Exploring Different Leadership Styles: A Comprehensive Guide

Leadership StylesLeadership plays a crucial role in the success and growth of any organization.

The way leaders guide and influence their teams can significantly impact productivity, engagement, staff turnover, staff wellbeing, and overall morale.

In fact, Gallup (2023) estimates that 70% of team engagement is attributable to the team leader. And a recent study by CMI found that 28% of job leavers cited a negative relationship with their manager as a key reason for quitting.

It is thus fair to say that how we lead really matters, even more so than who we lead. This guide provides a comprehensive overview of different leadership styles and suggestions for further reading and development.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Leadership Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or others adopt positive leadership practices and help organizations thrive.

Goleman’s Leadership Styles

In their influential book Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, the psychologists Daniel Goleman, Richard E. Boyatzis, and Annie McKee (2002) turned the term “emotional intelligence” into a household concept. They also demonstrated the importance of emotionally intelligent leadership.

The authors champion leadership that is self-aware, empathic, motivating, and collaborative. These qualities are ever-more important in our increasingly economically volatile, fast-changing, and technologically complex world.

In the book, they also discuss the core features of six distinctive leadership styles. According to Goleman et al. (2002), each style has its own strengths and limitations. Ideally, effective leaders learn to adapt their style to the situation at hand.

1. The visionary leadership style

Goleman et al. (2002) define the visionary leadership style as the ability to move people toward a shared dream or vision.

Visionary leaders have a clear and compelling dream of the future, and they know how to communicate it. They inspire their team members with a sense of purpose and direction.

Their ability to articulate a compelling vision motivates and energizes their followers and fosters a sense of unity and shared commitment.

2. The coaching leadership style

The coaching leadership style is characterized by the leader’s focus on helping employees reach their full potential. Above all, coaching leaders seek to support personal development and growth.

By providing guidance and mentoring, offering constructive feedback, and promoting skill building, coaching leaders create an environment conducive to continuous learning and improvement. This style promotes employee engagement and generates long-term organizational success.

3. The affiliative leadership style

An affiliative leader prioritizes harmony and bonding among their team members. They emphasize building strong relationships, cultivating a sense of belonging, and creating a supportive work environment.

Goleman et al. (2002) argue that affiliative leaders aim to resolve conflicts and enhance team cohesion by focusing their energies on open communication, empathy, and trust.

4. The democratic leadership style

The democratic leadership style entails involving team members in decision-making processes and truly valuing their input and perspectives.

Goleman et al. (2002) suggest that democratic leaders seek to empower their teams. They foster a collaborative culture where everyone’s opinions are respected. This inclusive approach tends not only to result in high levels of job satisfaction, but also promotes creativity and innovation within an organization.

5. The pacesetting leadership style

The pacesetting leadership style is characterized by leaders who consistently set high standards and expect their team members to meet them. This style can be both inspiring and demanding.

Pacesetting leaders strive for excellence and inspire their team members through role modeling. However, although effective in the short term, this style may leave little room for creativity, development, and autonomy in the long run. It is also important to remember that a great challenge should ideally be accompanied by significant support.

6. The commanding leadership style

The commanding leadership style is assertive, direct, top-down, and expects immediate compliance. While commanding leaders may excel in crisis situations, they may create a negative work environment if they overuse that style in non-urgent settings.

This style can be effective for short-term results but may impede employee engagement and creativity over time.

The 4 Most Effective Positive Leadership Styles

Positive leadership stylesYou may have heard different leadership styles described in positive terms as participative, situational, charismatic, visionary, and collaborative.

Adjectives to describe more problematic leadership styles include autocratic, top-down, transactional, bureaucratic, laissez-faire, or military. We will now explore four well-known effective leadership styles in more detail.

The four positive leadership styles that are currently attracting the most interest among researchers and positive psychology practitioners are coaching leadership, transformational leadership, authentic leadership, and servant leadership. All of them are viewed as positive and constructive leadership styles that bring out the best in the people who are being led.

