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How to Identify Your Leadership Style

August 17, 2022 Leadership
Tom Regan
By Tom Regan LinkedIn

We all know about great leaders. However, there's a good chance we don't think about their leadership style.

A leadership style describes a leader's behaviors when motivating, directing or guiding groups of people. There is no one-size-fits-all type of leadership. Think of the coaching leadership style of football's Bill Belichick or baseball's Dave Roberts, the visionary leadership style of Elon Musk or the transformational leadership style of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

There are significant differences between the leadership style of each of these people. Experience affects leadership styles, as does the timing and people involved in a particular project. An individual's leadership style can also change over time or depend upon the situation.

Thinking about your leadership style and how you lead is an important piece of team success.

The Importance of Developing a Leadership Style

The Harvard Business Review neatly summarized the importance of developing a leadership style in a 2020 article.

"Few things are more frustrating for talented professionals than hitting a ceiling in their careers because they lack the appropriate leadership style. A boss senses that something is missing in a person's tool kit but can't put a finger on exactly what it is or how the person can improve. The boss says something like 'You're lacking important intangibles' or 'You need more gravitas' but fails to provide specific advice or tools for improving. It is equally frustrating to watch people with mediocre technical skills move up the ladder quickly because they have an exceptional leadership style. Bosses defend such promotions by emphasizing the employees' soft skills, calling them 'poised,' 'confident' and 'dynamic.'"

Developing a leadership style is a key to advancing your company or your organization. As the article explains, a leadership style is different from a personality. You might have a great personality but be a lousy leader and vice versa.

Here's a look at the most common leadership styles. Some argue there are only four, others six, yet others eight or more. The truth is that some leadership styles are a close match to others but often depend upon the situation that the individual leader finds themselves in.

Related Article: Remote Leadership: Which Style Suits You?

Lewin's Leadership Styles

Psychologist Kurt Lewin led a group of researchers in 1939 to document different leadership styles. They identified three primary types. Although further research has identified other kinds, Lewin's work remains influential today.

This study used schoolchildren and teachers who had authoritarian, democratic or laissez-faire leadership styles. Each group of children was assigned to a teacher to complete an arts and craft project. Lewin's group of researchers watched how the students responded to each teaching style.

Authoritarian/Autocratic Leadership

Leaders who use this style provide their groups with clear expectations of the task, its completion date and how to do the task properly. They are focused on results and efficiency. The leader is in complete control, and the group follows. Authoritarian leaders seldom ask for input from team members and make almost all decisions by themselves.

Authoritarian leaders are confident, self motivated, follow the rules, give clear instructions and value highly structured work environments. Military commanders come to mind for this leadership style.

Pros: This leadership style is the most useful where a company relies on strict guidelines or needs to follow rigid compliance regulations. It's also helpful when a leader needs to make a rapid decision or take decisive action. Authoritarian leadership is also useful when dealing with a group of employees who may be new on the job or need strict supervision.

Cons: Authoritarian leaders stifle creativity. They are seldom flexible and not open to the ideas of others. Employees often view authoritarian leaders as bossy and dictatorial, which can create a great deal of tension in the workplace.

Participative/Democratic Leadership

Lewin's researchers felt that this was the most effective leadership style. These leaders participate in the group, welcome others' ideas and provide guidance. Interestingly, in Lewin's study, children who worked with the democratic leader were less productive, but what they did produce was of a higher quality.

Participative leaders listen to the ideas of other team members but make final decisions. They make sure team members have all the necessary information during any discussion. Creativity is encouraged. Democratic leaders work hard to make each team member feel like an essential member of the group, encouraging team unity. They're flexible and good at mediation.

Pros: Democratic leader makes team members feel valued and empowered. A good democratic leader promotes morale and tends to have a high employee retention rate. Participative leadership is an excellent style for an established company that wants to move in new, creative directions.

Cons: Employees who don't do well in group settings won't prosper under this leadership style. This style can be inefficient and costly. It also takes time because the leader considers the opinion of every member of the team before they make a decision.

Related Article: What Is Participative Leadership?

Laissez-Faire/Delegative Leadership

Laissez-faire leaders provide their teams with almost no guidance. Decision-making is left to team members. It's a good style when working with a group of highly qualified experts who need little direction and have a deep understanding of the situation.

However, laissez-faire leadership leads to poorly defined roles within the team and a lack of motivation. Team members will often do what is known as "the adult daily minimum requirement" since the laissez-faire leader fails to motivate team members to be creative or to move beyond simple job descriptions.

Pros: This is a good style for a startup, where the leader doesn't make any rules about work hours, office conduct or place of work. A laissez-faire leader trusts the employees to get the job done and focuses on other aspects of running the company.

Cons: The Lewin study regarded laissez-faire as the least effective and the least productive style. This leadership style limits employees’ development and misses critical opportunities for the company to grow. It's a bad choice for new employees who need guidance and training. It often creates a lack of structure and confusion about who is in charge, leaving employees feeling unsupported.

