When we think about different types of leaders, it’s tempting to group them into just two categories: good and bad. Maybe there was that former boss who made you feel supported and inspired. And maybe there was also that manager who was so critical, they made you wonder if you were even qualified to handle the afternoon coffee runs.
Yes, those are two drastically different kinds of management. But here’s the thing: Leadership style isn’t always so straightforward.
There are numerous styles of leadership that aren’t inherently good or bad—they’re just different. They all have their benefits and drawbacks, as well as their appropriate uses in certain scenarios.
Read on to find out why understanding your own approach matters, to get a breakdown of 10 common leadership styles—along with their pros, cons, and identifying characteristics—and to learn how you can pinpoint or change your own leadership style.
What is leadership…really?
Complete this sentence: “A leader is…”
What’s your answer? Someone who’s in a formal position of power? Whoever’s ranked above you on the org chart? The person with the corner office and the higher salary?
Those might be the traditional perceptions, but it’s important to recognize that anybody can be a leader. Yes, that means you, too.
Fundamentally, a leader is somebody who uses their own actions and behaviors to influence or guide other people. That might mean someone who’s the designated head of a department. But make no mistake—having that seniority isn’t a prerequisite.
Even if you’re not managing a team on a daily basis, you might still have to step into a leadership role from time to time. Maybe you’re spearheading an important cross-functional project or you have to host a meeting.
Those are opportunities for you to fulfill a leadership role and be looked to as an example. They’re also moments when your own leadership qualities and style will bubble to the surface. So, don’t write off these approaches as something that doesn't apply to you just because you aren’t in the C-suite.
Why is it important to understand your leadership style?
Before we jump right into the nitty gritty, there’s one critical question that needs to be answered: Why the heck do leadership styles matter?
“Understanding how you lead and want to lead will give you a better sense of control over the size and scope of your reach and impact,” explains Joyel Crawford, a career coach and leadership development consultant.
“Bringing awareness allows you to take ownership and responsibility,” adds Tara Padua, an executive coach, entrepreneur, and startup advisor. “Our leadership style is a whirlpool of our values, our natural strengths and abilities, and our beliefs and experiences. Knowing your leadership style can help you align that whirlpool with your vision, goals, and even your organization’s mission and vision.”
Put simply, to have an impact as a leader, you need to be an effective one. And in order to be effective, you have to understand exactly where you’re starting from—as well as where you want to go. Knowing your current approach gives you a baseline that you can use to identify the improvements you need to make.
10 different leadership styles (and their pros and cons)
You likely know firsthand that there are all different types of leaders. But how can you define their specific leadership styles? Here’s the good, bad, and the ugly on 10 of the most common, “textbook” approaches to leadership.
These styles are based on the findings of several well-known leadership researchers (such as Karl Lewin, Bernard M. Bass, Robert K. Greenleaf, and more). However, since leadership is part art and part science, be aware that you could see various experts define these styles a little differently.
1. Transactional leadership
The best way to understand transactional leadership is to think of a typical transaction: I give you this, and you do this in return.
That’s the basis of this leadership style. Transactional leaders dish out instructions to their team members and then use different rewards and penalties to either recognize or punish what they do in response.
Think of a leader offering praise to applaud a job well done or mandating that a group member handles a despised, department-wide task because they missed a deadline. Those are examples of rewards and punishments in a work setting.
Needless to say, this approach is highly directive, and is often referred to as a “telling” leadership style.
Pro: Confusion and guesswork are eliminated, because tasks and expectations are clearly mapped out by the leader.
Con: Due to the rigid environment and expectations, creativity and innovation may be stifled.
A transactional leadership style works best when…
- You’re leading a project or process that requires clear direction and leaves very little room for deviation (such as compliance with a critical industry regulation).
- Your team is highly-motivated by explicit directions and rewards.
You might be a transactional leader if…
- You frequently use the threat of having to work late when you need to motivate your team.
- You’re constantly brainstorming clever ways to recognize solid work—your team can’t wait to see what you come up with after last month’s personalized playlists.
