3 MARCH, 2016


Leadership 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 per cent of a company’s bottom line.

There has been considerable research done on the impact of leadership qualities on teams and organisations, and it’s safe to say that leadership needs are situational. That is, 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.

Classic leadership styles

Leadership research has been around for many decades. One of the most prominent early researchers in the leadership field was Kurt Lewin, a social researcher who conducted research on leadership styles.

Lewin uncovered three key leadership styles: autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire.

Autocratic Democratic Laissez-faire
make quick and final decisionsclose oversighttotal control, with little or no input from group membersgroup members are rarely trusted with decisions/important tasks distribution of responsibilityempower group members to contributeaids group decision-making processesmedium control, with lots of input from members minimal control, with total input from membersempower group members to take responsibilitydecisions are made by the worker, not the leaderautonomy is encouraged


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


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 and 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. This was the most successful for Lewin’s research sample.


The laissez-faire model has no leader, and Lewin’s research found that the youth group lacked direction and guidance. As a result, the group was unfocused and unproductive. However, in certain situations the laissez-faire approach could be an effective leadership style if a high degree of delegation benefits outcomes. 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.

While Lewin’s leadership models could be viewed as being 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. It also underscores the idea that leadership can in fact be taught, learned, and adapted.

Modern leadership-style categories

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 types in depth in his book Primal Leadership, effective leaders move across these styles in a situational manner and uses the style that works best for the context.

Visionary Coaching Affiliative Democratic PaceSetting Commanding
open to new informationgood communication skillsbig-picture focusforward-looking open communicationgood listenersflexible with making strategies/ decisionsinstructional in style positive feedback systemimprove moralepromote team buildingstrong loyalty bonds invite discussions and opinionsencourage ideas from othersCommunal decision-makingincrease equality set high performance standardsquick responsemore micromanagementcomplete work on schedule driven and focusedautocratic in stylequick responsemore micromanagement


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 shared goals, and 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.


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

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.


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.

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


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. 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. A great example of a pacesetting leader is Jack Welch of GE, a demanding CEO who prided himself on leading by example.


Commanding leadership is often likened to the classical military style of leadership where the leader demand compliance. Commanding leaders rarely offer praise to staff members and is instead focused on criticism, coercion, and prescription. This leadership style can create resentment and dependency among staff. 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. 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.

Other modern leadership styles

Other leadership styles do exist beyond Goleman’s extensively researched and widely cited six styles. These can be useful for leaders to keep in mind as they develop their situational management style, however some of these may overlap with those already mentioned above.


Bureaucratic leaders, like commanding leaders, emphasise the need to follow every rule. They are most concerned about adherence to processes and fulfilment of defined roles. Bureaucratic leaders insist on lines of authority and conformity. Bureaucratic organisations can be inflexible and rigid, but can be effective when routine tasks are being performed continuously.

There are few examples of bureaucratic leaders as they tend to be more middle-managers than leaders of organisations or businesses.


Charismatic leaders are similar to visionary leaders, but they are often more focused on the self than the team. Charismatic leaders have the power to influence and motivate through their personality. Like pacesetting leaders, they can lead by example through demonstrating their enthusiasm.

Charismatic leadership can be useful when you need to boost team morale and to drive achievement through inspiring more passion for team goals. However, charismatic leaders can sometimes encourage dependency and passivity through hero worship. An example of a charismatic leader is Oprah Winfrey, who has successfully built and led an enduring business empire based on her personal brand and personality.


Task-oriented leaders are focused solely on getting the job done. As such, they can adopt a very narrow focus when it comes to providing the team with interactive guidance. This approach can be a strength if time is of the essence, and it can lead to process optimisation because the leader is so focused on the specific steps required to achieve the goal. It can help poor time-managing employees do better.

However, task-oriented leaders can have the same weaknesses as autocratic leaders, who can neglect staff wellbeing, reduce motivation, and restrict innovation. Examples of task-oriented leaders are line managers who oversee highly defined tasks in factories and manufacturing facilities.


People-oriented leadership is often explored as a contrast to task-oriented leadership. Instead of being solely focused on the task and processes, this leader is concerned with organising, supporting, and developing team members to ensure their needs are met. They might be focused on incentives, and they often conduct one-on-one meetings for feedback. They are also usually be highly personable.

