Leadership Styles

As a long-time business leader, leading companies with more than a thousand employees from various countries and cultures, I have always reflected upon my leadership and the leadership of those around me. By learning about leadership styles and what to do as well as what not to do, I have been able to improve my leadership skills as well as the performance of the organizations I have led, time after time.

What is a leadership style?
A leadership style can be defined as the process by which a leader seeks the participation of followers to reach the goals of their organization.

This article describes the development of leadership styles and leadership theories over time. Before we get to that part, I would like to provide a list of all our in-depth articles on leadership styles available on leadershipahoy.com. We also have a leadership test covering three of the styles. Find out which leadership style you use, opens in a new tab.

If you prefer watching a video, you can find the Six Leadership Styles by Goleman on our youtube channel here: Goleman video. The article continues below.

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List of Leadership styles

As far as I can tell, leadershipahoy.com is now the most comprehensive site about leadership styles on the internet. Click the link to get to the article you want to read, all are within this site and open in a new page so you can easily compare them and keep them open as you please.

Some other frameworks and complete leadership styles sets can be found in our articles here:

Leadership styles and Leadership Theories

An organization needs leadership in order to operate, to develop further, to grow, and ultimately achieve its goals. There have been plenty of leadership theories over the years, mainly Trait theory, Behavioral Leadership theories, and Situational Leadership theories.

The different schools of thoughts separate in the following way:

  • Trait theory, popular in the 1940-60s, focuses on skills, characteristics, and attributes of the leader as a person (Trait theory does not involve leadership styles, so it is not the topic of this article. Refer to our article on Great Man Theory instead.)
  • Behavioral leadership theories focus on ideal leadership behaviors, regardless of situational circumstances. These concepts started emerging in the 1930s
  • Situational leadership theories have since the 60s been adding the perspective of situational factors to leadership. This means that traits, behaviors, and the situation at hand all affect the results of leadership. (The six leadership styles by Goleman and the Situational Leadership Model are examples of this approach.)

The article continues after this image showing development over time.

Feel free to use the image as long as you link back to this page.

Leadership Styles Explained – Definition

Let us get back to the definition mentioned at the beginning of this text for a moment:

A leadership style can be defined as the process by which a leader seeks the participation of followers to reach the goals of their organization.

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There are several factors included in this sentence, such as “leader”, “participation”, “followers” and “goals” and those are good input when selecting which leadership style a leader should use. The choice also depends on which leadership styles you have at your disposal.

The different sets of Leadership styles

There are many different collections or subsets of leadership styles. They are often considered mutually exclusive and assume there are no other styles outside of that set. So, theory A can assume there are three types of leaders, or theory B assume that any leader can use one out of six behaviors, etc. Let us briefly go through some of the important areas, starting with behavioral leadership theories such as the Ohio State University Leadership Study, the Michigan State Leadership Research, and Blake and Mouton’s Management Grid. We will then continue to situational theory concepts such as Fiedler’s contingency leadership theory, House’s Path-Goal Theory, the Vroom and Jago leadership model, and the Full Range Leadership Model. We will end this article with a more modern set, namely the leadership styles by Daniel Goleman

Behavioral leadership theories

Several different behavioral leadership theories have been defined over the years, here are the most prominent ones which all have in common that they describe behaviors of a leader which lead to different types of outcome.

Ohio State University Leadership Study

Research at Ohio State University focused on leadership behaviors that led to effective performance. Two categories of behaviors emerged as the major ones: consideration behavior and initiating-structure behavior. 

You can watch our video on the Ohio State University Leadership Studies right here. The article continues just below, in case you prefer reading.

The Consideration level estimates the level of people focus and empathy of the leader. High consideration behavior signifies a strive for trust, interest in the feelings of the followers, and a willingness to create a warm relationship in the team. A Considering leader uses active listening, understands the strengths and weaknesses of each member, and supports them as required.

A high Initiating-Structure behavior means high definition of roles, tasks, expectations, schedules. High levels of this behavior also mean that the leader makes all decisions, punishes subpar performance among followers, and underlines the importance of results. Relatively similar to autocratic leadership, that is.