Emotional Leadership Theory

While Lewin's work provided essential information about leadership types, succeeding generations of psychologists who study leadership styles have expanded upon his work.

In 1996, Daniel Goleman identified six other styles of leadership that depend upon a leader's ability to influence team members' emotions. In emotional leadership theory, emotional intelligence and leadership style work together.

As the Toolshero website noted in 2019, "According to the Goleman Leadership Styles, every style has a different impact on the team of an organization. Therefore, it is essential to understand that there is no right or wrong leadership style. A leadership style of the Goleman Leadership Styles can work excellently for a particular situation, but it might work horribly in another case. The leader must possess the knowledge to understand the leadership styles and have the capability to perform the right leadership style."

Goleman's leadership styles include coaching, visionary, affiliative, pacesetting, commanding and democratic leadership.

Coaching Leadership

Coaching leadership is most effective when the leader identifies the strengths and weaknesses of each team member and then provides guidance so team members can improve. This leader can tie these needed skills to the company's goals. They are creative, willing to contribute and provide meaningful feedback.

Not everyone can use a coaching leadership style. Anyone who's ever worked with a lousy coach knows how they can discourage creativity and not be open to others' ideas.

Pros: Coaching leadership motivates team members who enjoy being a part of a unified group. Team members receive clear expectations, which creates skilled, productive individuals who can go on to coach others.

Cons: Organizations that require rapid results should avoid coaching leadership, as it requires patience. Coaching leadership only works if team members are open to working with this kind of leader. If there is no team chemistry, this style of leadership will suffer.

Visionary Leadership

This style has some common features with Lewin's authoritative leadership description. It's an excellent leadership choice when a company needs a big change or when team members are willing to follow someone into an unknown future. These leaders clearly understand what direction the company needs to proceed.

However, visionary leaders often don't appreciate or seek the opinions of others. If there are other members of the team who are experts, they may not blindly follow a visionary leader with whom they have differing opinions.

Pros: The visionary leader has their eyes on the prize. They are not discouraged by minor setbacks. These leaders are good at creating plans to deal with crises or unexpected obstacles.

Cons: There is often a problem with a short-term focus. Visionary leaders aren't crazy about the opinions of others who see the future differently than they do. The problem is that visionary leaders' personalities can overwhelm a company's goals and brand so that the company becomes all about them.

Democratic Leadership

Like Lewin's participative leadership, democratic leaders encourage team members to participate and welcome ideas. This style of viewership is helpful in teams where members are highly skilled. Encouraging the participation of these individuals leads to increased creativity and new ideas.

A democratic leadership style doesn't work well for a team that needs immediate results. Nor is it the best leadership style for groups of unskilled employees.

Pros: A democratic leadership style encourages creativity and innovation. It builds trust among the team and promotes employee engagement. Employees are accountable and produce quality results.

Cons: Democratic leadership can consume a lot of time. If a democratic leader makes a decision that ignores the group's input, and it turns out to be the wrong decision, they will lose the group's trust. Democratic leaders can be too consultative and not decisive enough.

Affiliative Leadership

These leaders focus on building relationships. They want to create harmony within the team, which will lead to a more productive and collaborative workplace. This leadership style works well when a team is in crisis or a new team is being created.

Affiliative leadership can sometimes get lost in relationship building. It focuses too much on friendship and not enough on leadership. A good example is a sports team leader who is known as a "players' coach." This type of leadership is suitable for a team where trust and unity are essential but can be detrimental to a team that needs more structure.

Pros: Affiliative leaders provide constructive feedback to team members. Their relationships enable them to stop conflict within the team quickly. As a result, team members feel less stress and that the relationship with the leader is important. Team members are also willing to spend more time helping each other.

Cons: Team members can sometimes take advantage of an affiliative leadership style. Affiliative leaders can hesitate to criticize because they want to maintain the importance of the relationship. If the leader doesn't clearly define team members' roles, they won't work as hard as they should. Team members can also become too attached to an affiliative leader. If that leader leaves the team, leads a new team or moves to a new job, their old team can feel abandoned.

Pacesetting Leadership

Pacesetting leaders aim for quality, performance and high productivity. They share some features with an authoritative leadership style. These leaders want team members to follow in their footsteps and not question their decisions. If team members can't keep up, pacesetters will step in and finish the task.

Pacesetting leadership style won't work if team members don't trust their leader and rebel against the style.

Pros: Pacesetting leaders achieve goals on target and on time. Pacesetting leadership allows leaders to identify problems and provide solutions quickly. Their teams, oriented toward performance, can be placed into situations where high-performance adults are needed.

Cons: Pacesetting leadership can create stressed and unmotivated teams suffering from low morale. Leaders are slow to praise even when a job is well done. Team members can feel over-controlled if the leader corrects every tiny misstep. You don't want pacesetting leadership in situations requiring creativity.

Commanding Leadership

A commanding leader sets clear goals and objectives and communicates these to the team, who expects to follow that direction. Commanding leadership style works well in an organization acquiring structure built on procedures and policies.

