When I became the manager of a research team, I quickly discovered that being a manager is quite different from being a leader. In a work crisis, your supervisor may tell you that you need to work over the weekend, but a leader may join you and share the weekend workload. So, I began researching ways to specifically improve my leadership skills…and was unpleasantly surprised to find that the definition of “leadership styles” has been constantly changing over the last two decades. One source may say that there are “three basic” leadership styles, while another says there are at least 12 different types.
The way that society understands effective leadership is traditionally based on the personalities and traits of high-level CEOs and company executives, but even a temporary hire administrative assistant can be a leader—and the styles of leadership have expanded to account for these additional skillsets. For this article, we’ll keep it simple and focus on seven leadership styles. These styles are based on the qualities of almost four thousand executives but can easily be applied to anyone looking to take a leadership role in a small group or team.
In low-level management, you may recognize the Visionary leader as someone who seeks change and is frustrated with the status quo. Look for this person to change inefficient processes and hire people who bring new capabilities to the team. They are positive, motivational team leaders.
Probably the most publicly recognized of all the leadership styles, the Visionary is embodied by company heads like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Mark Zuckerberg. These leaders often have a unique vision of the future and mobilize people by having them buy into the leader’s beliefs: that a policy, product, or process can be different and better, and if you follow this person, you can be part of the revolution.
FYI: This is my favorite style of leadership, both to use and to work under. Coaches want to develop their people with the future in mind. When a football coach says, “It’s a rebuilding year,” this style is what they’re referring to. The Coach’s goal is to gather her people, identify their weaknesses, and support their strengths to position her team for future success. Sometimes, a team member needs to be brought in to fill a gap in the team’s capabilities, but the Coaching leader is investing in the team for the long-haul.
These leaders are often managers who encourage employee training and suggest that their team members attend conferences to stay up-to-date in their field of expertise. Coaches want to bring out the best in their direct reports and see them succeed by providing a low-pressure environment.
Some of the most obvious examples of coaching leaders are actual sports coaches. Take, for example, Red Holtzman, who mentored Phil Jackson.
The Affiliative leadership style is especially suited to communication. A manager or team head who practices Affiliative leadership squashes conflict immediately to form strong bonds between team members and keep morale up. In practice, an Affiliative executive may frequently comment on how the employees are “part of the family.” This attitude encourages personal investment in the company from its employees and fosters loyalty. Similarly, a manager or team lead might encourage investment in a project in situations by reinforcing the attitude that everyone is “in it together.” Affiliative leaders seek to move forward as a team.
Joe Torre, former manager of the New York Yankees, was an example of an affiliative leader. He was quick to uphold morale and promote the accomplishments of his team, encouraging bonds and a positive attitude.
As another leadership style with strengths in communication, the Democratic leadership style seeks buy-in through debate and agreement. By asking team members to help guide the direction of a project or group, the Democratic leader encourages employees to invest in the team’s achievements or the company’s success, because they feel that their decision has helped to guide the group to accomplish its goals.
Managers and executives with the Democratic leadership style are often viewed as highly collaborative and particularly thoughtful, carefully collecting the opinions of others and involving them in the decision-making process before forming an opinion. As such, the Democratic leader is sought out for their open mind and knack for decision making.
Larry Page, who involves employees in decision-making at Google, is a democratic leader. IBM CEO Ginny Rometty employees the same leadership strategy.
If the words “lead by example” describe anyone, it’s the Pacesetter. The Pacesetting leader establishes the bar by setting it personally and then challenges their team to meet or exceed the standard. Leaders who are results-driven or need to make quick decisions, perhaps on a deadline, often apply this style of leadership.
Executives who use the pacesetting leadership style often value efficiency (e.g. “Let’s make a better product and produce it faster than ever before”), and Pacesetting managers are especially good in a crisis situation. The Pacesetter seeks to inspire by setting high standards for performance and showing employees that they can succeed under pressure in many situations.
As Pacesetters of their industries, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk exhibit this type of leadership model.
This type of leader rewards good performance and punishes bad performance — hence the transactional nature of the relationship. While this approach reinforces a chain of command and can be effective in getting things done, it limits creativity and innovation among employees and reduces the working relationship to, well, a transaction.
One example of a transactional leader is Bill Gates, who expects his own strong worth ethic to be mirrored in employees. To uphold this standard, he utilizes a reward and punishment structure.
Of the six styles of leadership, Commanding leadership (also known as Authoritarian leadership or Autocratic leadership) is the most intense. This leader is no-nonsense, when-I-say-do-something-I-mean-do-it. As an executive, the autocratic leader surrounds herself with competent, capable people (or followers) she can trust, though the style also lends itself well to the manager trying to wrangle a difficult employee. Conversely, there is generally a great deal of trust in the Commanding leader as well.
This leadership style works most effectively for someone with established authority, so the Commander is often an expert or has unparalleled experience. The Commanding leader is confident, assertive, and unafraid to make tough or unpopular decisions.
Former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was known to assume an authoritative, commanding leadership style, exhibiting hands-on leadership with regard to subordinates.
It’s important to note that effective leadership may involve a blend of two or more of these styles at any given time or to engage different peers and coworkers. For instance, some styles work well when dealing with difficult employees, while others are more effective for employee development. Managers may also combine these with other styles, such as people-oriented leadership, servant leadership, laissez-faire leadership, transformational leadership, transactional leadership, situational leadership, delegative leadership, participative leadership, and charismatic leadership. A good manager, executive, or team lead will change their style as the situation calls for it, so don’t worry if your leadership style doesn’t specifically fit any one of these.
Dr. Amanda G. Riojas is a freelance writer and computational chemist living in Austin, Texas. She is the recipient of the 2018 David Carr Award, for her writing on the intersection of life and technology, and her articles about life as a working mom have been featured at Motherly and SheKnows. When she’s not advocating for women and minorities in STEM, Amanda enjoys spending her time traveling, cooking, and preparing for Baby #2.