The Ohio State research suggests that these two leadership behaviors lead to four possible outcomes or quadrants with four different leadership styles reflecting the behavior of the leader.

The conclusion was that leaders who have high consideration behavior and high initiating structure have better results than others.

The Leadership Styles Grid of the Ohio Leadership Studies is seen below. Feel free to use the image as long as you link back to this page. For additional information, please read our in-depth article available here: The Ohio State Leadership Studies article.

Ohio State Leadership Studies Leadership Styles


Michigan State Leadership Research

This research had a stronger focus on group performance than the Ohio study. Through a large number of interviews, the study tried to determine what leadership behaviors were common denominators among successful leaders. Two types of leadership behaviors came out of the study, namely job-oriented and employee-oriented leadership behavior. The two types are relatively self-explanatory. The study concluded that a leader cannot have high levels of both behaviors, i.e. you belong somewhere on a scale where job-oriented leadership behavior is one direction and employee-oriented leadership behavior is in the other direction.

The employee-oriented leadership behavior was the “winner” since the study showed that that type of behavior led to the highest performance, thanks to this behavior taking social systems and people into higher consideration.

Blake and Mouton’s Management Grid

This study also uses two different leadership behaviors, concern for people and concern for production respectively. Blake and Mouton created a chart with the leadership behaviors as x and y-axis on a scale from 0 to 9 and plotted five different leadership styles on that chart. 

Blake and Mouton’s five leadership styles are as follows:

  1. Impoverished leadership style
    Plotted at (1,1) in the chart, this style has low amounts of concern for people and production indicating low interest in both relationships as well as performance. The followers of such a leader simply don’t care to try. Might be comparable to a bad case of Laissez-faire leadership
  2. Country club leadership style
    This leadership style which makes you associate to harmony and easy living is plotted at (1,9), i.e. high concern for people while having low concern for production. Country club leadership is what it sounds like basically. The leader focuses on a friendly harmonious environment and people’s feelings much more than producing and achieving goals. People are what matters the most. Could perhaps be compared with the modern Affiliative style.
  3. Authority-obedience leadership style
    Moving to another extreme, the Authority-obedience leadership style is high on production and low on concern for people. This leader gives orders and directs people to execute them without much emotion. Performance is what matters the most. Perhaps similar to the more well-known Autocratic leadership style.
  4. Middle-of-the-road leadership/organizational leadership
    The next style has no extreme and is plotted at (5, 5) and has the descriptive name of middle-of-the-road leadership style and entails medium levels of both concerns. This leader tries to balance having a good performance while still having consideration for the people. This leads to less than maximum output, but it also leads to a better situation for the people involved.
  5. Team leadership
    The last leadership style is plotted at (9, 9) and shows a high level of concern for both people and production. This is the most effective leadership style of them all and leads to the accomplishment of performance goals as well as a very good climate for the followers. My view is that this one would be somewhat comparable to the Democratic leadership style.

Read more in our article here: Blake and Mouton’s Managerial Grid.

Leadership Styles by Kurt Lewin

Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), worked on a few leadership experiments in the United States together with Ronald Lippitt and Ralph White. The experiments took place in 1938 and 1939 and involved 10-year old children being studied in different settings. Groups of children were led with different ”philosophies” of leadership. These “philosophies” or styles, were:

  • Authoritarian or Autocratic Leadership Style (referred to as Autocratic leadership on this site), where the leader holds all decision power and essentially dictates what the group should do
  • Laissez-Faire Leadership Style, also known as delegative or hands-off leadership style, means that the group get to make all the decisions without any participation by the leader
  • Democratic Leadership Style, also known as Participative Leadership, where the group makes the decisions together with the leader who also acts as a facilitator

Please note that these were the three leadership philosophies, which means a leader adopts one of the three. You can watch our Youtube video on Kurt Lewin Leadership Styles right here:

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It is debatable whether the three leadership styles by Kurt Lewin and his colleagues are completely behavioral or whether they have a situational element to them as well or not. Although Lewin’s experiments included some leaders using different behaviors, suggesting that a leader can adapt, this was not done depending on the situation at hand, but rather for the sake of the experiment – to study the outcome of a certain leadership behavior or leadership philosophy. These three leadership styles are commonly spoken of and referred to in our days as well. Due to this, they deserve some further introduction in this text. Please refer to the in-depth article on each style as you prefer. We also have a comparison article: Autocratic leadership vs. Laissez-Faire leadership, and a Lewin leadership styles quiz.

