often lead people who are skilled enough to not need constant supervision – which leaves the door open for creative ideas and new ways of doing things.
The one downside to a completely laissez-faire environment is that it can lack the structure that other leadership styles offer. Some business situations have hard deadlines and demanding quality standards that don’t match well to laissez-faire leadership.
Of course, you still have to be a leader. If you are this type of leader, make sure you still monitor your team’s overall performance to note any problems that may arise.
In his book High Output Management, legendary Intel CEO Andy Grove discusses two styles of management:
“There is a gate-like inspection and a monitoring step. In the former, all material is held at the “gate” until the inspection tests are completed. If the material passes, it is moved on to the next stage in the production process; if the material fails, it will be returned to an earlier stage, where it will be reworked or scrapped. In the latter, a sample of the material is taken, and if it fails, a notation is made from which a failure rate is calculated. The bulk of the material is not held as the sample is taken but continues to move through the manufacturing process. The smoothness of the flow is maintained, but if, for example, three successive samples fail the monitoring test, we can stop the line.”
Laissez-faire management avoids gate-like inspections in favor of speed, but monitoring helps keep the manager aware of the progress of work.
A coaching style of leadership is a bit of a cross between democratic and laissez-fare leadership styles. It’s not micromanaging (but not totally hands-off, either) and actions are often decided with multiple inputs to consider.
In a nutshell, coaching leadership helps prepare people for the future by building long-term strengths.
Much like the coach of a sports team, a coach-style leader can quickly identify the strengths, weaknesses, and motivations of each team member. A coach then helps people set the best goals to work towards, and gives them the regular feedback they need to be successful.
A good coaching leader is able to:
- Train people effectively
- Deal with performance problems
- Improve individual performance skills
- Identify new skills someone can develop
A coaching style is a significant time investment because it:
- Takes longer to identify areas of improvement
- Work together to find the best approach
- Execute those plans
Plus, it can take more time to see the results of your efforts.
Bill Walsh, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, is the epitome of a coaching leadership style because…well, he’s an actual coach.
Bill Walsh, miracle worker and head coach of the San Francisco 49ers (Source: Medium)
Bill Walsh took a disorganized team on a losing streak and led them to 5 Super Bowl championships in 14 years. In his book, The Score Takes Care of Itself, Bill writes that “the prime directive was not victory.”
In sports, you’d think victory is the only directive. Instead, Bill focused on developing his player’s skills along with a strong team culture to improve overall performance.
It worked: In Walsh’s first season as head coach, the 49ers went 2–14 (2 wins, 14 losses), the worst team in the league. In his third season, they won the Super Bowl.
“I had no grandiose plan or timetable for winning a championship, but rather a comprehensive standard and plan for installing a level of proficiency — competency — at which our production level would become higher in all areas, both on and off the field, than that of our opponents. Beyond that, I had faith that the score would take care of itself.
“Consequently, the score wasn’t the crushing issue that overrode everything else; the record didn’t mean as much as the season progressed, because we were immersed in building the inventory of skills, both attitudinal and physical, that would lead to improved execution. That was the key.” – Bill Walsh
Transformational leadership is a style that’s all about big vision thinking and intellectual stimulation to create a thriving, openly communicative work culture.
- Have an eye for the big-picture
- Are charismatic
- Motivate those they lead
A transformational leader is common in big business, where the CEO is a visionary with a large audience – an audience that’s receptive to innovative thinking. Transformational leaders go over well in tech companies but can exist across multiple industries.
The one thing to note about a transformational leader is that day-to-day details are not their priority. Transformational leaders need dedicated managers to delegate these types of tasks.
Being a transformational leader requires you to:
- Set challenging goals with strict deadlines
- Work in unison with a team to get them done
Lee Iacocca, the chairman of Chrysler Corporation, is a great example of a transformational leader. He took a company on the brink of bankruptcy and transformed it into a profitable business.
Lee Iacocca – Ford “failure” and Chrysler commander. (Source: BBC)
Iacocca rose through the ranks at Ford and is still called the father of the Ford Mustang today. After a falling out and firing from Ford, he became the CEO of Chrysler. There he was responsible for one of the biggest company turnarounds in corporate history.
He later wrote a book, “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?” which outlines the 10 C’s he uses to qualify a leader (all of which he used in his own transformational leadership style).
- Common sense
A charismatic leader automatically or intelligently attracts people just by being their own charming selves. These types of people are:
- Passionate about what they do
The success or failure of a business heavily relies on the leader with the charismatic approach. It’s seen as more of a one-man show than a collaborative team effort.
Jack Welch, who in 1981 became the youngest CEO in General Electric (GE) history, was a charismatic leader.
“The essence of competitiveness is liberated when we make people believe that what they think and do is important — and then get out of their way while they do it.” – Jack Welsh (Source: Business Insider)
Welch made it a point to develop positive relationships with his GE employees and customers. He talked personally with employees. Welch was a strong leader and unafraid to make hard decisions or cut costs when necessary, but his leadership style instilled a sense of pride in the company.
Welch would make surprise visits to the GE plants and offices. He always looked for opportunities to talk to people and share his perspective on leadership and what direction he thought the company should go. He was well-known for the personal handwritten notes he gave employees to congratulate (or correct) them.
