3 MARCH, 2016


What is a leadership style?

Leadership styles describe a leader’s characteristic behaviours and methods of directing, inspiring and managing groups of people. Over the years, researchers and authors have identified various supersets that classic leadership styles commonly fall into.

Leadership styles in management is an instrumental factor in an organisation’s failure or success. Research has shown that the quality of leadership can account for at least 30 percent of a company’s bottom line.

There has been considerable research done on the impact of leadership styles on teams and organisations, and it’s safe to say that leadership needs are situational. There’s no single leadership practice or approach that is the best at all times.

Great leaders today are responsive rather than autocratic and monotone. They adapt by leveraging different qualities to propel their teams forward depending on the situation. Strong leaders are best placed to identify effective leadership practices for a particular point in time by analysing the demands of the context, reviewing the needs of the team, and considering the strategic goals and challenges.

Classical leadership styles (Lewin)

One of the most prominent early researchers in the leadership field was Kurt Lewin, a social researcher and psychologist who conducted research on leadership styles. In 1939, Lewin led a study where he separated schoolchildren into three groups and assigned each group with a leader. The leader was either authoritarian, democratic or laissez-faire in their leadership style. Lewin then observed the behaviour of the children within each group to determine which leadership style was most effective. What followed was the formulation of Lewin’s leadership styles: autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire, along with the benefits and disadvantages of each style.

Modern leadership styles (Goleman)

After studying 3,871 executives, renowned psychologist Daniel Goleman identified six styles of leadership in his 2000 book Leadership That Gets Results. These types of leadership styles were categorised as: coaching, affiliative, democratic, commanding, pacesetting and visionary.

Other leadership styles in management

Aside from Lewin and Goleman, numerous other researchers have identified different types of leadership styles in management. Bernard Bass, for example, recognised Transformational Leadership in the late 1970s as the single most effective leadership style. Transformational leaders are individuals who are able to encourage and motivate employees to innovate and drive change.

Another style of leadership that is often referred to is Hersey and Blanchard’s Situational Leadership model. Situational Leadership prioritises the importance of taking a flexible approach to leadership that actively responds to the group’s context as well as each individual team member’s needs and wants.

Lewin’s leadership styles

While Lewin’s leadership styles could be viewed as simplistic given how far leadership research has since progressed, his work establishes a starting point for just how critical the quality of leadership is for teams and organisations. The research behind these classic leadership styles also underscores the idea that leadership can in fact be taught, learned, and adapted.

Authoritarian/ autocratic leadership
Within an autocratic team, there is a clear division between the leader and the other members.

The autocratic model sees one single decision maker who directs the others in their actions. A modern example of this leadership style is Steve Jobs, who was well known for his authoritarian approach and reluctance to delegate.

An authoritarian leader will typically:

  • Make quick and final decisions
  • Maintain close oversight
  • Exercise total control, with little or no input from group members
  • Choose not to trust group members with decisions/ important tasks

Authoritarian leadership can be useful in situations that require decision making within a tight deadline. In order to achieve success in these time-sensitive instances, the autocratic leader should be the most knowledgeable person in the group and have the ability to drive decisive actions.

For Lewin’s youth-group research group, the authoritarian style was the least effective.

Most of the time, authoritarian leadership will produce a hostile environment. Leaders who fall within this category run a considerable risk of being seen as controlling, bossy and dictatorial. While groups with authoritarian leaders are more likely to produce a greater volume of work, they are less likely to express creativity. The work produced within this environment is also typically of a lower-quality when compared to other leadership styles.

Participative/ democratic leadership
The democratic leadership model also has a single leader making decisions, but this leader takes on a guidance role and receives group input. He or she will allow the group to make decisions as a collective, rather than prescribing action. Also known as participative leadership, this style was used by the founders of Google when they were first developing the now ubiquitous search engine.

Signs of a democratic leadership style include:

  • Distributing responsibility
  • Empowering group members to contribute
  • Aiding the group decision-making process
  • Maintaining medium control, with lots of input from members

According to Lewin’s leadership styles research, democratic leaders are repeatedly the most successful. A democratic group is much more likely to be motivated and committed, while also demonstrating a higher level of creativity.

Democratic leadership is less productive than autocratic leadership. However, it should be noted that the work produced within a democratic environment tends to be of a higher quality.

Delegative/ laissez-faire leadership

The laissez-faire model has a hands-off approach to leadership. Lewin’s research found that the youth group in his research under laissez-faire leadership lacked direction and guidance. As a result, the group was unfocused and unproductive.

Signs of a leader taking a laissez-faire approach to their role include:

  • Maintaining minimal control, with total input from members
  • Empowering group members to take responsibility
  • Allowing decisions to be made by the worker
  • Encouraging autonomy

Some of the advantages of laissez-faire leadership include boosted employee morale and greater individual freedom within project management.