Autocratic Leadership Style

The autocratic leader is the one retaining virtually all decision-making power. The autocratic leadership style can pretty much be regarded as the opposite of the democratic leadership style explained further below. It rests on a strong leader calling the shots basically. This can lead to low engagement since there is little empowerment and little trust in general. Depending on the situation, the autocratic leadership style can be surprisingly effective, especially when time is scarce and quick decisive decisions are required – again the opposite of the participative element of the democratic leadership style.

The autocratic leadership style is often divided into three different types.
Directing: detailed instructions are given, and execution is expected to the letter. This is followed by close control and constant monitoring. No questions asked.

Permissive: Although the autocratic leader makes all the decisions, the followers are left with authority on how to execute the decisions. This retains some creativity and utilizes the competency and experience of the followers to a higher degree.

Paternalistic: This version of autocratic leadership focuses on the well-being of the followers. The leader acts as a “father” who knows what is best for the “children”, i.e. the followers. Some input and discussion might be allowed in decision making, but the leader disregards if he or she wants to.

Although the autocratic leadership style is generally disliked it has a place and that’s in times of crisis when difficult decisions need to be taken fast. The autocratic leadership style can also be useful in organizations where motivation is lacking; the autocratic leader can push through for results anyway. Studies have found that specific types of personalities actually prefer being led by an autocratic leader.

Examples of autocratic leaders: Martha Stewart, Howell Raines, and Leona Helmsley.

For a full and more complete description of this leadership style, click here: Autocratic Leadership Style.

Democratic Leadership Style

This style is also known as the participative leadership style, the leader shares as much of the decision-making responsibility as possible. The leader is one member of the team and hierarchy is played down. In the Democratic leadership style, a lot of effort is placed on reaching high participation in decision making – a process that is facilitated and stimulated by the democratic leader. All team members should voice their opinions and be part of making the decisions. This leadership style has been found to be very popular among employees and leading to high engagement and productivity. Equality, trust, and empowerment are key items in building popularity for the democratic leadership style.

The democratic leadership style also has some disadvantages just like most leadership styles. The high level of participation in decision-making can lead to slow reaction speed and sometimes too much compromising. In times of crisis when quick decisions are crucial, the democratic leadership style can become a problem. Furthermore, if the point is to have everybody weigh in on the decision – what happens if someone feels left out or disrespected? It would rock the foundation of the leadership approach. It could even make the democratic leader seem dishonest in his or her approach which would definitely lower employee engagement.

There is a big difference between democratic and laissez-faire leadership and that is the fact that a democratic leader takes an active role in making decisions together with the team, whereas the laissez-faire leader lets the team take the decision on its own. For a much more detailed explanation, read our full in-depth article on democratic leadership.

Laissez-faire Leadership Style

This leadership style is sometimes referred to as the delegative leadership style. Laissez-faire is the most laid-back leadership style in this list of seven leadership styles. Laissez-faire is essentially a hands-off approach where the leader stays back and lets the team do the work on their own. Minimal guidance is provided to the team and they are expected to make decisions and execute using that guidance. Research by Kurt Lewin and his team indicates that laissez-faire is the least productive leadership style.
Laissez-faire leadership can be intentional, i.e. the leader backs off and lets the team lose so to speak. It can also be unintentional, which is worse if you ask me, virtually resulting in an absence of leadership. I mean, what is the point of having a leader if that person doesn’t lead? Laissez-faire can work well in a team where the high level of empowerment meets the right talent. In fact, a really good team can do well under a laissez-faire regime. The question is, would a good team like that do even better with an active leader? It probably would.
Teams with highly specialized experts can do rather good under laissez-faire leadership since it gives them very high freedom to make their own decisions. A high degree of specialization could lead to silo thinking if not the overall leader is there to remind the team of the importance of cooperation etc.

