What exactly makes a leadership style great? The answer is a good fit — both for the leader and the people they’re working with. Different work environments, personalities, and circumstances demand different styles of leadership — you likely wouldn’t find a defense lawyer using the same style of leadership on a high-stakes case as, say, a middle school vice principal mentoring first-year teachers, would you?
Below we’ll go over what exactly a leadership style is, why it’s so important to know yours, and how to choose the best leadership style for you.
The National Society of Leadership and Success (NSLS) defines a leadership style as “how someone guides, motivates, and manages others while strategizing and executing tactics to meet team and stakeholder demands.” Leadership styles determine how leaders set goals, develop plans and delegate tasks to their team.
There’s no “right” or “wrong” leadership style. Each of the styles has their pros and cons. It’s up to you to choose which one (or ones!) work for you.
Okay, so now you know what a leadership style is — but why is it so important that you learn your own? “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,” Muse career coach and leadership development consultant Joyel Crawford tells The Muse.
Learning how you lead will also help you pinpoint exactly what approaches may be more effective in given situations. For example, if you’re typically a pretty relaxed, hands-off leader but aren’t hitting the quarterly numbers you’d like to see, you may need to change up your leadership style to delegate tasks and take a more hands-on approach with your team. In other words, understanding how you lead — and how you could lead — will help you and your team achieve your goals.
Autocratic leaders, also known as authoritarian leaders, hold on tight to all the power, authority, and responsibility in an organization or department. The employees they lead rarely have a chance to share input or participate in decision-making; instead, team members are tasked with implementing the leader’s decisions and choices.
This type of leadership is generally very rigid, and in situations that demand structure, quick decision-making, and close supervision, it can be beneficial to the organization. But there are also many pitfalls: the organization cannot function without the leader, communication may be flawed or lacking, and workers may feel demoralized.
Opposite of autocratic leadership is democratic leadership, also known as participative leadership. A democratic leader allows all or most group members to participate in decision-making processes. Democratic leaders emphasize equality and encourage discussion and a flow of ideas.
Democratic leadership encourages creativity and participation and often boosts morale. But there are some potential drawbacks, too. Roles under a democratic leader might not be well defined, which could cause communication problems. And, as Muse writer Kat Boogaard points out, “Constantly trying to achieve consensus among a group can be inefficient and, in some cases, costly.”
Transformational leaders inspire and motivate their teams to perform to the best of their abilities. Transformational leadership demands a high level of productivity and involvement from employees. While this style can go a long way in effecting real change, it may be detrimental to the leader. According to the NSLS, in order to truly be a transformational leader, “you have to dedicate enough time to each member of your team to help them improve.” Unfortunately, the dedication transformational leaders have to their team members may lead them to set unrealistic expectations.
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. Roles and tasks are well-defined under a transactional leader, and people who are ambitious and respond to rewards are likely to do well. But if something happens to go wrong, employees may be punished based on their performance.
Employees of laissez-faire leaders have a high degree of autonomy. (The literal translation of the French “laissez faire”? “Allow to do.”) Leaders maintain a hands-off approach to managing workers, providing them with the tools they need to do their job without being directly involved in decision-making processes, daily tasks, and responsibilities. However, these leaders still take responsibility for these decisions.
The laissez-faire leadership style can be successful when employees are skilled in the nature of the work and motivated to succeed. Workers enjoy independence, which may be appealing to many employees. This type of leadership can have consequences when the leader is uninvolved or takes a passive approach to working with employees who need more guidance. It can also lead to a lack of unity and cohesion in a group or team, and projects may fall off track without strong oversight.
Situational leaders “adapt their approach to the specific circumstances they’re in,” as The Muse puts it. There are obviously benefits to this kind of flexibility, where a leader calls on the right style at the right time. But it can also have some pitfalls. For example, a situational leader may confuse their team when they continuously switch between leadership styles.
Depending on the nature of the work and structure of the organization, leaders may favor a specific leadership style. However, the most successful leaders and managers know that “one size doesn’t fit all” and instead choose to use several different styles, combining the best characteristics of different types of leadership to empower and keep team members content, realize the goals of the business, and push for change.
Before you can determine what leadership style is the best fit for you, you need to begin by outlining your goals. Ask yourself “What kind of leader do I want to be?” and “What leader does my team need me to be?” These two questions will get you thinking about your personal leadership goals and how they may impact your team.
If you’re feeling stuck, executive coach Tara Padau recommends that you begin by thinking about a leader you admire. Ask yourself what qualities you appreciated, what they did, and how it impacted you directly. Then incorporate their strategies when appropriate to see how they improve interactions with your team.
It’s going to take some trial and error to land on the leadership style that’s right for you and your team. With that in mind, take time to experiment with different leadership styles. Perhaps you can attempt to lead autocratically with that high-risk client project coming up and then switch to a more laissez-faire style when planning your team’s cold-calling techniques. Your experiments might result in some setbacks, but in the long run, they’ll also bring improvements for both you and your team.
This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.
Laura Berlinsky-Schine is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn with her demigod/lab mix Hercules. She specializes in education, technology and career development. She also writes satire and humor, which has appeared in Points in Case, Little Old Lady Comedy, Jane Austen’s Wastebasket and The Haven.
Fairygodboss team editors and Dr. Amanda G. Riojas contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.