10 types of leadership styles to use

Understanding the different types of leadership styles can help you be a more effective leader.

Do you want to be a more effective leader? Understanding your leadership style may help you improve your and your team's performance.

Leadership at all levels is a crucial component in any organization. From entry-level team leads to C-suite executives to small-business owners, all leaders can benefit from learning more about various leadership styles. Discovering your own style and exploring other leadership types may help you diffuse conflict, improve communication and grow into a more admirable leader.

What is a leadership style?

Leadership styles in management describe how people manage their own work, their direct reports and their managerial duties. As a leader, you should balance your team's well-being with shareholders' and executives' expectations. A leadership style that supports and empowers your teams may help you meet the expectations of your direct reports and investors, for example.

In short, your leadership style plays a crucial role in your personal success as well as your team's, which ultimately helps guide your business toward success and avoid failure.

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Why is it important to know your leadership style?

By understanding your personal leadership style, you can identify your strengths and areas for improvement. It's also valuable to gain insight into the leadership traits of others and use those to enhance your own style. It may also help you understand how your leadership tactics affect your relationships with others and your team's performance.

What are the different types of leadership styles?

There are a number of leadership approaches, each with specific strengths and drawbacks, as you'll see below. Provided are various tips and examples of leadership styles and how each type may respond to the same situation—managing a retail store with a goal of improving efficiency over the next quarter.

Please note that Capital One doesn’t endorse any leadership style over another. As a leader, you should have the information you need to determine which method works best for you and your team.

1. Democratic

Democratic leaders value and seek their team's input on critical decisions. While the leader still has the final say, the team often feels heard and respected. This leadership style is most effective in environments that prize creativity and innovation and can afford the extra time this approach may add to the decision-making process.

  • How to be a more democratic leader: Loop your team in on important decisions to get their input. Let them vote on issues that affect them, like any scheduling or process changes. While you'll still have the final say, you can present acceptable options for them to choose from or consider their concerns when making big decisions.

Example: To address the efficiency concerns in your retail store, you gather your team and brainstorm ideas with them. They offer concrete options, like tightening processes or improving team accountability, which you consider before implementing those that you believe will be most effective.

2. Coach

A coach is supportive, motivational and familiar with their team. They know the strengths, weaknesses, motives and potential of each employee, and they consider those aspects when making decisions. Coaching leadership may work best when you can work one-on-one with each team member—and when those team members are open to being challenged in order to grow.

  • How to be a better coach: Hold quick check-ins with each member of your team as regularly as possible, such as monthly or quarterly, to gain insight into personal and professional struggles that could be affecting their performance. Keep track of roles or responsibilities that each member excels at or could improve on, and give them opportunities to showcase or strengthen those skills. Work with members who could use extra support to help them succeed.

Example: Instead of seeking ideas from your team, you consider what you know about them. You change how tasks are delegated so that each member of your team has responsibilities that better match their strengths. You also plan to implement a mentorship or training program at your store that pairs employees who may help each other with their weaknesses.

3. Pacesetter

A pacesetter leads by example and holds their team to a high standard. Team members feel pride when they reach those standards. Though praise may be sparing, it's that much more valuable when it is given. Pacesetting leadership is most effective when your team is already motivated and in a fast-paced environment.

  • How to be a better pacesetter: Actively work alongside your team on a regular basis, building their respect and trust. Set expectations that are high but reasonable and achievable. When the team or a team member goes above and beyond or shows exemplary performance, give them sincere praise and show your appreciation.

Example: While you may decide to make some changes to processes or workloads, your primary response is jumping in and working alongside your team. You work as quickly and efficiently as possible to show your team what they're capable of, and your actions are motivating and inspiring to the store's staff.

4. Servant

Servant leadership focuses on the team's well-being. These leaders know that the happier and healthier their team is, the more productive and engaged they are. When they feel they're valued, appreciated and cared for, team members often work harder. Servant leaders prioritize team fulfillment, collaboration and communication to create a supportive and positive workplace culture. It's effective in many environments, particularly for nonprofits.