A laissez-faire leader can be perceived as uncaring, uninterested, and absent which can confuse the team members regarding direction and clarity on roles. An uninterested leader often results in lower accountability amongst the team members which in turn leads to decreased productivity.

Warren Buffet and Ronald Reagan are considered examples of laissez-faire leaders. If you have further interest in laissez-faire leadership you can read more about its origin, pros, cons, and examples in our article on the laissez-faire leadership style. The article also contains some real-life examples of the leadership style that I have experienced over my fifteen-year long leadership career.

Max Weber’s leadership styles

Max Weber (1864-1920) launched three leadership styles or “ideal types of legitimate domination” as he called them. Each type of domination was a leadership style based on enough legitimacy for the followers to accept being led. The three ideal types of legitimate domination are:

  • Charismatic, centered around the traits of the leader and his or her persuasion skills
  • Traditional, based on legitimacy from practice, custom or institution such as birthright, think of royalty, nobility, etc. over the centuries
  • Legal Rationality, focused on rules and principles

You can read about two of these styles here at leadershipahoy.com: Charismatic leadership and Legal Rationality under its modern name Bureaucratic Leadership. Weber’s idea was that each leader needed to behave differently, depending on where his or her legitimacy as a leader originated from. Essentially, are people following the leader because he or she is a regent, because they have to by law, or because the leader is simply persuasive enough for people to follow.

Contingency or Situational leadership models

After having gone through the leadership theories based on behavior, we move on to more complex models and theories that also take the situation into account, not just the behavior of the leader and his or her intent.

Fiedler’s contingency leadership theory

Fiedler combined the results of several studies into a formula known as Fiedler’s Situation Leadership Model. According to this model, a leader’s contribution to performance depends on the form of leadership as well as the level of compliance with the circumstances of each situation. The novelty with this was that Fiedler stated that a leader can be effective in one situation and not in another. A leader is not necessarily successful when heading different organizations or in all types of situations. To cover this aspect, Fiedler included numerous leader-situation combinations which can be used as guidance to leaders on how to act.
Fiedler’s theory is limited since it assumes only two general leader behaviors, namely task-oriented or relationship-oriented behavior.

The following aspects serve as input for the Fiedler leader-situation combinations:

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  • Behavior: Relationship-oriented or task-oriented
  • Leader-member relations: Trust levels, respect, commitment between leader and follower
  • Task structure: The level of clarity, rules, and job descriptions
  • Position power: Reward and punishment opportunities available to the leader, essentially the authority and position of the leader.

Each of the above aspects is classified as positive or negative and then a matrix is used to decide whether the combination results in good or poor performance.

For instance, Good leader-member relations with low task structure and weak position power gives high performance when using relationship-oriented leadership behavior.

Fiedler concludes that a leader cannot be effective all the time in all kinds of situations. He rather suggests the person with the appropriate style should be leading and that each person only has one stable leadership style regardless of training attempts. This points in the direction of switching out the leader of an organization if the wrong type of situation emerges. Since Fiedler realized this would be highly impractical, he instead recommended that the situation should be changed in order to suit the leader’s behavior. I am not sure how it would be easier to change the situation than to change the leader. You can read more about this interesting model here: Fiedler’s Contingency Model of Leadership.