The Cambridge dictionary defines the word bureaucratic as “a system for controlling or managing a country, company, or organization that is operated by a large number of officials employed to follow the rules carefully.”
In a business, a bureaucratic leader uses strict rules for employee management and decision-making. You can use bureaucratic leadership most often in administrative environments, where strict rule-following and a defined hierarchy are important.
Winston Churchill was a bureaucratic leader — he had a structured system to make sure that people carried out their tasks as planned.
Throughout World War 2, Churchill followed his instincts and stuck to his hard decision-making abilities when bringing the three Allies together.
Winston Churchill. (Source: Wikipedia)
During the early days of World War 2 Churchill attacked with words more than weapons. The speeches he gave were some of the most powerful ever given in the English language.
His words were
- Lightly humorous
As journalist Beverly Nichols wrote: “He took the English language and sent it into battle.”
Churchill was extremely persistent in seeing his plans through (often against all odds). He was also a meticulous, detail-oriented leader – traits that most bureaucratic leaders have. He always wanted to know everything going on in all aspects of government.
Visionary leaders are motivated by what a business can become. They are not preoccupied with technical details: they focus on big-picture, innovative thinking.
Leaders who execute this style are tasked with moving the company into a broader direction, as they promote unity and the tenacity to push through times of uncertainty.
Few business leaders do this better than Sara Blakely.
Sara Blakely is the founder and CEO of Spanx, which sells “the largest selection of slimming intimates, body shapers, hosiery, apparel, and the latest innovations in shapewear for men and women.”
Sara Blakely, a visionary leader for women and men. (Source: Forbes)
But she didn’t always do that. After seven years of selling fax machines door-to-door, one day she cut the feet off her pantyhose and realized she had a viable product: a slimming, seamless undergarment that no one would know you were wearing.
She took a risk with her $5,000 life savings (and a lot of failures) to pursue her vision for what would become her Spanx empire.
Most great and successful leaders have some sort of vision for where they are going. However, some have more vision than others. Outstanding visionary leaders always transform their visions into realities.
“Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. That can be your greatest strength and ensure that you do things differently from everyone else.” – Sara Blakely, CEO, Spanx
The pacesetter is one of the most effective types of leadership if you need fast results. These leaders set very high standards, with a focus on performance. They hold their team members accountable for hitting their goals.
Although it can be a motivational leadership style when in a fast-paced environment, it doesn’t give much space (or time) for feedback between leaders and team members.
Pacesetter leaders expect:
- Quick results from an extremely competent team
This kind of motivating style isn’t necessarily a bad tactic. But if you overdo it, a pacesetter leadership style can undercut morale and make people feel like they’re failing. Use it wisely.
The best leaders often use more than one type of leadership. Jack Welch – the youngest CEO in General Electric history – was a pacesetting leader in addition to being a charismatic leader. He drove big results quickly but also kept in personal contact with his employees.
A servant style of leadership is when someone works with a people-first mindset. A servant leader believes that team members produce their best work when they feel both professionally and personally satisfied.
Because of their focus on employee satisfaction, they tend to achieve higher levels of respect. This type of leader is the kind of person to have regular one-on-one coffee meetings to hear struggles, concerns, or new ideas.
Servant leaders are focused on helping their teams play to their own strengths. Verne Harnesh, in his book Scaling Up, describes the role of a great manager:
“The best managers are less concerned about motivating their people and more concerned about NOT demotivating them. They consider it their job to prevent the hassles that block their team’s performance…On the process side, do your people have the appropriate tools and resources they need to get the job accomplished? Are there lame policies and procedures frustrating your team?”
Any business can adopt this kind of leadership — it’s a great leadership style to boost morale and make people care about their work.
It’s the exact leadership style that former CEO of Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Cheryl Bachelder, exhibited during her 10-year chicken tender tenure.
Bachelder literally wrote a book about this type of leadership – Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others – which talks about the power of servant leadership to reinvent a company from the inside out.
When she started as CEO in 2007, guest visits had been in decline for years, and restaurant sales and profit trends were negative.
By 2014, sales were up 25% and profits were up 40%. Bachelder attributed her success to a conscious decision to create a new workplace – one where people were treated with respect and dignity, yet challenged to perform to their highest ability.
Cheryl Bachelder, servant leader extraordinaire. (Source: Forbes)
Bachelder outlines her philosophy in a nutshell: “We needed to serve the people who have invested the most in Popeyes.” This meant Bachelder and her team shone the spotlight on restaurant owners, listening and responding to their needs.
Self-serving leaders were filtered out as collaboration increased and people were valued.
As Bachelder said, “I must know you to grow you.” This concept is the epitome of a servant leader.
Conclusion: What’s the difference between traits and styles of leadership?
Traits are the qualities that make you who you are. Styles of leadership are how you show those traits.
Leadership traits are the individual characteristics that create a specific leadership style. To be adaptable across types of leadership styles, the traits that every leader needs are things like:
- High energy
- Effective communication skills
- An ability to motivate others
- Strong multitasking skills
Leadership styles (like the ones discussed above) are the ways leaders use their respective traits.
- 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
- Radical Candor by Kim Scott
- Scaling Up by Verne Harnish
- How Will You Measure Your Life? By Clayton Christensen
- Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink
- High Output Management by Andy Grove
- The Making of a Manager by Julie Zhou