  • How to be more of a servant leader: Be generous with praise when it's earned, and have regular check-ins with your team to see how they're doing with work and their personal lives. Implement an open-door policy that invites them to come to you with any concerns or frustrations they have. Ask for their observations and impressions and listen carefully. When someone is experiencing personal hardship, encourage them to take care of themselves, and be willing to step up if they need time away. Build opportunities for individuals to lead projects or take ownership of specific initiatives, then provide feedback and encouragement.

Example: You praise the team's accomplishments and recognize each individual's triumphs and strengths. Then you give everyone a questionnaire that asks how you could better support them, what tasks they enjoy or are interested in and what training or resources could help them reach the next quarter's goal. You also plan to do individual check-ins with the store's staff over the following few weeks to go over their responses, concerns and goals.

5. Transformational

A transformational leader continually pushes their employees to grow professionally and venture outside their comfort zones to reach overarching organizational goals. Transformational leaders often set frequent goals, providing new ones as old ones are reached to encourage continual progress. It's an effective way to manage a team in a company that focuses on consistent growth or is fast-growing. The goals may seem simple at first, but over time, they become more fast-paced and challenging.

  • How to be a transformational leader: Push your team to continually improve their performance. Set achievable weekly goals for each member that build on their strengths and allow them to practice skills they should improve. Set more challenging monthly or quarterly goals for the team's performance as a whole. When they achieve a goal, set a new one that's slightly more difficult. Keep tabs on the company's performance and goals so you can keep your team's tasks aligned with them.

Example: You explain the efficiency goal you'd like to hit next quarter, as well as how you hope to improve efficiency in the long term. You announce that each employee will have weekly performance goals tailored to their strengths and weaknesses. As employees reach their goals, they'll receive new ones that are slightly more challenging so they consistently perform at their highest possible level.

6. Transactional

A transactional leader also assigns goals for their team members, but they usually offer incentives, such as bonuses, when goals are met. The goals may be less challenging than those set by transformational leaders, as transactional leaders are focused more on rapid results than on overarching change. It's an effective leadership style for teams that focus on performance metrics, such as those in sales or customer service.

  • How to be a transactional leader: Communicate clear goals—and clear rewards—to your team. Target your team's individual and group goals toward areas that need immediate improvement, like efficiency or productivity. Set goals that are reasonable and encourage quick response, and determine reward options that are in line with those demands.

Example: You hold a team meeting and set the efficiency goal for the next quarter, with periodic smaller goals leading up to it. For each small goal that's met, you may offer to buy your team lunch. If your team reaches the big quarterly goal for your store, everyone gets a 5% bonus at the end of the next quarter.

7. Visionary

A visionary leader has a clear vision for the organization's and/or the team's future and uses it to inspire and motivate their team. Visionaries are often charismatic and energetic and have excellent communication skills. They earn the trust and respect of their team by building their confidence and working toward an admirable, desirable goal. While this is effective in many organizations, this strategy is often especially beneficial for nonprofits.

  • How to be a better visionary leader: Develop a clear vision for what you hope your team or company will look like in the next five or 10 years, complete with the benefits it would provide your team. Then, communicate that vision with them in a way that shows your sincere excitement and belief in their ability to reach those goals. Transparency will help gain your team's trust and support. Consider displaying something in the break room, such as a vision board or a collage of related images, to keep that vision at the forefront, and keep your team energized through regular praise and a high-energy, positive environment.

Example: You explain next quarter's efficiency expectations and the benefits of improved efficiency, such as happier customers and a team that's more supportive, collaborative and capable. You may also mention how this brings you one step closer to a long-term goal or vision you've been working toward. You may also offer support, guidance and resources to help your team reach their goals.

8. Laissez-Faire

"Laissez-faire" literally translates to "allow to do," with the general principle being "let people decide what they do." These leaders delegate tasks to their direct reports, while they themselves focus on managerial duties. This approach may empower team members, who are trusted to complete tasks efficiently and to high standards with little to no assistance. It's effective for teams that have the qualifications, experience and performance history to warrant this level of trust and can reliably perform the work independently.

