Last reviewed 13 May 2021

How do you think you approach leadership? Stefan Jagielski of Health Assured assesses different leadership styles and their effectiveness.

Whatever the focus — health and safety, HR, operations, facilities management, marketing, environment, and so on — every successful business or department needs a strong leader. The best thing about leadership is that there isn’t one route to success. A leader’s particular approach is likely to be a blend of styles, depending on personality, employee needs, and what needs to be done. Some managers and leaders can even change to adopt the style that best suits them and their team.

Types of leadership style

Psychologist Kurt Lewin was one of a team of researchers who developed a framework in the 1930s that has provided the foundation for many of the approaches to leadership that followed.

The main leadership styles in management are:

  • democratic

  • autocratic

  • laissez-faire

  • strategic

  • transformational

  • transactional

  • coach-style

  • bureaucratic.

Democratic leadership

It is also known as participative leadership or shared leadership.

Described by many as the most effective leadership style, a democratic leader can help energise team members.

It ss a leadership style in which members of the group take a more participative role in the decision-making process. The leader will still usually make the final call, but each employee has a say on the end decision.

Ideas are exchanged freely and discussion is encouraged. Researchers have found that the democratic leadership style is one of the most effective types and leads to higher productivity, better contributions from group members, and increased group morale.

  • Pros: The benefits of this style are that, because it encourages members to share their thoughts, it can lead to creative solutions to problems. Group members also feel more involved in the project and care more about the end results. This increases productivity.

  • Cons: Not everything can be decided “by committee”. And achieving a consensus can draw out the whole decision-making process.

Democratic leadership is commonly effective.

Autocratic leadership

Autocratic leaders, as the name implies, focus on control and chain of command to achieve results.

This authoritarian leadership style involves direct supervision, unwavering support of the message from leadership, and more one-sided feedback and communication than other styles.

It is essential to use this only in the right circumstances and with the right group, otherwise you could alienate the team.

  • Pros: This can provide direction to disorganised groups. By setting clear roles, assigning tasks, and establishing deadlines, the group is more likely to finish the project on time and with everyone providing equal contributions. By establishing a obvious leader, it also relieves stress on the rest of the team by highlighting the clear chain of responsibility.

  • Cons: Discouraging group input can often result in resentment and a lack of creative solutions, as there is only the one decision-maker. It can also affect the morale of the group. People feel happier and perform better when they are making contributions to the future of the group. Since autocratic leaders rarely allow input from team members, followers can be left feeling dissatisfied and stifled.

Autocratic leadership is highly effective in limited situations but rarely effective long term.

Laissez-faire leadership

The French term "laissez-faire" literally translates to "let them do," which means a laissez-faire leader gives nearly all authority to their employees.

This type of leader will trust their employees to manage their own workloads while they concentrate on the overall running of the company or department. Many charismatic leaders have followed this style, such as Steve Jobs.

This style can reap excellent results in a creative field where people are highly motivated, skilled, often work alone or in small teams and are dedicated to their work. Because team members are well-trained and highly creative, they likely need little in the way of direct management. Instead, an effective leader can provide minimal oversight and guidance and still produce high-quality results.

  • Pros: As the work is very employee-led, this leadership style encourages personal growth and innovation. With little micro-management, skilled employees can make innovative decisions quickly and easily. This style is effective in situations where group members are more knowledgeable in their spheres than the group's leader.

  • Cons: This style is not effective in situations where team members lack the knowledge or experience they need to complete tasks. It can lead to confusion on job roles and their direction. The perception of the leader may also be negative, as with little involvement in the group, they come across as withdrawn and passive. Many leaders also use this style to avoid responsibility for results.

Laissez-faire leadership is highly effective in certain situations.

Strategic leadership

Strategic leaders sit at the intersection between a company's primary operations and its growth opportunities. They work to align the department or organisation with the company’s objectives while looking at the steps needed to achieve their goal.

  • Pros: This is a desirable leadership style in many companies because strategic thinking improves the organisation with objective thinking, increased collaboration, inspiring others to consider business objectives and communicating the importance of why things are being done. Strategic leadership adds more clarity to operations, allowing a defined role for employees.