Coaching leadership

Coaching leaders focus on developing those whom they lead and seek to support their growth and learning. Coaching leadership revolves around cultivating a supportive and encouraging environment that promotes growth and excellence in team members.

Unlike traditional leadership styles that emphasize top-down decision-making and unquestioning compliance, coaching leaders adopt a facilitative approach. They focus on building strong relationships, fostering collaboration, and nurturing individual talents.

A coaching leader is in effect a powerful catalyst who reminds people of their own resources and strengths and encourages them to use and develop them.

Key principles of coaching leadership include:

1. Active listening

Effective coaching leaders actively listen to their team members, encouraging them freely to express their thoughts, feelings, and aspirations. This practice helps leaders gain a deeper understanding of their team’s needs and enables them to provide tailored guidance. Because they listen carefully to what others say, coaching leaders can also truly benefit from the collective intelligence of their teams and their team members’ insights.

2. Empowerment

Coaching leaders strive to empower individuals by fostering a culture of autonomy and accountability. They encourage their team members to take ownership of their work, to make informed decisions, and to learn from both their successes and their failures.

3. Growth mindset

Coaching leaders promote a growth mindset culture, in which mistakes are seen as learning opportunities and continuous improvement is valued. This mindset encourages individuals to step out of their comfort zones, explore and develop their skills, and embrace new challenges.

Benefits of coaching leadership include enhanced employee engagement and a focus on skill development and improved communication. By valuing people’s needs and aspirations, coaching leaders create a more engaged and motivated team.

This commitment leads to increased productivity and better overall team performance (van Woerkom et al., 2016). Through mentoring, skill-building exercises, and feedback, coaching leaders help their people develop new competencies and refine existing ones (Webb, 2019).

By listening actively and providing constructive feedback, leaders can foster trust, improve team interactions, and boost collaboration among team members (van Woerkom et al., 2016).

Transformational leadership

Transformational leaders inspire and motivate their teams by articulating a compelling vision and encouraging personal growth. They seek to create a sense of community and commitment, challenge existing norms, and drive positive change within their organization (Bass & Riggio, 2006).

At its core, transformational leadership is about empowering and inspiring individuals to transcend their limits by promoting a collective sense of purpose and growth. This leadership approach moves beyond traditional managerial practices by focusing on developing strong relationships, cultivating vision, and promoting personal and professional growth.

The four pillars of transformational leadership are:

1. Idealized influence

Transformational leaders serve as role models. They lead by example and demonstrate high ethical standards. By being charismatic visionaries, they inspire team members to trust, respect, and emulate their behavior.

2. Inspirational motivation

These leaders are adept at articulating a compelling vision and conveying it in a passionate way that instills inspiration within their teams. By sharing a clear purpose and setting high standards, they inspire employees to achieve their full potential and support the bigger-picture aims of their teams and organizations.

3. Intellectual stimulation

Transformational leaders value creativity and encourage innovative thinking in their teams. They challenge employees to question the status quo and build environments that are conducive to learning, curiosity, and growth.

4. Individualized consideration

Recognizing the diverse needs and aspirations of each team member, transformational leaders provide individual support, coaching, and mentoring. They genuinely care about their employees’ personal and professional development, fostering a sense of belonging and creating a supportive work culture.

Numerous studies have shown the positive influence of transformational leadership on both individual wellbeing and organizational outcomes (see, for example, Avolio et al., 2004; Bass & Riggio, 2006; Judge & Piccolo, 2004; Wang et al., 2011).

Through its emphasis on inspiration and personal growth, this leadership style has been linked to higher employee engagement, job satisfaction, and overall workplace wellbeing. Transformational leaders also tend to foster stronger commitment, loyalty, and organizational citizenship behavior among employees.

Transformational leadership can have a ripple effect throughout organizations, enhancing team performance and increasing overall productivity. By encouraging open communication, generating a shared vision, and valuing innovation, transformational leaders cultivate an environment that nurtures creativity, adaptability, and continuous improvement.

