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Different Leadership Styles

Last updated on 20th December 2023

Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, leadership is “the action of leading a group of people or an organisation, or the ability to do this”. Leadership styles refer to the descriptions or classifications of the main behaviours that are displayed by managers and leaders.

What are the different leadership styles?

Unfortunately the literature on leadership is expansive, with various theories competing for dominance, so there is not a definitive answer to this question. There is overlap between some of the main leadership writers and theorists, with certain leadership styles common to all.

These are known as the primary leadership styles.

Kurt Lewin, a social psychologist, formed the groundwork on the subject in the 1930s, identifying what he called “three styles of leadership behaviour”:

  • Authoritarian Leadership also known as Autocratic.
  • Participative Leadership also known as Democratic.
  • Delegative Leadership also known as Laissez-Faire.

Over the years these core styles have been developed and expanded upon by leading business and management writers and theorists, for example Tannenbaum and Schmidt, Ken Blanchard and Daniel Goleman.

Today’s leadership and management training and education mainly refer to a framework of seven primary leadership styles. These are on a continuum, ranging from autocratic, the most rigid, structured style at one end, to laissez-faire, the most flexible, unstructured style at the other end, with a range of styles in between.

Each leadership style has its place in a leader’s toolkit and although you may naturally have a personal prevailing leadership style, as an effective leader you may need to be able to use several different leadership styles at any given time. The intelligent leader knows to flex from one style to another as circumstances and situations demand.

The seven primary leadership styles are:

  • Autocratic.
  • Authoritative.
  • Pacesetting.
  • Democratic.
  • Coaching.
  • Affiliative.
  • Laissez-faire.
Man leading a group of people

Autocratic leadership

This is defined by a top-down approach when it comes to all decision-making, procedures and policies within an organisation. An Autocratic Leader focuses less on collecting input from team members and tends to make executive decisions that others are expected to follow.

The phrase most illustrative of an Autocratic Leadership style is “Do as I say”. This command-and-control approach is used less and less in organisations today, however, it may be appropriate in certain situations. You might use an Autocratic Leadership style when crucial decisions need to be made as a matter of urgency and there’s no time to wait.

One example of when the Autocratic Leadership style could be effective is if there was a fire in the building where one person needs to direct everyone safely out without being questioned.

The pros of Autocratic Leadership include:

  • Can be efficient, especially when it comes to decision-making.
  • One person taking charge can keep teams cohesive and consistent.
  • Can reduce an individual’s stress by the leader making decisions quickly.
  • May make everyone’s individual roles clearer since they are delegated specific duties and are not encouraged to step outside of that role.

The cons of Autocratic Leadership include:

  • Can stifle creativity, collaboration, innovation and diversity in thought.
  • Highly stressful because the leader feels responsible for everything.
  • Often resented by individuals as the leader lacks flexibility and often does not want to hear others’ ideas, leaving them feeling that they don’t have a voice.

Authoritative leadership

Unlike Autocratic Leaders, Authoritative Leaders take the time to explain their thinking to others, they don’t just issue orders. Most of all, they allow people choice and autonomy on how to achieve common goals.

Leaders using this leadership style are often confident people, who map the way and set expectations, while engaging and energising followers along the way. This style may also be called Visionary Leadership. The phrase most illustrative of an Authoritative Leadership style is, “Follow me”. Authoritative Leaders help people see where the organisation is going and what is going to happen when they get there.

One example of when the Authoritative Leadership style could be effective is in changing and uncertain times, as these leaders give a clear vision of what needs to be done to succeed.

The pros of Authoritative Leadership include:

  • Motivating for the team.
  • Beneficial for building strong relationships and encouraging collaboration.
  • Empowers team members with autonomy to do their jobs.
  • Can lead to more creativity and innovation.

The cons of Authoritative Leadership include:

  • Pressure on the leader, who needs to lead by example.
  • Can cause feelings of instability by disrupting the status quo.
  • May not be a good culture fit for a more “traditional hierarchical” organisational culture.

Pacesetting leadership

Pacesetting Leadership focuses on performance and achieving goals. Leaders expect excellence from themselves and their teams, and will often jump in to make sure that goals are met.

