- IMD Business School

The 6 most common leadership styles & how to find yours

Throughout history, great leaders have emerged, each with their own particular leadership styles

Leadership in itself is a somewhat fluid principle. Generally, most leaders adapt their leadership styles to suit their situation. This is particularly true the longer they lead; they adapt their leadership style as they learn and engage with their employees.

To become a more successful leader, leaders must understand their current leadership style. In this article, we’ll answer the question “what is a leadership style?”, then look at 6 of the most common leadership styles and their effectiveness.

The six most common leadership styles are:

  1. Transformational Leadership
  2. Delegative Leadership
  3. Authoritative Leadership
  4. Transactional Leadership
  5. Participative Leadership
  6. Servant Leadership

What is a leadership style?

A leadership style refers to a leader’s methods, characteristics, and behaviors when directing, motivating, and managing their teams. A leader’s style is shaped by a variety of factors, including personality, values, skills, and experiences, and can have a significant impact on the effectiveness of their leadership.

Their leadership style also determines how leaders develop their strategy, implement plans and respond to changes while managing stakeholders’ expectations and their team’s well-being.

In many cases leaders will express a wide-range of leadership styles – and will likely adapt this dependent on their situation. However, leader will often have one pre-eminent style that they tend to express more often.

Why is it important to know your own leadership style?

As a leader, understanding your leadership style is critically important. When you understand your leadership style, you can determine how this affects those you directly influence. It also helps you find your leadership strengths and define which leadership skills to develop.

Some leaders can already categorize their current leadership style, recognizing whether this makes them effective. Or how their employees see them. But it is not always so defined. It is usually the case that leaders can categorize their style; however, they often exhibit traits of many other leadership styles.

Detailed feedback is one easy way to know your leadership style. Asking those who you lead to provide you with open and honest feedback is a helpful exercise. Doing so will allow you to adapt your style’s characteristics within your day-to-day responsibilities as a leader.

1. Transformational Leadership

We’ve likely all been in a group situation where someone took control, communicating with the group and creating a shared vision. Creating unity, developing bonds, creating energy, and instilling passion. This person is very likely to be considered a transformational leader.

Transformational leadership is a leadership style that emphasizes change and transformation. Leaders who adopt this approach strive to inspire their followers to achieve more than they ever thought possible by tapping into their potential. This type of leadership can be highly effective in organizations looking to make significant changes or transformations.

Some of the key characteristics of transformational leadership include:

A focus on the future: Transformational leaders always look ahead and think about what needs to be done to achieve the organization’s goals. They inspire their followers to do the same.

A focus on change: Transformational leaders are comfortable with change and understand it is necessary for organizational success. They work to ensure their followers are comfortable with change and can adapt to it.

A focus on people: Transformational leaders see the potential in every one of their followers. They strive to develop their followers’ individual strengths and abilities so that they can reach their full potential.

Read more about transformational leadership »

2. Delegative Leadership

Often referred to as “laissez-faire,” a delegative leadership style focuses on delegating initiative to team members. This is generally known as one of the least intrusive forms of leadership; this translates to “let them do.” This is therefore considered a very hand-off leadership style.

Leaders who adopt this style have trust and rely on their employees to do their jobs. They don’t micromanage or get too involved in providing feedback or guidance. Instead, delegative leaders allow employees to utilize their creativity, resources, and experience to help them meet their goals.

This can be a successful leadership strategy if team members are competent and take responsibility for their work. However, delegative leadership can also lead to disagreements among team members and may split or divide a group.

It can be challenging for newcomers to adapt to this style of leadership or staff members to develop an understanding of who is ultimately in charge and responsible for outcomes. Therefore, this leadership style must be kept in check.

Read more about delegative leadership »

3. Authoritative Leadership

Authoritative leaders are often referred to as visionary. Leaders who adopt this style consider themselves mentors to their followers. Not to be confused with authoritarian leadership, authoritative leadership emphasizes a “follow me” approach. This way, leaders chart a course and encourage those around them to follow.