Authentic leadership

Authentic leaders seek to lead with integrity and transparency, inspiring trust and creating an environment where individuals can be their true selves. They prioritize being genuine, self-aware, and acting consistently according to one’s values (Avolio & Gardner, 2005).

Authentic leadership emphasizes genuine self-awareness, transparency, and a commitment to one’s core values. At the core of authentic leadership lies self-awareness, a deep understanding of our values, beliefs, strengths, and weaknesses.

These leaders cultivate awareness through introspection, reflection, and a sincere desire to learn and grow. A study by George et al. (2007) suggests that self-awareness helps leaders align their actions with their core values, which enhances their credibility and authenticity.

Authentic leaders are transparent about their intentions and decisions. They also risk being vulnerable in front of their teams. This transparency promotes trust and psychological safety, enabling followers to reciprocate with their own authenticity. Research by Luthans and Avolio (2003) describes authentic leaders as being down to earth, approachable, and actively engaged with their teams.

Their words and actions are aligned. In other words, they say what they think and do what they say. Even when faced with challenging situations, they uphold their values and ethics. Research by Avolio et al. (2004) suggests that leaders who demonstrate this kind of consistency and integrity are more likely to inspire and motivate their followers, cultivating a sense of trust, purpose, and commitment within their teams.

Authentic leaders possess a high degree of emotional intelligence, which enables them to truly understand and empathize with others. They leverage this empathy to connect with their team members. Positive psychology research conducted by Clapp-Smith et al. (2008) suggests that authentic leaders who display empathy can provide effective support, understanding, and compassion to their followers.

Servant leadership

Servant leaders prioritize the needs of their team members and work to help them reach their full potential, always placing the team’s success above their own. They demonstrate humility, empathy, and a strong commitment to serving others (Greenleaf, 1977).

Servant leadership, as described by Robert K. Greenleaf (1977), centers on the idea that leaders should be driven by a deep-rooted desire to serve and support their team members and the organizations they work for. This counterintuitive approach presents an antidote to traditional leadership styles. It emphasizes the wellbeing, growth, and success of those within the leader’s sphere of influence.

Some key features of servant leadership include:

1. Empowerment rather than control

While many leaders exert their authority and micromanage their teams, servant leaders recognize the importance of empowering individuals to be creative and resourceful on their own terms (Laub, 1999).

By actively listening, providing guidance, and creating a culture of trust, they enable their team members to thrive, pursue innovative ideas, and take full ownership of their responsibilities and decisions (Laub, 1999).

2. Building trust and collaboration

One of the foundational pillars of servant leadership is the cultivation of trust and fostering collaboration among team members. Servant leaders seek to create an environment in which people feel safe, respected, and valued.

By promoting open communication, embracing diverse perspectives, and actively involving everyone in decision-making processes, servant leaders seek to create a cohesive and nurturing team culture.

3. Emotional intelligence

Servant leaders possess strong emotional intelligence, which enables them to empathize with their team members’ experiences, needs, and aspirations. This heightened understanding allows them to provide the necessary support, guidance, and motivation, which, in turn, leads to increased satisfaction and personal growth among team members (Van Dierendonck, 2011).

By practicing servant leadership, leaders not only enhance the wellbeing and productivity of their teams but also seed a legacy of ethical and compassionate leadership. Servant leadership creates a positive ripple effect, inspiring others to adopt a similar people-centric approach. In that way, servant leaders can create sustainable cultures of humility, empathy, and continuous learning in organizations (Greenleaf, 1977).

Download 3 Free Positive Leadership Exercises (PDF)

These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or others to adopt positive leadership practices to help individuals, teams and organizations to thrive.

Leadership Coaching: Improving Your Skills

Whichever leadership style appeals to you, the good news is that leadership can be learned. It is a teachable skill, and the best way to develop as a leader is by opting for leadership coaching.