Whilst the pacesetter style of leadership is effective in getting things done and driving for results, it is an approach that can cause stress to the leader and team members in the long run working under this kind of pressure. Pacesetters set the bar high and push their team members to run hard and fast to the finish line. The phrase most illustrative of a Pacesetter Leadership style is “Keep up!”.

An example of when this leadership style is most effective is when an energetic entrepreneur is working with a like-minded team developing and announcing a new product or service ahead of the competition.

The pros of Pacesetter Leadership include:

  • Highly self-motivated and a strong desire to succeed.
  • Reaching time critical, short-term results.
  • Leading teams that need little direction or co-ordination.
  • Inspiring high performance, high pace and high quality.

The cons of Pacesetter Leadership include:

  • Values results more than anything, including the team.
  • Detrimental for employee engagement and motivation in the long run.
  • Individuals can feel stressed, overwhelmed and receive little or no feedback or development.
Group of people in a meeting

Democratic leadership

This is the most participative leadership style. A Democratic Leadership style gets people to do what you want to be done but in a way that they want to do it. It motivates individuals by empowering them to take a full part in the decision-making process. Ideas and suggestions can be brought forward by any team member, and the Democratic Leader facilitates and asks questions until there is consensus in decision-making.

The Democratic Leader is still the one making the final decision or approving the decision of the team. The phrase most illustrative of a Democratic Leadership style is “All for one and one for all”. An example of when this leadership style is most effective is when you want to generate trust and promote team spirit and cooperation from individuals, such as when reviewing and improving business processes and gaining “buy-in” for change.

The pros of Democratic Leadership include:

  • Creativity and innovation are encouraged, valuing the process of generating new ideas.
  • Collaboration creates strong solutions for complex issues.
  • High employee engagement and involvement.
  • Higher productivity.
  • A strong feeling of team accountability.

The cons of Democratic Leadership include:

  • Can cause confusion, delays and conflict.
  • Can lack focus and direction.
  • Some team members’ ideas and opinions may get more attention than the ideas of others, causing resentment.
  • Collaborative decision-making is time-consuming.
  • The team may have limited expertise or experience to contribute fully.
  • Employees can get too used to being involved in decision-making and expect to be included in all decisions, even when it is not appropriate, possibly causing conflict.

Coaching leadership

A Coaching Leader gives people direction to help them develop and utilise their abilities to achieve their full potential. They are focused on bringing out the best in their teams by guiding them through obstacles to achieve their goals.

Coaching Leadership depends heavily on the leader’s ability to direct and support. They will give directions to help team members develop their skills, and this takes time and excellent communication skills to provide constructive feedback on the individual’s performance, which is a core part of Coaching Leadership.

The phrase most illustrative of a Coaching Leadership style is “What else could you try?” An example of when this leadership style is most effective is when the leader takes time to manage and develop talent, setting clear objectives and providing motivational feedback to improve performance.

The pros of Coaching Leadership include:

  • Encourages two-way communication and collaboration.
  • Helps people improve their skills so that they can perform at their best.
  • Individuals don’t have to guess what is required from them, the objectives and goals are clear.
  • Having support makes meeting performance expectations motivating for individuals.
  • Helps to identify weaknesses, and transform them into strengths.
  • Enables organisations to develop talent and grow a highly skilled workforce.
  • Promotes trust and empowerment.

The cons of Coaching Leadership include:

  • Requires a lot of one-to-one time and patience.
  • Doesn’t always lead to the fastest, most efficient results.
  • The leader must have confidence, experience and the ability to give meaningful feedback or the effect could be negative.
  • Leaders often have to prioritise achieving their own goals, and coaching takes a lower priority which can be demotivating for the team.
  • Team members are not committed to the process.
  • Team members are resentful, defensive or disregard the feedback given in coaching.

Affiliative leadership

This style, also known as Collaborative Leadership, is all about encouraging agreement and forming cooperative relationships within and between teams. It strategically and explicitly focuses on people, gaining loyalty and support to get tasks done.

