Five common leadership styles, and how to find your own

Improving your leadership skills starts with understanding how you like to lead

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Everyone has a distinct leadership style. Whether you’re in charge of 10 people, 10,000 people, or nobody at all, the way you approach management is based on your personality and how you communicate with others.

Those attributes can be improved over time, once you identify your personal style. When some leaders falter, it’s because of a lack of understanding of the relationship between themselves and their team. Familiarizing yourself with the advantages of the different leadership styles, and knowing which ones are best suited to you, will make you a better leader.

In this article, we’ll look at the five most common leadership styles, then discuss how to find and develop yours.

Types of leadership styles

Just like personality types, leadership styles don’t fit into neat boxes. Instead, they can be broadly categorized based on a set of characteristics, including things like autonomy and flexibility. In the real world, leadership styles will include aspects from each of these different categories and will adapt to suit the business environment.

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Let’s take a look at the five most common leadership styles and how they can influence an organization’s success.

1. Authoritarian leadership (autocratic)

In an autocratic environment, the leader makes decisions without input from the rest of the team. It’s a highly authoritarian leadership style that can demoralize employees in the wrong situation. However, autocratic leaders make decisions quickly and confidently, which makes them excellent assets in a crisis. If you’re an autocratic leader, focus on finding a balance between making executive decisions and trusting your team to give insights and feedback.

2. Participative leadership (democratic)

Leaders with a democratic style value their colleagues’ opinions. They open up most decisions for debate, which help employees feel valued and appreciated. In some cases, democratic leaders can seem indecisive, as though they don’t trust their own ability to reach conclusions, and these leaders can improve their effectiveness by learning to make quick decisions in critical circumstances.

3. Delegative leadership (laissez-faire)

Two types of laissez-faire leaders exist. Intentional laissez-faire leaders believe in giving their employees autonomy and creative freedom. They let workers set their own schedules and make decisions. Unintentional laissez-faire leaders, on the other hand, sometimes lack control over their teams.

Leaders who possess the laissez-faire leadership style often work best with employees or team members who can manage and direct themselves, such as those from a satellite office. However, some employees need more direction than others and might struggle to keep up with the team under a laissez-faire leader.

4. Transactional leadership (managerial)

A transactional leader values order and systems. They set targets for employees and outline the rewards and penalties associated with meeting—or not meeting—those targets. This rigid style of leadership encourages high compliance within teams while suppressing creativity and ingenuity, but the strong emphasis on procedure allows for an extreme degree of control over processes and leads to predictable, reliable outputs.

As long as the give-and-take nature of this relationship is fair and well understood by teams, performance and productivity can thrive under a transactional leader. However, transactional leaders are less able to empathize or bend the rules to accommodate individual employee needs.

5. Transformational leadership (visionary)

Transformational leaders exist to energize teams and sell a company’s vision. Using a mix of empathy, enthusiasm, and praise, they encourage individual workers to achieve their objectives, explore new ideas, and improve their outcomes. Under a transformational leader, employees feel empowered and loyal, though in larger companies this style of soft leadership can sometimes appear distant or insincere.

Leadership qualities: Developing your own leadership style

To become an effective leader, you need to know which qualities to develop as you lead your team. This leadership qualities list includes several personal and professional traits that can help you communicate more effectively, develop and reach goals, and relate to other team members.

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Focus and concentration

Effective leaders need focus and concentration to keep their teams on the path to success. They’re able to concentrate on one task for long periods of time, and they don’t let themselves get distracted. Of course, leaders who get focused on one project to the exclusion of all else can sometimes get stuck, unable to move forward.

These leadership qualities can prove more effective when balanced with a big-picture viewpoint. Visionary leaders can often refine a thought or idea without losing sight of the end goal.

Communication and feedback

Teams need to hear feedback if they’re to learn and grow. Great leaders know how to communicate with staff effectively, whether they’re delegating tasks, offering constructive criticism, or explaining an idea or goal. Additionally, they know that positive and negative feedback often sound best when delivered together. Leaders who never or rarely issue praise can foster a competitive and resentful workplace environment. Positive feedback helps employees recognize when they’re on the right track.

Confidence and patience

A great leader possesses enough confidence to make decisions and set boundaries, but also has the patience to walk team members through a process or wait for the team to realize a goal. While extreme confidence can easily lead to mistakes, patience helps temper the confidence without neutralizing it. Additionally, a leader who exhibits patience can help struggling workers push through obstacles and learn new skills.

Adaptability and flexibility

In any business, change happens. Revenues rise and drop, brand image improves and falters, and upper management can alter a program’s focus or goal. Leaders prove most effective when they can adapt quickly to new situations and consistently respond to employee needs with flexibility. They’re willing to work toward the organization’s needs instead of just their own.