There are certain situations when the laissez-faire approach could be an effective leadership style. If the group contains individuals who are both highly knowledgeable and motivated, laissez-faire leadership can allow them to take greater initiative in their role and contribute more value to the business.

For example, Warren Buffet’s hands-off management style is so successful because he focuses on hiring very capable people, and the autonomy of these executives is essential to Berkshire Hathaway’s structure and operations.

Disadvantages of the laissez-faire approach to leadership include lowered role awareness, low accountability, isolation, and a lack of motivation amongst the team. All of these factors contribute to the lower productivity levels that are disproportionately more common within laissez-faire leadership contexts.

Goleman’s leadership styles

In more recent times, psychologist Daniel Goleman identified six key types of leadership styles that work because they draw upon experience, inference, and instinct rather than quantitative data. According to Goleman, who explores these six leadership styles in depth in his book Primal Leadership, effective leaders move across these styles in a situational manner and use the style that works best for the context.

Visionary leadership
  • Open to new information
  • Good communication skills
  • Big-picture focused
  • Forward-looking

Visionary leaders successfully mobilise teams and organisations towards a specific vision. Visionary leadership becomes most in demand when a company or team needs to shift in a new direction. In this context, the leaders can inspire teams to share goals. He or she does so by outlining where the organisation is going, but not how it will get there.

According to Goleman, visionary leadership best practice involves identifying shared goals while leaving teams and staff to innovate, experience, and take calculated risks, thereby utilising the skills and resources of the team to enrich the means of achievement. For example, while Steve Jobs was often an autocrat, he demonstrated elements of visionary leadership by communicating his unique vision for Apple. Similarly, John Mackey of Wholefoods has shown the ability to mobilise large teams to achieve shared goals.

A visionary leader’s focus on long-term goals at the sacrifice of short term goals may cause employees to grow confused with the day-to-day operation of the business.

Coach-style leadership
  • Open communication
  • Good listeners
  • Flexible with making strategies/ decisions
  • Instructional in style

The coaching leadership style is one-on-one and intimate. The objective of the coaching leader is to develop people for the future. The successful coaching leader not only guides the staff member on how they can improve, but also clarifies how the staff member’s goals are linked to the overall strategic goals of the organisation.

The coaching leadership style is best suited where you have an employee with strong initiative who has already demonstrated that they do want to develop professionally.


Coaching leaders should work to avoid the impression they are micromanaging employees. One example of coaching leadership is Robert Patterson, the CEO of National Cash Register, who successfully mentored IBM Founder Thomas Watson.

Affiliative leadership
  • Positive feedback system
  • Improve morale
  • Promote team building
  • Strong loyalty bonds

Affiliative leadership is designed to create strong emotional bonds and collaborative conditions among teams and organisations. When an affiliative leader has been successful, they will have helped develop connections between people. According to Goleman, this type of leadership style is highly valuable when the organisation seeks to improve harmony, morale, and communication, as well as to repair trust.

Goleman has cited Joe Torre, who used to manage the New York Yankees, as an example of an affiliative leader. Torres successfully held together a team of egocentric players and built a culture of harmony that made the team stronger and more successful as a whole.


The danger with the affiliative approach, says Goleman, is that it can erroneously communicate the message that mediocrity will be tolerated.

 Democratic leadership
  • Invite discussions and opinions
  • Encourage ideas from others
  • Communal decision-making
  • Increase equality

Goleman expanded on Lewin’s concept of democratic leadership by clarifying that democratic leaders build consensus by encouraging participation. He or she does so by leveraging the skills of staff members and generating commitment to the organisation’s goals. According to Goleman, the democratic style is most effective when direction is weak and the organisation can benefit from tapping into the skills, talents, and opinions of staff.

Not surprisingly, great democratic-style leaders can be found in the political field, with legendary politicians such as John F Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower showing how to build consensus and regain direction by listening to the group. In the business world, Microsoft founder Bill Gates has also spoken about the importance of being encouraging and building trust with employees while staying open to creative solutions.

Goleman suggests that this type of approach is inappropriate for crises and other urgent situations when rapid decision making is necessary.

Pace-setting leadership
  • Set high performance standards
  • Quick response
  • More micromanagement
  • Prioritise importance of working on schedule

The pacesetting leadership style leads by example to extract performance from employees. He or she emphasises high standards for performance and constantly asks for improvements while demanding stricter deadlines. Pacesetting leaders lead by example and expect team members to be self-directed. They demand the same outstanding quality from themselves as they do from the others. A great example of a pacesetting leader is Jack Welch of GE, a demanding CEO who prided himself on leading people by example.

According to Goleman, pacesetting can “poison the climate”. He says this type of leadership approach should be used sparingly given its potential to affect morale and team members’ sense of achievement.