2. Transformational leadership
Again, with this leadership style, it’s all in the name: Transformational leaders seek to change (ahem, transform) the businesses or groups in which they lead by inspiring their employees to innovate.
These leaders are all about making improvements and finding better ways to get things done. And as a result, they inspire and empower other people to own their work and chime in with their suggestions or observations about how things could be streamlined or upgraded.
Under transformational leaders, people have tons of autonomy, as well as plenty of breathing room to innovate and think outside the box.
Pro: Leaders are able to establish a high level of trust with employees and rally them around a shared vision or end goal.
Con: In environments where existing processes are valued, this desire to change things up can ruffle some feathers.
A transformational leadership style works best when…
- You need to get buy-in or create some enthusiasm around a necessary shift within your team or organization.
- You’ve identified that a change needs to happen but want to solicit ideas about the best way to go about it.
You might be a transformational leader if…
- You look at every single existing process with a discerning eye and a strong sense that it could be better.
- You’re always encouraging others to get outside their comfort zones and push their own limits.
- You could burst with pride whenever you see a team member achieve something that was previously thought to be impossible.
3. Servant leadership
Servant leaders operate with this standard motto: Serve first and lead second.
Rather than thinking about how they can inspire people to follow their lead, they channel the majority of their energy into finding ways that they can help others. They prioritize the needs of other people above their own.
Despite the fact that they’re natural leaders, those who follow the servant leadership model don’t try to maintain a white-knuckle grasp on their own status or power. Instead, they focus on elevating and developing the people who follow them.
As Simon Sinek eloquently explains in his book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t: “Leaders are the ones who are willing to give up something of their own for us. Their time, their energy, their money, maybe even the food off their plate. When it matters, leaders choose to eat last.”
Pro: This approach boosts morale and leads to a high level of trust, which results in better employee performance and a more positive company culture overall.
Con: It’s challenging. Constantly pushing your own needs and priorities to the backburner isn’t something that comes as second nature for most of us.
A servant leadership style works best when…
- You’re taking over as the new leader of a team or project and need to build trust right off the bat.
- Your team is navigating a challenging time (whether it’s layoffs, organizational changes, a complex project, or something else) and needs to feel extra supported.
You might be a servant leader if…
- You’re known for asking, “What can I do to help?” at least three times a day.
- You place a high priority on removing roadblocks and helping others get things done.
- You never think twice about helping out when you’re asked—because you know that your own to-do list will still be there when you return.
4. Democratic leadership
You might also hear this leadership style referred to as “participative leadership.” Leaders in this category run groups and projects like…well, a democracy.
Even if these leaders are technically higher on the org chart, they emphasize working together and actively involve their teams in the decision-making process. Democratic leaders value ideas and input from others, and encourage discussion about those contributions.
They aren’t handing down orders from on high, and instead take a much more collaborative approach to getting things done.
Pro: Creativity and innovation are encouraged, which also improves job satisfaction among employees and team members.
Con: Constantly trying to achieve consensus among a group can be inefficient and, in some cases, costly.
A democratic leadership style works best when…
- You’re not under a tight deadline and have plenty of time to make a decision or determine the best way forward.
- You see that other people have knowledge and expertise in an area where you don’t have as much direct experience.
You might be a democratic leader if…
- You think the best meetings are the ones where everyone has an equal chance to weigh in.
- You can’t remember the last time you made an important decision without getting input from at least one other person.
5. Autocratic leadership
Autocratic leadership exists on the opposite side of the spectrum from democratic leadership.
You can think of this as a “my way or the highway” approach.
Autocratic leaders view themselves as having absolute power and make decisions on behalf of their subordinates. They dictate not only what needs to be done, but also how those tasks should be accomplished.
Pro: Decisions are often made quickly and strategically, and teams are kept on track as a result.
Con: Employees can feel ignored, restricted, and—in the absolute worst of cases—even abused.
An autocratic leadership style works best when…
- You’re facing a complex crisis or difficult decision that requires strong, confident leadership.
- You need to react to an urgent situation with speedy decision-making.
You might be an autocratic leader if…
- You think group discussions and brainstorming only slow things down, and it’s better if you make important decisions alone.