Honesty and transparency

While full transparency can have a negative impact on an organization, good leaders know when to share their feelings openly and honestly. They also know when to share critical information with their team members, even if it might negatively impact them. Some leaders demonstrate honesty and transparency naturally, while others have to work hard to achieve it.

Passion and drive

A good leader believes in their organization and wants to see it succeed. Without these qualities, leaders can easily grow disconnected from their position as well as from other team members. Passion helps leaders through rough spots, and drive motivates them to complete undesirable tasks. Both passion and drive can prove contagious, spreading to other people in the office and encouraging them to adopt the same enthusiasm.

Ability to recognize others

Praise isn’t the only thing employees need to reach their full potential. They also need recognition, which only leaders can provide. When an employee meets a goal or achieves greatness, the best leaders recognize those employees publicly. Managers often take credit for their employees’ accomplishments, while effective leaders are quick to share the spotlight with hard workers and devoted team members.

Decisiveness and persistence

While good leaders know how to ask for feedback and ideas from employees, they also know when to make executive decisions. They keep working toward a goal as long as it makes sense to do so, and they give their opinions when asked.

Positivity and intuition

Everyone has a bad day at work now and again. Good leaders recognize and prepare for this. They take a positive attitude to work every day and spread it to as many people as possible. Even during difficult times, they’re able to find a positive spin to make the situation more tenable, and they don’t tolerate negativity from other team members.

Importance of knowing your leadership style

You might not think you have a particular leadership style, but you do. Understanding it begins with an honest self-assessment of the way you approach management tasks and interact with the people who work with you.

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Once you’ve identified your leadership style, you can better understand how to motivate and communicate with employees. You can enhance your ability to make good decisions and handle unforeseen challenges. You can mobilize teams more effectively and support those who need it.

You can also change your leadership style by focusing your energy on the precise leadership attributes your organization needs.

Tips for choosing your leadership style

Deciding which leadership style is best for you depends on a bunch of variables, including everything from advancing your career to the goals and vision of your company. Here are a few tips to keep in mind when choosing.

Understand your natural leadership style

You might think you already know yourself inside out, but unless you consciously practice a leadership style every day, you could be leading by pure intuition or with a mix of different personality traits. Speak to people you’ve worked with or managed in the past for a frank assessment of your strengths and weaknesses to see which style you’re most aligned with.

Learn the differences between different leadership styles

Once you understand your existing style, do more research about common leadership styles to gain a greater appreciation of how they differ and in which business environments they’re best applied. Think about what you might need to change about yourself or your team to achieve one of these styles, and what skills you’d need to acquire to approach management in a new way.

Take small steps toward change

Leadership styles are deeply rooted in our personalities, so any change to the way you interact and lead your team will feel unnatural at first. Be deliberate in your actions and make small changes, paying attention to what works and what doesn’t. 

Be flexible

The leadership styles listed above aren’t set in stone and don’t have well-defined boundaries. Modern leaders must adapt to suit the agile workplace, picking and choosing traits from different leadership styles to manage teams more effectively. Be responsive to your employees’ expectations and always be ready and willing to change.

How to train to be true to your leadership style

You can improve your leadership style through practice. There is no magic shortcut—you need to form habits that reinforce the leadership qualities you want to develop and be disciplined in carrying them out each day.

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Not all leadership styles are improved upon in the same way, but here are some general tips when it comes to training yourself to be a true leader.

Be open to new ideas

Appreciate the talent of your employees, and recognize that they have skills and experience you don’t. Learn from the people you work with and don’t feel threatened or undermined when your thinking is questioned. Being open to new ideas helps to sharpen and refine your own qualities as a leader.

Inspire your team

Be your team’s loudest cheerleader. As a leader, it’s up to you to sing your team’s praises within your organization or industry. The best leaders will recognize and highlight the achievements of an employee in private and in public, inspiring others around them to reach for success. 

Show discipline

Leaders are judged by the level of self-discipline they display, so arrive on time, keep appointments, and meet deadlines. By developing this leadership quality, you’ll inspire employees to be more disciplined in their own work, which will help you be an effective leader and keep teams on the path to success.

Intuition is not an innate talent—it can be developed over years of experience. An intuitive leader can sense discord in the ranks and predict a decision’s impact on the rest of the team. While intuition can sometimes fail, it’s a useful skill when confronting major change, making decisions that impact other people’s lives, and deciding who to promote. Intuition and positivity often work together to create a comfortable, safe work environment, with leaders who value everyone on the team.

Knowing your leadership style can have a tremendous impact on your ability to manage a team. Review the above list of leadership qualities to determine where you should focus your energy. If you hone your style’s positive qualities and make up for any deficiencies, you can lead your organization to greatness.

Steve Hogarty is a writer and journalist based in London. He is the travel editor of City AM newspaper and the deputy editor of City AM Magazine, where his work focuses on technology, travel, and entertainment.

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Management and Leadership