Leaders who display authoritative traits tend to motivate and inspire those around them. They provide overall direction and provide their teams with guidance, feedback, and motivation. This promotes a sense of accomplishment or achievement.

The authoritative leadership style relies heavily on getting to know each team member. This allows a leader to provide guidance and feedback on a more personalized level, helping individuals to succeed. This means authoritative leaders need to be able to adapt, particularly as the size of their team grows.

Authoritative leadership is very hands-on, but leaders must be cautious not to micromanage. This is a tendency with this style, which can be overbearing for team members and create negative sentiments.

Read more about authoritative leadership »

4. Transactional Leadership

Transactional leadership, often referred to as managerial leadership, is a leadership style that relies on rewards and punishments. This leadership style clearly emphasizes structure, assuming individuals may not possess the motivation needed to complete their tasks.

With this reward-based system, a leader sets clear team goals or tasks. Leaders also clarify how their teams will be rewarded (or punished) for their work. Rewards can take many formats but typically involve financial recompenses, such as pay or a bonus.

This “give and take” leadership style is more concerned with efficiently following established routines and procedures than making transformational organizational changes.

Transactional leadership establishes roles and responsibilities for each employee. However, it can lead to diminishing returns if employees are always aware of how much their effort is worth. Therefore, incentives must be consistent with company goals and supported by additional gestures of appreciation.

Read more about transactional leadership »

5. Participative Leadership

Sometimes referred to as democratic leadership, participative leadership is a leadership style that encourages leaders to listen to their employees and involve them in the decision-making process. This leadership style requires leaders to be inclusive, utilize good communication skills, and, crucially, be able to share power/responsibility.

When a leader adopts a participative leadership style, this encourages collaboration through accountability. This often leads to a collective effort of a team to identify problems and develop solutions instead of assigning individual blame.

This leadership style has historically been prevalent and utilized by many leaders in many organizations. However, as working habits have changed (accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic) and teams have become more decentralized, this leadership style is more complicated.

Spontaneous, open, and candid communication is often associated with a participative leadership style. Remote working or virtual teams can make this particularly challenging to maintain.

Participative leadership is often favored as it helps to build trust with employees. Empowering them and encouraging them to share their ideas on essential matters, demonstrating their value to a team.

Read more about participative leadership »

6. Servant Leadership

Servant leadership is a leadership style that puts the needs of others first. It emphasizes creating strong relationships with those around you and focuses on enabling them to reach their full potential. As a leader, it requires focusing on understanding the people you are working with and developing their abilities, while also setting a good example and understanding their personal goals.

At its core, servant leadership is about ethical decision making; if one follows this model they will be more likely to make decisions based on what is right for everyone involved, rather than just benefitting a select few. This approach fosters an environment where creativity and problem-solving thrive as team members feel empowered to suggest new solutions and build upon each other’s ideas.

Furthermore, following the principles of servant leadership can result in improved communication between all involved parties – from senior management to front-line employees. By taking into account the opinions of subordinates, leaders can prevent any potential conflicts while maintaining both healthy relationships and peaceful work environments. Ultimately, these qualities help create a stronger sense of loyalty amongst team members which consequently leads to increased productivity overall.

Read more about servant leadership »

How to find your leadership style? 

Choosing a leadership style that works for you can make you a more effective leader. Whether you manage a large or small team, your leadership style heavily impacts how your team sees you. Here are a few points that can help you get started.  

Firstly, being clear about your goals and what you want to achieve is essential. Once you have a clear vision, it will be easier to communicate your ideas to your team and inspire them to follow your lead. 

Secondly, experiment! There are many different leadership styles, and the best way to find your own is to experiment with different approaches and see what works best for you and your team.  

Finally, remember that leadership is not about being perfect but authentically leading. When you lead from a place of passion and purpose, others will naturally be drawn to you and your message. Remember, as a leader, it is vitally important to be open to (and to seek actively) feedback and be willing to adjust your approach as needed.

Which style resonated with you? Do you think that your current leadership style is effective?

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