  • How to be a laissez-faire leader: Assign your team members tasks according to their skills and experience, then trust them to complete the tasks to the expected standard. Let them know you're there to answer any questions or handle concerns that arise, but then let them manage their own work. You should handle duties that can't be passed off to direct reports, while your team completes the other tasks with little to no oversight.

Example: You give your team a briefing about efficiency expectations for the next quarter. You decide not to micromanage, and you ask them to hold themselves accountable in their daily tasks and work with efficiency in mind. The team tightens up their efforts and brainstorms ideas for process or policy changes that may help boost efficiency, submitting them to you for clearance before enacting them.

9. Bureaucratic

A bureaucratic leader creates a strict plan with detailed instructions and clear expectations. While they may accept input, they tend to follow established policies and practices. A suggestion that goes against written guidelines or regulations is likely to be rejected. Bureaucratic leaders may also organize team members in a hierarchy with tiered responsibilities and tasks. This strategy may be effective in industries where precision and consistency matter.

  • How to be a bureaucratic leader: Create detailed plans for each workday and workweek, outlining what's expected of each team member and how they should complete their tasks, including when and in what order. Listen to any feedback from your team, and decide on your own if you should change the plans, using relevant company policies to inform your decision (such as safety protocols).

Example: Using performance metrics from the past few quarters, you identify relevant areas to improve and create a plan to address them. You go over the expectations and plan with your team, and you answer any questions they have. At the end of the meeting, you tell them you're open to feedback that may benefit the team but abides by regulations.

10. Autocratic 

Autocratic leaders also tend to be strict and provide clear plans and instructions to their team, which they expect to be followed. However, autocratic leaders don't usually accept feedback or negotiations. They're focused on results. This strategy is effective in high-stakes settings, such as highly regulated industries, where consistent and replicable results are needed.

  • How to be an autocratic leader: Create clear, strict protocols and policies for your team to follow. Make sure your team understands them and that you have resources in place to help your team follow them. Help resolve conflicts or confusion when they arise, and make sure your team has the skills they need to succeed.

Example: You analyze previous performance metrics and develop a plan to strengthen weak efficiency areas. You share this plan with your team in an informative meeting, letting everyone know what's expected of them. You may answer questions about expectations or processes, and you encourage your team to reach out if they need additional clarification or guidance.

How to choose your leadership style

Most often, the best leadership style pulls strategies from multiple leadership types. To find your own leadership style, think about the leader you want to be, using questions like the following:

  • Do you want your team to follow instructions without question or to voice their concerns and opinions? 
  • How much instruction should you provide your team?
  • Are you willing to work alongside them?
  • How is your team best motivated?
  • Are you more concerned about short-term or long-term goals?

Once you're honest about your management values, consider what approach may work best for your team. Do they thrive on support and recognition, or are they motivated by goals? Would they trust a charismatic leader, or would they respect one who works alongside them? What your team values in a leader often influences how effective different leadership styles will be.

You should also consider the needs of your project or workplace. If your work is very confidential, hazardous or requires precise handling, a hands-on, strict approach might be best. If your work requires creativity, teamwork and a positive environment to ensure output, try an approach that's employee-centric, welcomes feedback and offers support.

Once you understand these needs, you should adopt leadership styles that work with them. Experiment with different strategies to learn what helps you build a successful team.

Other tips include:

  • Seek out guidance. Speak to others in your role. They've likely been through similar struggles and may have good advice.
  • Be yourself. Leaders who are authentic may gain their team's trust and respect more easily. Being yourself can also boost your confidence and pride in what you're doing, which may further build positive perceptions of you. Do what feels right to you, and don't forgo the human connection with your team. Being able to relate to and communicate with your team is crucial to settling disputes and earning respect.
  • Check in with your team. Your team is one of your most valuable resources when assessing your leadership style. Ask them for an honest, anonymous review of your leadership tactics, such as how effective you are as a leader or what you could be doing better.

Your leadership style should help you build your personal brand within your team and organization. It's often a reflection of your skills, experience, work environment and personality. No leadership style is guaranteed to be effective, and how you lead may need to change as your team, work or situations change. In truth, the best leadership style is the one that works for you, your team and your organization—and in a rapidly changing work environment, the one that's effective today may not be effective next week. 

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