- You dislike it when employees question your decisions—when you’ve said something, that’s final.
6. Bureaucratic leadership
Bureaucratic leadership goes “by the book,” so to speak. With this leadership style, there’s a prescribed set of boxes to check in order to be a true leader.
For example, bureaucratic leaders have hierarchical authority—meaning their power comes from a formal position or title, rather than unique traits or characteristics that they possess.
They also have a set list of responsibilities, as well as clearly-defined rules and systems for how they’ll manage others and make decisions. They just need to follow that roadmap that’s laid out for them.
Pro: There’s plenty of stability. Since this is a systematized approach to leadership, things remain constant even through personnel changes and other shifts that threaten to rock the boat.
Con: It’s tempting to fall into the “we’ve always done it this way” trap. This approach can be inflexible and neglect to leave room for creativity or ideas from employees.
A bureaucratic leadership style works best when…
- You’re facing a situation or process that requires strict compliance and attention to detail.
- You lead a lot of routine, recurring, and predictable projects and processes.
You might be a bureaucratic leader if…
- You frequently find yourself asking how your predecessor handled certain scenarios—you want to make sure that you’re following the accepted procedure.
- You always request confirmation that you’re doing things right whenever you’re tasked with something new.
7. Laissez-faire leadership
Do you remember the term “laissez-faire” from your high school French or history class? If not, let’s refresh your memory.
This is a French term that translates to “leave it be,” which pretty accurately summarizes this hands-off leadership approach. It’s the exact opposite of micromanagement.
Laissez-faire leaders provide the necessary tools and resources. But then they step back and let their team members make decisions, solve problems, and get their work accomplished—without having to worry about the leader obsessively supervising their every move.
Pro: This level of trust and independence is empowering for teams that are creative and self-motivated.
Con: Chaos and confusion can quickly ensue—especially if a team isn’t organized or self-directed.
A laissez-faire leadership style works best when…
- You’re leading a team with a high degree of expertise, accountability, organization, and drive.
- You’re aiming to foster more autonomy and creativity on your team.
You might be a laissez-faire leader if…
- You hardly do any of the talking in project status update meetings. Instead, your team members are the ones filling you in on where things are.
- You’re really only involved in most tasks and projects at two key points: the beginning and the end.
8. Charismatic leadership
You know what it means to have a lot of charisma, and that’s exactly what these leaders possess.
Charismatic leaders have magnetic personalities, as well as a lot of conviction to achieve their objectives.
Rather than encouraging behaviors through strict instructions, these leaders use eloquent communication and persuasion to unite a team around a cause. They’re able to clearly lay out their vision and get others excited about that same goal.
Pro: Charismatic leaders are very inspirational and effective at getting an entire group invested in a shared objective.
Con: Due to their intense focus, it’s easy for these leaders to develop “tunnel vision” and lose sight of other important issues or tasks that crop up.
A charismatic leadership style works best when…
- You’re acting as the “face” of an initiative and are responsible for selling an idea or suggestion to your team or others within the organization.
- Your team is dealing with a lot of uncertainty and needs a leader with a lot of emotional intelligence.
You might be a charismatic leader if…
- You’re known for giving amazing “rally the troops” types of presentations.
- You’re usually the one elected to give toasts and speeches at various company events.
9. Coaching leadership
With a coaching leadership style, the leader acts as—yep, you guessed it—a coach. They come alongside the people they lead to offer guidance and mentorship, as opposed to firm directions or reprimands.
This type of leader is heavily invested in the development of other people and they’ll freely share their time, energy, and knowledge to help others learn, grow, and improve.
Coaching leaders don’t consider themselves successful when they reach a specific target or milestone. Their idea of success lies in helping others realize their full potential.
Pro: Coaching helps leaders build trust, which can improve employee satisfaction, motivation, retention, and of course, performance.
Con: This approach is both time and effort-intensive, particularly if you’re leading a large team. It takes a lot of hours and energy to provide this level of support.
A coaching leadership style works best when…
- You’re coming into an organization or team that has a lot of skepticism and distrust in leadership.