House’s Path-Goal Theory

This theory is based on path-goal ideas proposed by Vroom and Gerogropolous. House submitted his Path-Goal Theory in 1971 but revised it 25 years later in 1996.
This theory takes a big step further from the Fiedler model and assumes that leaders could adapt to different situations. There are two major assumptions in the Path-Goal theory:

  1. Leadership behaviors are acceptable as long as they contribute to the satisfaction of the followers either short-term or long-term
  2. Leadership behaviors are motivated if they provide support, guidance, coaching, and other aspects to the followers as needed to drive performance and create the right atmosphere

Path-Goal focuses on leadership styles depending on the situation and the behavior of the leader while the above assumptions are true. You will start to recognize some more well-known leadership styles at this point since the four styles or behaviors that House used in his theory are directive, supportive, participative and achievement-oriented. Let us describe each and every one of them briefly:

  1. Directive leadership style: ensure that the followers know what is expected of them and provide guidance and structure as well as policies, procedures, and rules for their actions. Refer to our article on Directive Leadership which has a slightly more modern but very similar description.
  2. Supportive leadership style: show concern for people’s well-being and create a supportive environment for the followers. Seek social satisfaction, reduction of stress, etc. for the followers. Very close to the more modern description of the Affiliative leadership style.
  3. Participative leadership style: collect and use suggestions from followers, but the leader makes the final decision. This leadership style clarifies the relationship between efforts and rewards, increases harmony between the goals of followers and the organization, provides autonomy for the followers for goal achievement, and increases follower participation and commitment. This is very similar to the Democratic Leadership style which is actually also known as participative leadership. Refer to our in-depth article on democratic/participative leadership.
  4. Achievement-oriented leadership style: This style involves setting challenging targets, continuous improvement, and excellence in performance. All geared to reaching a higher level of performance and achieving the goals. This is what we these days often refer to as pacesetting leadership, which also has a separate article.

The path-goal leadership styles should be used in such a way that they support and encourage the followers and entice them to follow. To do this, the leader should pursue three areas:

  1. Make clear to the followers that rewards and punishment depend on performance results and use this as a motivational factor
  2. Increase the expectations of the followers by removing obstacles that are preventing their performance
  3. Understand and resolve resource requirements enabling the followers to reach the expected results

Vroom and Jago’s Leadership Model

The Vroom and Jago leadership model is more focused on setting a decision style for deciding on whether followers should be involved in decision-making or not. Their model assumes that several different leadership styles can be used by the same leader. However, the current version of their model only supports the use of two different leadership styles, namely an autocratic or participative leadership style. In short: to allow or not allow participation in decision-making.

There are two different models here, Vroom’s development-driven decision model and Vroom’s time-driven decision model. Both models have the same types of input and output, but the outcome is different. The Development-Driven model should be used when there is no time pressure, and the other, i.e. the time-driven model should be used in cases of urgent decisions when time is scarce.

Each situation of potential participation in decision-making is evaluated according to the following parameters and can score either High or Low for each parameter:

  1. Decision Significance
  2. Importance of Commitment
  3. Leader Expertise
  4. Likelihood of commitment
  5. Group support
  6. Group expertise
  7. Team competence

Depending on the scoring on each parameter, and which model is used, the leader will get an output of a suggested decision style, ranging from decide, delegate, consult the group, facilitate or consult individuals. The two extremes would be autocratic leadership style when the outcome is “decide” and a participative style when it the form of “facilitate”. One could state that the outcome of “delegate” could be a version of the Laissez-faire leadership style.

Leadership Styles by Burns: Transactional and Transformational leadership

In the 1970s, James MacGregor Burns (1918-2014) expanded on the work of the aforementioned Max Weber. Burns conceptualized a set of two mutually exclusive leadership styles, both described further on this site with in-depth articles of their own, called transactional and transformational leadership styles respectively. Burns characterized leaders as being one of the two rather than switching between the styles according to circumstances, i.e. a behavioral model, we have added it here because it leads to the Full Range Leadership Model which is a contingency theory, i.e. depending on the situation and not just the leader.

  • Transactional leadership, which is result-focused and centered around a clearly set exchange system of rewards and punishments vs performance
  • Transformational leadership, which is built around change, development and an overall transformation to something better, including the development of team members

Both styles are described in more detail below since they are two of the most commonly mentioned leadership styles to this day.