  • Cons: Leaders who operate this way can be so focused on the outcome that they do not address current issues. Their focus can result in inflexibility and sometimes the team or organisation can spend a lot of resources with an unexpected result.

Strategic leadership is commonly effective.

Transformational leadership

A transformational leader will encourage, inspire and motivate employees to innovate and create things. Through the strength of their vision and personality, transformational leaders can inspire followers to change expectations, perceptions, and motivations to work towards common goals.

The leader is constantly pushing employees outside of their comfort zone, starting with a simple set of tasks and deadlines but ramping up the pressure and challenge as they go.

The motivation, therefore, comes from the transformation of the employee and the organisational conventions. This allows the employee to shape things and allows them to see what they are capable of.

Transformational leaders inspire their team members because they expect the best from everyone, and they hold themselves accountable for their actions. They set clear goals, and they have good conflict-resolution skills. This leads to high productivity and engagement.

  • Pros: Great for businesses focused on growth as it inspires innovation and creates driven employees. It allows for the development and maintenance of a current product to remain consistent and error-free but doesn’t hinder the progress and growth of future updates and improvements.

  • Cons: Without proper guidance and feedback, this style of management can hamper an employee. The path for certain individuals may result in mistakes and problems unless there is suitable coaching for that employee.

Transformational leadership is sometimes effective.

Transactional leadership

Transactional leadership, also known as managerial leadership, focuses on the role of supervision, organisation, and group performance. Leaders who implement this style focus on specific tasks and use rewards and punishments to motivate followers.

This is a fairly common leadership style, with performance-based bonuses being common in the workplace. When starting a job with a transactional boss, you might receive an incentive plan that motivates you to master your regular job duties.

Where this differs from rewards from a transformational leader is that a transactional leader will reward the employee for completing the tasks, whereas transformational leaders will reward them for positive results or outcomes from the tasks.

  • Pros: Helps employees when the situation and problems being faced are fairly simple. It allows focus and motivation to an otherwise unengaging task. It can also work well in crisis situations where the focus needs to be on accomplishing certain tasks. By assigning defined duties to particular individuals, leaders can ensure that those things get done.

  • Cons: This style does not allow for growth and change within an organisation. Instead, it focuses on maintaining current proceedings as they are and enforcing current rules and expectations.

Transactional leadership is sometimes effective.

Coach-style leadership

Taking inspiration from sports coaches, this management style focuses on partnership and collaboration between leaders and followers. This can be a very good leadership style in management.

This leader focuses on identifying and nurturing the individual strengths of each member on their team.

They also focus on strategies that will enable their team to work better together. This style offers strong similarities to strategic and democratic leadership but puts more emphasis on the growth and success of individual employees.

  • Pros: Leaders who adopt a coaching style increase self-responsibility and self-belief in their people by giving choice wherever possible and providing a good balance of support and challenge. This reduces stress for the workers, who feel more in control, and for the leader who no longer feels pressurised to provide all the answers and steer the ship.

  • Cons: The coaching technique falls down in one of two ways. Either the employees are unwilling or incapable of learning, or the leader will not quite have the best coaching skills, making it frustrating and difficult for those trying to learn.

Coach-style leadership is usually effective.

Bureaucratic leadership

This is another example of a leadership style in management which is hard to make work in many circumstances. It is a traditional, by-the-books style of management. It has room for employee input, unlike autocratic leadership, but employee input is usually rejected if it goes against company policy.

Bureaucratic leadership is based on structure, and it requires a clear framework to support its functions. Unlike with certain other leadership styles, the framework is easy to follow.

  • Pros: This style of leadership, while rigid, creates stability. With the strict enforcement of a bureaucratic framework, effective processes can be established. It allows for fair and impersonal treatment of subordinates. As long as the organisational norms are followed, the employee is doing their job well.

  • Cons: It isn’t very suitable for smaller businesses focused on growth. The level of control brings about a lack of freedom in how many people can do in their roles. This can quickly shut down innovation and is not suitable for companies who are chasing ambitious goals and quick growth.

Bureaucratic leadership is effective in limited situations.

Choosing the right leadership style

Each of the above leadership styles can work given the right situation but, in all cases, when the right style of management complements the demands of the job, the situation and the workforce, everyone will be happier and more productive.