Leadership coaching (which differs from the coaching leadership style discussed above) focuses on developing leadership skills through one-on-one coaching and feedback sessions. This personalized and experiential approach helps leaders identify their strengths and areas for improvement and unlock their full potential (Grant et al., 2019).

Leadership coaching is a collaborative and personalized process aimed at improving leadership effectiveness. It can maximize potential and foster growth in individuals or groups (Hattrick & Scholz, 2020). Rather than dictating solutions, coaches empower leaders to discover their unique leadership style, overcome challenges, and achieve their professional and personal goals. They educate their coaches to help themselves and strengthen their own problem-solving capacities and resilience.

Leadership coaching has the following positive effects:

1. Enhanced self-awareness

Leadership coaching aids in fostering self-awareness, enabling leaders to understand their strengths, weaknesses, values, and areas where personal growth is required (Kumari et al., 2020). By recognizing and harnessing their unique qualities, leaders can guide and inspire their teams more effectively.

2. Improved communication and emotional intelligence

Leadership coaching emphasizes developing strong interpersonal skills, effective communication, and emotional intelligence. By honing these qualities, leaders can build better relationships, resolve conflicts with more equanimity, and create a positive work environment (Oakley et al., 2019).

3. Clarifying goals and strategies

Coaches assist leaders in clarifying their goals and defining strategies to achieve them. This process helps leaders focus on their vision and align their actions with their objectives (Salas-Vallina et al., 2021).

4. Increased resilience

Leadership coaching plays a crucial role in fostering resilience in leaders. By developing adaptive and coping strategies, leaders who are receiving coaching can better handle challenges, setbacks, and pressures (Passarelli et al., 2019). This resilience leads to improved decision-making and enhanced overall leadership performance.

3 Leadership Programs to Enhance Your Leadership Style

To further develop your leadership skills, consider participating in the following leadership programs. Each program focuses on specific aspects of leadership, equipping individuals with the tools and knowledge to become more effective leaders.

Organizations such as the Harvard Business School, the Center for Creative Leadership, and the Henley Business School in the United Kingdom offer some of the most renowned leadership development programs.

1. Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School

The Harvard Business School is perhaps one of the most prestigious business schools. It offers four comprehensive leadership programs that offer business management and leadership curriculum and personalized coaching.

Find out more about their offerings to choose an option that appeals: Comprehensive leadership programs.

2. The Center for Creative Leadership

Center for Creative Leadership

The Center for Creative Leadership offers numerous different and inspiring leadership development programs too, including one that focuses specifically on transformational leadership.

You can have a look at their options here: Leadership programs.

3. The Henley Business School

Henley Business School

The Henley Business School, which is affiliated with the University of Reading, offers a comprehensive six-day in-person leadership program.

Find out more about The Leadership Programme.

To deepen your understanding of leadership and to develop new insights, you may enjoy reading one of the following books.

1. Leadership: A Very Short Introduction – Keith Grint

Leadership

This book is a great comprehensive overview of leadership and leadership styles. No longer than a long essay, it is a perfect choice for those pressed for time and needing a good overview, and thereafter you can dive into styles and topics most appealing.

Keith Grint invites us to rethink our understanding of leadership in Leadership. His guide includes valuable reflections on how leadership has evolved over time and also considers the different contexts from which different leadership theories emerge.

Grint goes back all the way to the early reflections on leadership by writers including Plato, Sun Tzu, and Machiavelli.

Find the book on Amazon.


2. The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations – James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner

The Leadership Challenge

This international bestseller, which is now in its seventh edition, offers valuable practical guidance for becoming an exemplary leader.

The two authors deliver an essential strategic playbook for effective leadership. They explore the five practices of exemplary leadership, providing real-life examples and actionable strategies.

Crucially, the authors also emphasize that leadership is a skill to be learned as well as a practice grounded in relationships. New sections include reflections on how to lead in hybrid environments and how to combat disengagement and cynicism.

Find the book on Amazon.