Similar to affiliative leaders such as Joe Torre (as mentioned above), people-oriented leaders are successful at building morale and enthusiasm, and they can have a strong impact on the professional development of employees. For example, sports coaches such as Bear Bryant are considered people-oriented leaders.


Like visionary and charismatic leaders, the transformational leader works to inspire the team to perform at their best. For transformational leaders, the goal is to effect change, whether this is at the individual, team, organisational, or strategic level. Nelson Mandela is a prime example of a transformational leader who spearheaded change on a very large scale by inspiring others.


Like the task-oriented leader, the transactional leader sets out a clear chain of command and motivates through a simple reward-and-punishment system. This leadership approach can be narrow and inflexible in producing results, whether it is at the team or organisational level. Transactional leaders are often found in military environments, where roles and tasks are strictly delineated and rewards and punishments are regularly used to enforce standards.


Innovative leaders are creative, dynamic, and risk-taking individuals who go beyond the standard vision and are often successful at delivering improved results, new products, or change by applying new methods and ideas.

Innovative leaders will reassess situations and develop new ways to address problems. As such, this leadership style is useful when the organisational environment is stultified or needs an injection of creativity. Virgin founder Richard Branson is a well-known example of an innovative leader.


The servant leadership style is characterised by an employee and customer focus. Delivering quality services and goods to customers is more important than self-interest, and teams are included in decision making. Rather than taking centre stage, the servant leader lets the team take the credit and works supportively and collaboratively.

Herb Kelleher, former CEO of Southwest Airlines, is an excellent example with his emphasis on respecting and supporting employees so that they in turn will be better placed to serve the airline’s customers.

Level 5

Leadership expert Jim Collins identified Level 5 leadership by researching 1,435 companies and identifying the top 11 organisations – all of which, he found, had outstanding leaders. Level 5 leaders are highly capable, diligent, and humble, and they value success for the sake of the team and the company. Fearless in making decisions, they possess a strong will, ferocious resolve, and the tendency to blame oneself while giving credit to others. This “faceless boss” is the opposite of the charismatic leader in that they are self-effacing and self-denying.


The situational leader model is based on the idea that one size indeed does not fit all. First conceived by Dr Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard and later strengthened by Daniel Goleman with his six-style model, this concept values the leader who can combine different managerial styles in response to different people and contexts in the organisation. Situational leaders are extremely adaptable and versatile above all else.

There are four core leadership styles to be used by leaders within the situational model: telling, selling, participating, and delegating – with no single style being better than the others but to be used as required by the context.

These leaders demonstrate four key competencies: diagnose, adapt, communicate, and advance. That is, they fully understand the situation they are trying to change or influence, they adapt accordingly, they communicate and interact with others effectively, and they successfully manage the movement. George S. Patton, a general in the American Army during WWII, is often referenced as a great situational leader.

Cultural leadership paradigms

It’s also worth noting that culture can also have a strong impact on the success of a leader. According to linguist Richard D Lewis, national norms are unlikely to change because of the globalised economy. Leaders that work with international teams can benefit from understanding different leadership style.

For example, British leaders tend to more diplomatic, compromising, and traditional compared with North America leaders, who can be more assertive and aggressive. From French and Turkish, to Estonian and East Asian leaders, Lewis suggests that there is a distinctive leadership style for each country that can be understood for leadership best practice across borders.

Traits and qualities

Nine key traits

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?

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

  • decisiveness
  • awareness
  • focus
  • accountability
  • empathy
  • confidence
  • optimism
  • honesty
  • inspiration.

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 strong focus.

They’re also accountable in that they understand their responsibilities and purpose, and they are able to empathise with others, including staff members. Great leaders are confident as well, says Economy. They are optimistic and they are always honest to others. Research has shown that most people consider honesty to be an essential trait in leaders. Finally, great leaders have a strong ability to inspire team members and staff to achieve better outcomes.

Finding hidden leaders

In their book The Hidden Leader, consultants Scott K Edinger and Laurie Sain suggest that great leaders possess four key traits. They consistently demonstrate integrity, and are consistent and dependable with a strong ethical code. These leaders lead through relationships, and they are able to get along with and interact with others successfully, thereby inspiring the group through their relationship building rather than position.

These hidden leaders are also results oriented. They work outside established methods and processes to achieve results. They are responsible and accountable for outcomes. Finally, hidden leaders are customer purposed in the sense that they have a strong awareness of how individual actions and processes affect the customer. They review actions by asking how it will impact the customer.

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 and goals, 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.