Commanding leadership
  • Driven and focused
  • Autocratic in style
  • Quick responses
  • More micromanagement

Commanding leaders are generally less effective and, for best practice, Goleman suggests that this approach should be used only in crises requiring rapid redirection and change.

Commanding leadership is often likened to the classical military style of leadership where the leader demands compliance. Commanding leaders rarely offer praise to staff members and are instead focused on criticism, coercion, and prescription. This leadership style can create resentment and dependency among staff. An example of commanding leadership could be Margaret Thatcher, who uncompromisingly led as ‘the Iron Lady’ and, according to some, renewed Britain by saving it from a period of economic decline.

Situational Leadership Model

Developed in 1969 by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard, the Situational Leadership Model takes a flexible approach to leadership by taking into account various factors including the readiness and capability of the team as well as the uniqueness of the situation. It helps to foster more productive relationships within a team through customising the method of leadership to meet the specific needs of each individual. This in turn contributes to a more democratic work environment.

The Situational Leadership translates into 4 leadership styles that will differ depending on context:

The Telling style of leadership is best reserved for inexperienced employees who are in need of guidance and motivation. Telling leadership will often manifest itself in the following practices:

  • Task clarifications
  • Step by step instructions
  • Clarity on the consequences of failure
  • Monitoring
  • Setting milestones
  • Providing feedback

The Selling style of leadership works best with employees who are highly motivated but lack skills. In this scenario, the leadership will coach the individual towards greater independence while recognising the commitment and enthusiasm of the employee. Similarly to the Telling style of leadership, the Selling style utilises regular feedback and open dialogue to build the employee’s skill sets.

The Participating style of leadership is recommended for employees who are proficient in their role but lack the confidence or motivation required to work independently. By providing encouragement and regular feedback, a leader can better support this employee. This will ultimately assist in enhancing the employee’s confidence and/ or motivation.

The Delegating style of leadership will be most effective in instances where the employee is highly knowledgeable, confident and competent. Delegating involves leadership empowering employees to assume greater responsibility and work autonomously. At its core, it relies on open communication and trust. While the employee will exercise a comparatively higher level of independence, they will still require supervision that is maintained at a distance.

Finding your own leadership style

Leadership is often understood in terms of overarching styles, but exploring individual traits and qualities can also be an effective way to identify what it means to be a successful situational leader. Beyond core skills that are vital to all executives – such as strong communication skills, exceptional technical knowledge, the ability to resolve conflict, having a strategic focus, persuasiveness, and supportiveness – what are some of the less self-apparent traits that great leaders have?

Strong leaders are decisive and are good at making decisions. They make decisions on the basis of what is best for the organisation as a whole and necessarily not out of self-interest. They are aware of their environment, team, and context, and they have a strong focus on where they are heading.

According to Peter Economy, also known as The Relationship Guy, there are nine traits that help leaders and their teams succeed:

1. Decisiveness
Successful leaders demonstrate the ability to make tough, firm decisions in both predictable and uncertain situations.

2. Awareness
There is an awareness of the difference between management and employees.

3. Focus
Effective leaders plan ahead and are organised in their work. Their strategies towards success are not only visible but also tangible as they are communicated openly with key players. In the case that a plan has to be adjusted, the leader takes on the task without complaint.

4. Accountability
An ideal leader will proactively take responsibility for not only their own performance, but everyone else’s as well. They will report in with employees, pursue outstanding tasks, and quickly identify and seek solutions for problems.

5. Empathy
Leaders should praise team members publicly while addressing problems privately. They should not assign blame to individuals and will prefer constructive approaches to issues.

6. Confidence
Good leaders are confident in a manner that inspires confidence in others. They are secure in their knowledge and stick by their ideas when challenged. In the case they are proven wrong, they willingly accept responsibility and look for productive solutions.

7. Optimism
Successful leaders are helpful and demonstrate positivity. They are always on the lookout for ways to improve the situation, encourage people to work together more effectively, and both inspire and reassure others.

8. Honesty
Excellent leaders are transparent, honest and reliable. Their consistent ethical behaviour ensures that nobody doubts the integrity of their words or values.

9. Inspiration
All of these qualities form the foundation for a genuinely inspiring leader who leads by example. An inspiring leader exhibits open and clear communication within all aspects of their work, whether it be supporting their employees or challenging them with high but attainable goals.

Train the next generation of leaders at your organisation

Many people have a dominant leadership style. The path towards great leadership involves being aware of one’s dominant style and learning about other styles, so that you can adopt different approaches according to the particular context in the same way that successful situational leaders do.

This involves a consideration of team members and their skills and attributes, organisational strategy, goals and cultural engagement, and external factors such as industry and economic environment. It involves demonstrating the traits and qualities in an adaptive and responsive way, so that you can bring out the very best in your team and fully leverage the resources of your organisation to achieve strategic goals.

Get in contact with the team at DeakinCo. today to discover how fostering specific leadership styles can help drive the direction of your business.