Transformational Leadership Style

The transformational leader is very different from the hands-off laissez-faire leader. A transformational leader inspires people and leads by example. He or she believes the team members can transform and evolve to become better as individuals and reach higher levels of performance and productivity.

The leader and the team work together to find the need for change and create a vision for the future which they then start working towards together. Empowering and giving authority to individuals in the organization is one segment of transformational leadership and this often leads to positive attitudes and higher productivity.

There are four different components or areas of transformational leadership, namely:

  • Idealized Influence: the leader is a role model that people respect and strive to emulate. The leader is trusted, and the followers believe in him or her
  • Inspirational Motivation: the leader knows how to inspire and motivate the members of the organization by providing and communicating a vision of the future.
  • Individualized Consideration: a transformational leader cares about the followers. Each team member gets personal attention and coaching if needed.
  • Intellectual Stimulation: the leader pushes for innovation and encourages continuous improvement and challenging the old ways of doing things. This instills creativity in the team members

The wanted outcome of transformational leadership is to reach really high engagement and use that to reach increased levels of motivation and productivity. This leadership style also seeks to improve and increase the ethical aspects of team behavior. The ultimate goal of the transformational leader is to inspire and develop the team members to achieve fantastic levels of success and achievement. This puts high requirements on the communication skills and capabilities of the leader.

If Laissez-faire and autocratic leadership have bad reputations, then it is in fact the opposite for the transformational leadership style. The latter is associated with positive results and high engagement among employees. There is a slight limitation since the model is built on charismatic features of the leader creating that role model and inspirational persona – this is not necessarily an easy thing that anyone can do.

Some of the disadvantages of this style would be:

  • It is very dependent on the vision. If the followers lose faith in the vision, motivation can drop very easily and quickly
  • A high focus on the end result, i.e. the vision, can result in short term areas being neglected
  • The demand on employees can be high as the leader expects them to constantly raise the bar, improve and do better.

Nelson Mandela is often mentioned as a transformational leader who painted a strong vision and inspired a lot of people to believe that change was possible. Mandela’s strong focus on forgiveness has an ethical aspect that is also in line with the transformational leadership style. Another example is Mahatma Gandhi who managed to instill great change while retaining strong ethics. Sir Richard Branson and Marissa Mayer are also examples of transformational leaders. Read more about this great leadership style in our detailed article here: Transformational leadership.

For ideas on providing your team members with a vision, please have a look at our article on the Visionary Leadership Style. You might also want to get some inspiration from reading about the Charismatic Leadership Style.

Transactional Leadership Style

Since the two styles defined by Burns were mutually exclusive, it makes sense that the transactional leadership style is somewhat of the “other side of the coin” to the transformational leadership style. The transactional leadership style is closely connected to bureaucratic leadership but has more of a contractual exchange approach rather than a “dominance by rules” approach as in bureaucratic leadership by Weber.

Transactional leadership focuses on clarity, organization, supervision, and performance while believing in an exchange model connecting rewards and punishment to work transactions. Whereas the transformational leader motivates and inspires through setting a vision, the transactional leader motivates people with carrot and stick – a short-term and direct reaction to performance. This can work well in more simplistic operations with a high level of repetition and measurability. If you perform well, you will receive a bonus. If you do not perform adequately, you will get scolded, reprimanded, or simply receive no bonus.

Transactional leadership can work well in for instance manufacturing and logistics – both have a relatively high degree of repetition. Telemarketing is also a good example: if the salesperson manages to close a lot of deals over the phone, he or she will receive a higher remuneration. Failure to close deals leads to little or no remuneration whatsoever.
Do note that transactional leadership can be deployed within parts of an organization as well. Let’s take the example of a car manufacturing company. The assembly line might be led with transactional leadership, but the research and development department can be led along the lines of transformational leadership. We come back to the fact that a single leadership style rarely fits in all situations and circumstances.

The transactional leader focuses on reacting and rewarding and punishing transactional behavior. There is no real element of change in this leadership style. I would dare to say that transformational leadership is for leaders and transactional leadership is for managers. It is all about the numbers, not about developing people, working towards a bigger ideal, charismatic inspiration, or anything like that.