3. Dare to Lead: Brave Work, Tough Conversations, Whole Hearts – Brené Brown

Dare to lead

In this famous book and number one New York Times bestseller, Brené Brown combines research, personal stories, and practical advice to explore the qualities that make courageous leaders.

Brown’s take on the topic is unique. Above all, she emphasizes vulnerability, as well as self-awareness, curiosity, and empathy, as the key qualities of a great leader. She invites us to see power not as something we should hoard but as something to share with others.

Brown writes:

From corporations, nonprofits, and public sector organizations to governments, activist groups, schools, and faith communities, we desperately need more leaders who are committed to courageous, wholehearted leadership and who are self-aware enough to lead from their hearts, rather than unevolved leaders who lead from hurt and fear.

(Brown, 2018, p. 4)

Find the book on Amazon.


4. Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t – Simon Sinek

Leaders Eat Last

In Leaders Eat Last, the international bestselling author Simon Sinek investigates great leaders who sacrifice not just their place at the table, but often their own comfort and even their lives for those in their care.

They range from Marine Corps officers to the heads of big business and government. They all share that they put aside their own interests to protect their teams. For them, leadership is not a rank, but a responsibility.

Find the book on Amazon.

If you do not have time to read a book on leadership, you may enjoy watching one of our four recommended YouTube videos instead.

5 Different types of leadership styles - Brian Tracy

In this short video, Brian Tracy explains five different leadership styles that people can use to lead their teams to success: structural, participative, servant, freedom, and transformational leadership.

Leadership styles explained (Kurt Lewin) - EPM

Kurt Lewin describes different leadership styles in this slightly longer video. Lewin focuses on autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire leadership. He discusses the advantages and disadvantages of each style as well as the situations in which each style is most useful.

Great leadership comes down to only two rules - Peter Anderton

In this much-watched TED talk, Peter Anderton argues that great leadership requires only two simple rules. Curious to find out what they are? Watch the video.

Top 8 leadership styles - definitions & examples - Indeed

In this last video, Jenn, a career coach, shares insights into eight key leadership styles. Importantly, she also discusses how we can find out which style might be best suited for us. Many of us will have been wondering about this question. Jenn shares practical advice on how we can choose and develop our own natural leadership style.

PositivePsychology.com Resources

PositivePsychology.com offers a range of resources to enhance your understanding of various leadership styles. On our website, you will find numerous in-depth articles on specific leadership theories and styles, many of which were only briefly discussed in this article.

In addition, there are a multitude of articles to assist in improving leadership as well as creating a positive working environment.

Free tools and numerous inspiring activities to identify and enhance your leadership style can be found in our article offering leadership activities, games, and exercises.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop positive leadership skills, check out this collection of 17 validated positive leadership exercises. Use them to equip leaders with the skills needed to cultivate a culture of positivity and resilience.

World’s Largest Positive Psychology Resource

The Positive Psychology Toolkit© is a groundbreaking practitioner resource containing over 500 science-based exercises, activities, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments created by experts using the latest positive psychology research.

Updated monthly. 100% Science-based.

“The best positive psychology resource out there!”
Emiliya Zhivotovskaya, Flourishing Center CEO

A Take-Home Message

Perhaps the most important point about leadership is that leadership can be improved. Remember that great leadership is, after all, a combination of skills and qualities that we can work on, practice, and enhance.

As leadership expert Warren Bennis puts it:

“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born — that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.”

(Bennis, as cited in Hunter 2004, p. 42)

Everyone can be a great leader — introverts as well as extroverts, feelers as well as thinkers, visionaries as well as people who care for detail and process.

What matters most is that we cultivate self-awareness, that we remain humble, that we truly care for those whom we lead, that we keep learning, and that we foster a growth mindset both in ourselves and others.

We hope you enjoy using these resources to advance your leadership journey and that they will help you unfold your true potential as a leader.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Leadership Exercises for free.

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  1. Ester Mujajati

    Powerful, inspirational, challenging, educational, and informative article that is indeed helpful in managing human resources.

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