5 Types of Leadership Styles in Management (And Find What Your Style Is)
II. Autocratic Leadership Style
III. Laissez-Faire Leadership Style
IV. Democratic Leadership Style
V. Transactional Leadership Style
VI. Transformational Leadership Style
Here at 15five, we’re dedicated to helping folks lead engaged teams. Understanding how different folks adopt different leadership styles is integral to our mission of creating more engaged workforces everywhere. While we believe that a good leader is one who leads like a human, not all humans are the same, nor should they be! We each bring our own unique set of experiences and perspectives to the table when we’re called upon to lead. And the teams we lead are composed of even more individuals who have their own motivations and passions that influence how we should guide them to success. So, while we all should strive to lead like a human, we should know what kind of human we want to lead like. To do so, leaders should be asking themselves, “Well, what is my leadership style?”
I am always curious about this question. It helps me know how I show up to work every day and how I can best motivate my team. As the Sales Development leader at 15five, I am on the front lines with our customers every day. A lot of my leadership is based on that “in-the-trenches” mentality. I love to get involved with my people and help them with the problems they face in their day to day. I find this helps me create overall strategies that work for every member of the team. While I set goals and overall pace of work for my team, I also understand that sometimes I need to take a more hands-on approach—especially when one of my representatives is in the weeds. I’d say I have a more “Democratic” approach to leadership.
There are styles of leadership that everyone picks up throughout their career. The over-demanding boss who just wants you to get it done but doesn’t care how it happens. The micro-manager who nitpicks through all the details. The free thinker who “gives you the freedom” to figure things out on your own. Each leader brings their own personality and experience to their role which shapes their style. There still exist, however, these “archetypal” leaders in our culture that can help us better understand how we lead now, and how we want to lead in the future. It’s important to know that there is no one “best leadership style” that will work for everyone. Yours needs to fit you and the team you lead.
I want to explore these archetypes of leadership with you today in the hopes that you see yourself in one or multiple of them. We’ll explore the qualities of these archetypes, the teams that specific archetypes might work for and some common pitfalls that might align to these archetypes. Remember, your management style is always your own, but knowing what archetype you might fall into will help you make conscious choices that will help you continue to develop your unique leadership style.
Autocratic Leadership Style
“We’re going to get it done, and we’re going to do it my way.”
Traits: The Boss, Dictator, Controlling
Strengths: Making big decisions, Having vision
Things To Watch Out For: Burnout, Disengaged staff, Toxic work environment
Famous Leader Example: Bill Gates, Cofounder of Microsoft
When you think of the stereotypical boss, what do you imagine? For me, he’s a guy in a brown suit with a ruffled tie who’s slamming his fist on the table demanding his staff “Get things done!” This is a perfect example of the Autocratic leader. These kinds of leaders lead with a very strong hand and push their people to work hard or get out. Bill Gates adopted an autocratic leadership style in the early years of Microsoft to ensure the company grew at the pace that he had envisioned. Autocratic leaders believe that the best way to manage their team is to control the way they do their work. They’re singularly focused on completing the tasks of the team and they see personal growth of their team members as a byproduct of the work they’re doing, not the end goal.
These kinds of bosses represent a management style of a bygone era—one where a strict top down hierarchy was the norm. The Autocratic Leadership style can feel restrictive for today’s workforce where an employee’s perspective and work is considered valuable. If you find yourself leading this way, I’d suggest you consider how your style is impacting the morale of your team. While you might be hitting your KPIs thanks to a strong management style, the people you lead could be feeling miserable and could lead to you having to engage in a lot of conflict management. This leadership style is a surefire path to burnout for your people if you don’t keep it in check. It’s unsustainable, and frankly, unsuited for today’s workforce.
Laissez-Faire Leadership Style
“My team is on it. I know I don’t need to worry.”
Traits: Laid back, Casual, Fluid
Strengths: Freedom to explore, Challenges staff
Things to Watch Out For: Lack of clarity, Confusion, Disengagement
Famous Leader Example: Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway
If there was a direct opposite to an Autocratic Leadership style, it would be the Laissez-Faire Leadership style. This casual management style gives employees a great amount of freedom—perhaps too much. Laissez-faire leaders take a hands-off approach to their teams, and believe their people will act in a way that best suits the needs of the team. A good example of a leader who has uses this style is Warren Buffet. This Midwestern Maverick surrounds himself with who he deems are “good people” that can get the job done with little input from him. Laissez-faire leaders might provide general guidance to their teams, but there’s no guarantee that their people will follow through on it. This leadership style is best suited for a team of seasoned experts in their field that is already working well.