Bill Gates is often referred to as a transactional leader as he focused on measurable accomplishments rather then developing people in the initial stages of building Microsoft.[1].
Refer to our article on transactional leadership for a more in-depth understanding of this style.

The Full Range Leadership Model (FRLM)

The model created by Burns was just the beginning. Additional steps were taken in the 80s and 90s when a team of researchers (Bass and Avolio) added Laissez-faire leadership to Burns’s set and named it the Full Range Leadership Model. (Laissez-Faire leadership has already been introduced further up in this text, please refer to the chapter about Kurt Lewin). They also added three separate components to transactional leadership. These components were “contingent reward”, “passive management by exception” and “active management by exception”. The Full Range Leadership Model disregards that transactional and transformational leadership styles should be mutually exclusive. In fact, they stated that the same leader can use all the styles, depending on the situation at hand.

Leadership Styles – Daniel Goleman

Now fast forward from the Full Range Leadership Model to the year 2000 and Daniel Goleman’s article in the Harvard Business review describing a set of six leadership styles. It is difficult to find the origin and first date of publication online since several sources mention different years of these styles being conceptualized or coined. Perhaps it is because this is still very fresh history. Anyway, the 2000 article is the oldest source I have found describing all six leadership styles of the Goleman set.

Goleman underlines that leadership style is a strategic choice and instead of finding one style that fits you, you should try to use the optimum leadership style for the situation at hand. Strategic choice would mean to purposely select which style to use and not be reactive to situations in a spontaneous and emotional way. Goleman identifies six different leadership styles using emotional intelligence in different ways and to different degrees. As Daniel Goleman puts it himself: “The best leaders don’t know just one style of leadership – they’re skilled at several, and have the flexibility to switch between styles as the circumstances dictate.”[i] If you prefer, you can also watch our video here: Six Leadership styles on Youtube. The article continues further below.


The six leadership styles by Daniel Goleman are:

The whole concept builds on using as many of these leadership styles as possible depending on the circumstances such as situation, people involved, the topic at hand, and other factors. In brief, here is a summary of the different styles for overview purposes, just keep reading past the overview image. For even more in-depth knowledge refer to our deep-dive article on the topic: The Six Leadership Styles framework by Goleman

Feel free to use the image, as long as you link back to this page.

1.   Coercive, Commanding, or Directive Leadership Style

This style is also known as commanding or directive leadership.

In directive leadership, the leader makes all the decisions and gives orders to his or her team. Tight control and follow-up combined with high clarity in rules, roles, and expectations are core parts of this leadership style. Directive leadership can be efficient in low-skilled teams and when decisions must be made very quickly. However, it can lead to micromanagement, which is negative for employee engagement, especially in teams with high skills that work in complex environments.

This summary is an excerpt from our in-depth article on directive leadership. The entire leadership style set is described here: Six Leadership Styles by Goleman. Here’s a video if you prefer that media. The article continues below.

2.   Authoritative or Visionary Leadership Style

Since the authoritative style is built on long-term vision and it is often referred to as the visionary leadership style. (Do not mix up authoritative leadership with authoritarian leadership since there is a world of difference between them.) A visionary leader truly understands the big picture and sets a long-term path for the organization. When applying a visionary leadership style, the long-term vision is also properly communicated and explained to the members of the organization. A great visionary leader manages to communicate and market the vision in such a way that members of the organization feel inspired and understand how they will benefit from its realization. This is often much more difficult than it sounds, especially if there are many layers in the organization where the vision can be misconstrued, diluted, or misunderstood while cascaded downwards.

This summary is an excerpt from our in-depth article about visionary leadership. The entire leadership style set is described here: Six Leadership Styles by Goleman.

3.   Affiliative Leadership Style

Affiliative leadership focuses on relationships and people. While focusing on keeping all team members happy, the affiliative leader builds strong relationships and bonds with the team members. This style leads to trust and harmony in the team, which can take teamwork to the next level. Feedback, recognition, and rewards are central concepts in affiliative leadership. Refer to our separate in-depth article here: Affiliative Leadership. The entire leadership style set is described here: Six Leadership Styles by Goleman.