This leadership works best when team members lack skill or expertise. Creating structure helps them to be productive. However, commanding leadership does not appreciate creativity or innovation and does not seek the opinions of team members. Commanding leadership works best when combined with some other leadership style.

Pros: Commanding leaders provide clear expectations that help improve performance. Team members who lack skills or experience bond well to commanding leadership. This leadership style works best when there is a crisis and leaders need to make decisions quickly.

Cons: If another team member has more experience or skills than the team leader, this leadership style won't work. Team members often hesitate to make even small decisions on their own, leading to productivity slowdowns. Commanding leaders don't welcome or appreciate creativity.

A benefit of emotional leadership theory is its application on a day-to-day basis. Once you identify the type of team you are being asked to lead and its goals, you can select a leadership style that will best accomplish this task. You can then tweak the leadership style to suit the situation as new objectives or complications arise.

Bass Transformational Leadership Styles

Bernard M. Bass, an American psychologist who studied leadership styles, first documented in 1985 the final two leadership styles in this article. His theory examines how a leader directly influences their team. He built his thesis on the four I's of transformational leadership: individualized consideration, intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation and idealized influence. These four I's measure how transformational a leader can be.

Related Article: What Is Transformational Leadership Theory?

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership can be the most effective leadership style when appropriately used. These leaders are emotionally intelligent and passionate about what they do. They want to help both the organization and the members of their group do well. They motivate and inspire team members, which positively changes the entire group.

However, sometimes transformational leaders can forget important smaller tasks, making achieving the overall goal difficult. A transformational leader needs to ensure that their goals align with the company's goals.

Pros: Transformational leadership relies on coaching and encouragement to build engagement within the team. Transformational leaders unite their teams or their companies to encourage growth and increase revenue. Each team member can use their unique skills to the greatest advantage. Individual employees prosper the most with a transformational leader.

Cons: While a transformational leader is a hands-on leader, this can sometimes overwhelm employees, resulting in undue pressure and burnout. Transformational leadership needs each team member to agree with the leader's approach to building the company, and they must respect them.

Transactional Leadership

Although sociologist Max Weber developed the style in 1947, Bernard Bass expanded it as a theory opposed to transformational leadership in 1981.

A transactional leader regards his relationship with his team members as a transaction. The transaction involves completing a certain number of tasks in exchange for monetary compensation. When an individual accepts a position as a team member, they agree to follow the leader's orders.

Transactional leaders create clearly defined roles. People have a clear idea of expectations and what they will receive in return. A transactional leadership style works well in a situation that requires supervision and direction.

Pros: Transactional leadership is a style that is particularly useful in a situation with a clearly defined problem. All team members know their roles and what the leader expects of them.

Cons: A transactional leadership style discourages creativity and seldom supports the emotional needs of team members. Transactional leaders seldom have long-term success because they are so focused on short-term results. They do not reward innovation.

Related Article: The Advantages and Disadvantages of Transactional Leadership

How to Select and Develop Your Leadership Style

When you select a leadership style, you need to be aware of the situation and if it is the right fit for you. Ask yourself the following questions. How you answer them can help you determine your leadership style.

  • Which is more important to me, goals or relationships?
  • Do I like to work in a highly structured environment or one where there is lots of freedom of choice?
  • Do I prefer making decisions within a group or on my own?
  • Do I prefer to work on short-term goals or long-term goals?
  • Do I motivate people by empowering them or directing them?
  • What do I consider a healthy team dynamic?

Strategies to Follow

Along with these questions, you can consider the following strategies to help you decide on your leadership style.

  • Experiment: No leadership style is one-size-fits-all. Be flexible as you move from one situation to another. Try different approaches and carefully observe the outcome.
  • Find a mentor: A mentor can help you negotiate leadership styles by helping you understand which style works best in each situation. They will share how they developed their leadership style and why it has worked for them.
  • Seek feedback: It can be challenging for a leader to accept criticism even when it's constructive. Yet there are few better ways to help you become a good leader. If you find it difficult to listen to criticism from all your team members, seek out trusted individuals who can be honest with you but constructive.
  • Authenticity: A leadership style and your personality are two different things. Although you can select the leadership style that best fits the situation, look for one that complements your personality if possible. However, if you choose a leadership style in total opposition to your personality, you will seem inauthentic to your team members and your superiors.

The best leadership style is often a blend of styles. A leader can be democratic in seeking other team members' views but adopt a more autocratic style when deadlines approach. It can be difficult to bounce between one style and another, but it will become easier with time, experience and emotional intelligence. Also, as you switch leadership roles as you move through an organization or into a new organization, a new position may require you to adopt a new leadership style. Understanding each of the different leadership styles enables you to better adapt to each situation.

Final Thoughts

You will become a more effective leader when you know your leadership style. Understanding the pros and cons of each style will help you select the right one at the right time. If one style isn't working, consider trying another one. Whether you lead a small team, a big team or an entire organization, your leadership style will affect your team and how they report to you. Selecting the correct leadership style will help your team achieve your company's goals.


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