Affiliative Leaders recognise and reward the personal characteristics and behaviours used to carry out tasks as much as the delivery of the task itself. In other words, not only what is done but how something is done. They encourage and develop positive working relationships between often diverse and conflicting groups and motivate individuals by supporting them during highly monotonous or stressful times.

The phrase most illustrative of an Affiliative Leadership style is “People come first”. An example of when this leadership style is most effective is when leading a cross-functional project team to encourage collaboration with other teams, departments and outside contractors to accomplish a shared goal.

The pros of Affiliative Leadership include:

  • Offers more opportunities for diversity.
  • Builds trust within an organisation.
  • Strengthens cross-functional working relationships.
  • Recognises and rewards people skills.
  • Teams handle emotional challenges better.
  • Employees experience less stress and higher autonomy.

The cons of Affiliative Leadership include:

  • Potential for power struggles between departmental leaders.
  • Task-orientated individuals see interpersonal relationships as inappropriate, unnecessary or distracting.
  • Can hamper results, prioritising people over the task in hand.
  • Underperformance can be overlooked, resulting in low standards.
  • Can foster a sense of favouritism and frustration.
  • Lacks clear direction in times of crises.
A teaching style of leadership

Laissez-faire leadership

This leadership style is at the opposite end of the continuum from Autocratic Leadership. When taken to the extreme the hands-off leader may end up appearing indifferent and remote. However, a Laissez-faire Leader trusts people to know what to do and works well when leading highly skilled, experienced individuals and teams who are motivated self-starters.

Laissez-faire Leaders still provide their teams with the resources and tools they need to succeed but they remain generally uninvolved in the day-to-day work. The phrase most illustrative of a Laissez-faire Leadership style is “let you do” which is also the literal translation from French.

An example of when this leadership style is most effective is when the leader is confident in the abilities of their team and empowers them to carry out their roles, providing them with timely feedback on headway so that the leader can monitor progress and achievement.

The pros of Laissez-faire Leadership include:

  • Encourages trust between team members and leader.
  • Inspires independent thinking and acting.
  • Less fear of failure.
  • Can lead to increased creativity and innovation.
  • Empowers individuals.
  • Promotes the concept of self-managing teams.

The cons of Laissez-faire Leadership include:

  • Often hard for leaders to “let go” enough.
  • Leaders can appear too distant and unapproachable.
  • Can result in low productivity.
  • Not effective with unskilled or unmotivated individuals.
  • Conflict can occur between team members.
  • Team members may vie to fill the leadership void.

How management and leadership styles are adapted in different situations

An effective leadership style is not “one size fits all”; good leaders adapt their styles to the different circumstances, people and situations. Management writers and theorists call this “situational leadership”.

Situational leadership incorporates many different skills. The leadership style you choose depends on the particular circumstances, your organisational environment, employee competencies and commitment, and your own characteristics. With its emphasis on adaptability, situational leadership offers great benefits for the organisation, managers and employees.

The best situational leaders possess the following traits:

  • Insightfulness – they understand employee needs and adapt their style to meet those needs.
  • Flexibility – they can move effortlessly from one leadership style to another.
  • Trustworthy – they gain employees’ confidence.
  • Analytical – they solve problems and know how best to get a job done.
  • Coaching – they know how to evaluate employees and help them to achieve.

Why is it important to understand different leadership styles?

One of the best ways of finding what leadership style suits you and when, is trying out some different approaches. It is important to get to know what the different styles listed above are, their strengths and weaknesses, when they are most effective and what your own natural leadership style is.

As a leader, it is vital to be yourself; if you are not naturally authoritative, suddenly dishing out orders to your team will seem very strange and is unlikely to earn you the respect of those you manage.

Instead, think about your natural manner, strengths and skills, and how you can use the authority you have in a positive way. For example, if you are leading a change initiative, it is important to be inspiring and engaging, in order to ensure others’ “buy-in” and commitment. In a crisis situation, however, you will need to be far more directive in order to convey an appropriate sense of urgency.