- You recognize that people have the skills and know-how to get things done, yet motivation and engagement are seriously lacking.
You might be a coaching leader if…
- Your favorite conversations to have with your direct reports are the ones focused on their own career goals and ambitions.
- You’re never shy about offering help and support—whether it’s an interesting article, an impactful piece of advice, or an introduction to someone in your network.
10. Situational leadership
Consider this last one the chameleon of all leadership styles. Situational leaders are highly-flexible and adapt their approach to the specific circumstances they’re in.
As all of the above leadership styles prove, there’s a time and place for all the different methods—there isn’t one default “best” way to lead.
That’s why a situational leadership style is so helpful. It gives you the flexibility to read the room, tailor your approach, and lead in a way that’s the most resonant and impactful.
Pro: Moving away from a blanket leadership approach means leaders can deliver what their team or a situation requires most in that exact moment.
Con: To do this well, leaders need to have a lot of situational awareness and emotional intelligence to understand what a specific scenario requires. That’s not always easy for leaders, especially if they’re pressed for time and spread thin.
A situational leadership style works best when…
- Your team is constantly changing and evolving, whether that means new personnel, priorities, or anything else.
- Your team is made up of varied and diverse personalities that have drastically different preferences, communication styles, and reactions.
You might be a situational leader if…
- You frequently like to pause and take stock of a situation before responding. You’re not one for knee-jerk reactions.
- You often ask yourself questions like, “How can I be the most helpful here?” before jumping into action.
What are the most common leadership styles?
There’s no shortage of leadership styles out there. But which ones are the most prevalent?
Ask different people and you’re bound to get different answers. Popular and common leadership styles hinge on a lot of factors like industry, team size, current trends, and even the broader economic climate.
For example, ask someone in law enforcement and they’ll likely tell you that transactional or bureaucratic leadership is the way to go. But ask someone who works in tech and they’ll probably say transformational leadership is the standard in their industry.
Even so, there are a few leadership styles that have garnered more praise and notoriety in recent years, particularly as employees increasingly crave flexibility, meaningful work, and career growth. These styles include:
Particularly with the shift to more remote work where leaders don’t have as much easy visibility into the day-to-day work on their teams, these styles balance autonomy and independence with plenty of guidance and support.
How hard is it to change your leadership style?
So you’ve familiarized yourself with the ins and outs of the above approaches, but what if you’ve realized that you want to make some changes? Perhaps you’ve pegged yourself as a transactional leader and want to be more transformational, or you think you could incorporate more servant leadership into your existing style.
The good news: You absolutely can change your personal leadership style. “Your leadership style isn’t an annual membership,” says Crawford. Altering your approach is actually fairly straightforward in concept (although a little more difficult in practice), and you can do it at any time. The key is to swap out ineffective habits for new ones that are more in line with the style you’d like to align with, and “stay committed to practicing your new leadership style and technique.”
For example, if you tend to be autocratic and want to incorporate some more democratic practices, try some things that force you to relinquish some power like:
- Requesting a second opinion on a decision you’re making.
- Instituting a weekly brainstorming session with your team.
- Asking a colleague to co-lead a project that you otherwise would’ve handled alone.
If you’re struggling to even figure out how you can be more effective or what the best leadership style for you is in the first place, Padua recommends that you start by thinking about a leader or mentor you admired. “What were their qualities?” she asks. “What did they do? What did they say? How did it impact you?”
That exercise can help you identify some traits and leadership skills that you’d like to implement in your own style.
Remember, leadership is a learning process
Here’s the thing: There’s no such thing as a “perfect” leadership style, because leadership isn’t one size fits all. All of the different approaches come with their benefits and drawbacks, and some of them will be more effective in certain scenarios.
Regardless of where you think your own current style fits in, there are likely a few changes you can make to be even more effective. Like anything, leadership is a learning process, and it takes a little bit of trial and error to get it right.
“Don’t be afraid to make mistakes,” concludes Crawford. “That’s how we learn. Sometimes you may have to take a few tries at different styles to make things work. Be easy on yourself.”