Unfortunately, leaders who provide little to no direction can often leave a team confused and frustrated. While I believe that not every decision needs to be labored over by a leader, employees do need some guidance in order to feel like they’re being productive at work. Without clear directions from their managers, your people might not understand why they’re doing the work that’s been tasked to them, or even what success looks like in your team’s culture. When you establish boundaries or set goals with your team, you give them guideposts that show them the path to success. Freedom is great, but too much of it can leave your people feeling left out and unclear on how they contribute to the greater goal.
Democratic Leadership Style
“Let’s talk it out. I’m here to listen to your ideas.”
Traits: Conversational, Open, Team-oriented
Strengths: Encourages team, Considers their strengths and goals
Things to Watch Out For: Executive decision making
Famous Leader Example: Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa
If I was going to pick an archetype from this list that I most aspire to, it would be the Democratic Leadership style. Leaders who adopt this style listen to their people’s perspectives, and make decisions based on the input and ideas from their team. They’re open to trying new strategies that they feel are well-suited to the team and that serve the overall purpose of the organization. Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa, used this style to great effect as he fought to liberate his country. He knew that if he encouraged growth in his people, it would only lead to overall success for the nation. These democratic leaders value the experiences of their people and pay close attention to how their employees do their day to day work. They’re always looking for ways to improve both the output of their team as well as the team’s overall level of engagement. To me, this feels the most authentic way to lead and a style that appeals to a variety of teams.
Despite all this, however, there are some pitfalls you have to watch out for when you take on this leadership style. Consider this: you position yourself as a manager with an open-door policy who is enthusiastic about hearing ideas from your team. In every meeting, you’re listening to your people and you grow your reputation as an empathetic leader who values their employees. But then, a tough decision comes around where you must make a choice that is at odds with your employees’ perspectives. What do you do? This situation can be incredibly isolating for the leader, but decisions still must be made—even if they are unpopular. In these instances, consider how you communicate your decision making process to your team and rely on the great relationship you have already built. Open communication is the cornerstone of this leadership style: it’ll help you through those tough situations.
“Come on guys, let’s get out there and let’s make those numbers!”
Traits: Clear expectations, Streamlined, Defined goals
Strengths: Hitting a quota or KPI, Giving clear direction
Things to Watch Out For: Not having clear goals
Famous Leader Example: Bill Belichick, New England Patriots Head Coach
The Transactional Leadership style thrives in a scenario where management is heavily influenced by metrics and clearly defined goals. These kinds of leaders shape their whole style around hitting quotas. Just like all-star coach Bill Belichick, they motivate their teams to make that sale, score that goal, or hit that KPI. A large part of their decision making process revolves around whether or not they’ll make their numbers for the month. In my role as a Salesperson, we have clear sales goals that we have to hit each month. As a leader it’s my job to ensure my teams hit work hard to make these sales. In this area of my work, I rely heavily on the transactional leadership style and hope to use our quotas to help set benchmarks for my people and their work.
Transactional leadership’s biggest challenge comes down to one thing: clear and consistent communication. In this kind of leadership style, it’s very easy for your people to begin to feel like they’re just another cog in the machine working towards arbitrary quotas and goals. To avoid this, be upfront with your people about where these numbers are coming from. While you might feel pressure from your leadership to accomplish certain tasks, you need to make sure that the goals you are setting are realistic and achievable. Remember that as a leader, you need to be able to manage the expectations of those above you and encourage the good work of those that work under you. This might put pressure on you as a leader, but, in the end, it’s worth it for the health of your team.
“I’m going to take us places. We need to look to the future.”
Traits: Big picture, Strategic, Removed
Strengths: Inspirational ideals, Embraces values
Things to Watch Out For: Ideas that are too big, Getting lost in the clouds
Famous Leader Example: Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla
A Transformational Leader imagines themselves the captain of a ship. They look out at the horizon for guidance and up to the stars to chart their course, but rarely do they check in on the hustle and bustle of their ship’s deck. This leadership style is for big thinkers and folks who can provide guidance with little actionable strategy. Think of Tesla’s Elon Musk. He might have a lot of great ideas to help change the world but when it comes down to figuring out how to make these changes possible, he offers little concrete solutions. These kinds of leaders are perfect for teams who have a great pace of work, but need a big dose of inspiration to get themselves to the next level. To be fair, these kinds of leaders most likely belong more in the C-Suite where they can exercise their influence to the max rather than on the front-line.
While these leaders have big ideas, these vast concepts can make them a bit distant from their people. The Transformational Leadership style often causes managers to constantly be thinking about the future when, in reality, they need to be thinking of what’s happening today. Their instinct to inspire with vague concepts can cause confusion among their staff about what day-to-day goals are. It’s true that every organization needs big thinkers, these kinds of leaders would do well to bring themselves back down to earth every now and then.