As well as adapting your style to different situations, you should also be sensitive to the motivations, needs and personalities of individual team members. It can be hard to be objective about your own leadership style and how well it is working, so seeking out constructive feedback is a good idea. This can be quite revealing in terms of how you might adapt or fine tune your leadership styles.

What are the different types of leadership styles in management and business?

Business leaders and managers use many different approaches and operate at a variety of levels. When leadership is skilfully demonstrated, it can bring positive outcomes for individuals, teams, organisations and wider communities.

The COVID-19 pandemic is making new demands on managers and business leaders and has highlighted uncertainty in the world of work, making the ability to use different leadership styles for fast moving unclear situations all the more important. Leaders have had to completely reimagine their approach to how they lead. Lockdowns, isolation and remote working have all had an impact on how leaders lead in these changing and uncertain environments.

Leading people through adversity is challenging, and effective leaders are needing to flex between leadership styles as workers navigate personal and professional difficulties from the COVID pandemic and its consequences. However, the primary leadership styles described above are still relevant in today’s workplaces.

Leadership in a workplace meeting

What are the different types of leadership styles in education?

The many different contexts in Education call for a variety of leadership styles, and which to employ will depend very heavily on the ethos and vision of the school, college or trust, the requirements of the particular role and, of course, individual personality traits.

Some of the common styles used in Education are:

  • Autocratic Leaders – they tend to be labelled as authoritarians as they focus their attention predominantly on results and efficiency. However, there are some educational contexts, especially where discipline is an issue, where this style is most effective.
  • Authoritative Leaders – who have a powerful ability to drive progress, inspiring people in times of change with the power of their vision and plans. One of the key traits of this style of visionary leadership is that they are able to motivate their team through clearly outlined outcomes. This type of leadership is especially helpful for small, fast-growing schools and those establishments that require drastic changes.
  • Affiliative Leaders – put their staff first in all situations. The mindset is that when team members feel personally and professionally fulfilled, they are more effective and more likely to buy into the vision and ethos of an organisation. In Education, the focus on employee satisfaction and collaboration often results in higher levels of respect for these types of leaders.
  • Coaching Leaders – can ascertain their team members’ strengths, weaknesses and motivations and use this understanding to help them improve teaching and learning. They often observe practice and then provide regular feedback to promote improvement. In Education, this style can be highly motivational, but is time-consuming and may only be appropriate for specific contexts rather than whole-staff initiatives.

Leadership styles are one of the concepts contained in the National Professional Qualification () framework for leaders in Education.

What are the different types of leadership styles in nursing?

Nurses and other healthcare providers work long hours, with duties ranging from routine physical tasks to life-or-death procedures. Healthcare teams often face worker shortages that place even greater burdens on staff members. Demanding under normal conditions, the responsibilities and conditions of Healthcare work can suddenly intensify when life-threatening events, such as COVID, occur.

According to the Royal College of Nursing, nurses prefer leaders who are participative, facilitative and emotionally intelligent, so leadership styles that contribute to team cohesion, lower stress, and offer higher empowerment and self-efficacy appear to be most effective in this environment. Authoritative and Affiliative Leadership styles offer good role models consistent with the values and vision for Healthcare.

Democratic Leadership is a more recent area of interest in Healthcare. It reflects the assumption that acts of leadership should come from anybody, not only those in formal positions of authority. The NHS Healthcare Leadership Model underpins these leadership behaviours in Nursing and Healthcare.

In conclusion

Strong leadership requires an understanding of the complex mix of traits and behaviours that can inspire and motivate success; no one leadership style fits every situation. As we have seen, different work situations call for different leadership styles; the appropriate style will be the one you match with particular circumstances and people.

Developing as a leader means being able to identify what type of leadership is needed, using the strategy that is likely to work best and being flexible enough to change your style if required. Effective leaders will move seamlessly between leadership styles as situations demand, in order to be effective leaders.

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About the author

Evie Lee

Evie Lee

Evie has worked at CPD Online College since August 2021. She is currently doing an apprenticeship in Level 3 Business Administration. Evie's main roles are to upload blog articles and courses to the website. Outside of work, Evie loves horse riding and spending time with her family.

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