4.   Democratic leadership style

This leadership style has already been addressed earlier in this text, namely under the Lewin leadership style chapter. Here is a short summary anyway: Democratic leadership is when an empowered team takes full part in the decision-making process. Ideas and suggestions can be brought forward by any team member, and there is a strive for consensus in decision making. In the end, the democratic leader approves or makes the decision. Democratic leadership is an effective leadership style but can sometimes be too slow when fast decisions are needed.

The above is a brief description taken from our article on Democratic Leadership. The entire leadership style set is described here: Six Leadership Styles by Goleman.

5.   Pacesetting leadership style

The pacesetting leader has a complete focus on performance and results. This leader expects nothing but excellence from team members and employees. Please note that the pacesetting leaders expect the same, or even more, from themselves and lead by example. Hence, it is more of a “follow me – let’s overachieve” rather than bullying others to work harder. All others are expected to work as hard and be as productive as the pacesetting leader.

The pacesetting leadership style is great when results are all that matters, but it can be exhausting for everybody in the long run and lead to demotivation and burnout within the team. Long-term pacesetting can be devastating for morale and lead to high stress and high turnover rates – people feel like they are asked to perform beyond what’s possible.

Jack Welch, the former General Electric CEO is often mentioned as a classic example of a pacesetting leader. The entire leadership style set is described here: Six Leadership Styles by Goleman.

6.   Coaching leadership style

Coaching Leadership is when the leader coaches team members to develop themselves in the long term to become better individuals and professionals. Coaching leadership is time-consuming and requires a lot of skill on the part of the leader. It will only work if the individual being coached is motivated and open to feedback.

This summary is an excerpt from our in-depth article about coaching leadership. The entire leadership style set is described here: Six Leadership Styles by Goleman.

Leadership Styles: Conclusion

You might be overwhelmed by the big number of leadership styles presented by now, which is understandable. Some key points at the end are in order, to wrap things up.

  • There are three major types of leadership styles and theories: behavioral, trait, and contingency theories
  • Early research focused on traits, which evolved into research and theories on leadership behavior, which in turn led to contingency, or situation-dependent, leadership styles
  • There is no real winner among the different sets. It is not possible to have a concrete and final “best leadership theory” since leadership isn’t completely possible to measure

One thing is key though and that is to be aware of and use contingency and situational leadership theories rather than strict behaviors. Understanding this is easy. If you need to influence a crying child, a happy friend, or a stranger you just met on the street, would you use the same tone of voice, the same sentence, message, approach, and authority level? No, you wouldn’t. These situations are different, the people involved are different and the topics are most likely different. The same thing applies to leadership without a doubt. Why would you ever want to be a certain type of leader and then be like that regardless of the circumstances? It simply will not be as effective as adapting your leadership to the situation at hand. Once you understand this, you can deploy a transactional leadership in the warehouse, a democratic leadership style in the management team, a visionary leadership style within the front-line sales force, and a bureaucratic leadership style in the legal department. Use the strengths of the different leadership styles and be aware of the weaknesses – it is a sign that alternative styles should preferably be used instead.

I personally regard the leadership styles by Goleman as the most complete and versatile model so far, so if you want to pick a favorite “theory set”, I definitely urge you to pick that one. However, this is also about you knowing what not to do and recognizing the leadership styles of others. This means more and wider knowledge of leadership styles can be very helpful. At the end of the day, I also think that the six leadership styles explained by Daniel Goleman exclude a few interesting and useful elements available in other styles. Learning those can also contribute to your success.

Read as many of our articles as you like, I hope you find the different leadership styles as interesting and useful as I did. Two of our articles have not been mentioned in this text, have a look at them as well if you have the time: Servant Leadership Style and Spiritual Leadership Style. Again, here’s our video on the Goleman framework: Six Leadership Styles Video on Youtube.

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