Leadership styles can be defined as a person’s way of governing, directing, and motivating followers. Over the last 50 or so years, researchers have proposed a number of different leadership styles characterized by those in business, politics, technology, and other major fields.
Psychologists have found that leadership styles can have an important impact on how well groups function. Leaders also help determine how successful the group is at achieving its goals and how motivated and committed followers are to the group and its goals.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the major leadership styles that have been identified by different researchers.
Authoritarian Leadership Styles
Authoritarian leaders are also known as autocratic or dictatorial leaders.
This leadership style is characterized by:
- Close supervision
- Lack of input from followers
- Complete control
- Total authority
- Solo decision-making
The authoritarian style was first described by psychologist Kurt Lewin in a study that identified three key styles of leadership. People with an authoritarian leadership style make decisions without consulting anyone else on the team.
This leadership style can be problematic when overused because it can come off as domineering and tyrannical. Team members may feel unappreciated, unmotivated, and uncommitted to the group because their input is never requested.
Are there situations where authoritarian leadership can be beneficial? One of the advantages of authoritarian leadership is that it leads to quick decision-making. This can be critical in situations where decisions need to be made quickly and under a lot of pressure. It can also be a good choice when the leader is the most knowledgeable and skilled person in the group.
Democratic Leadership Styles
The democratic leadership, or participative leadership, was another one Lewin’s three styles of leadership.
This leadership style is characterized by:
- Shared decision-making responsibilities
- Social equality
- High engagement from group members
Leaders who exhibit this style are often described as honest, fair, creative, intelligent, and competent. This style of leadership can lead to a great deal of commitment from group members because they typically feel more input in the group’s success and failure. It is important to remember that while democratic leaders accept and encourage team members to offer their ideas and contributions, the leader does retain the final say over all decisions.
This style of leadership is often identified as one of the “best” approaches to leading groups, but it is not necessarily appropriate for every situation. Some situations where the democratic style may be inappropriate include those where the group members are untrained or where decisions must be made on a tight deadline.
Laissez-Faire Leadership Styles
The laissez-faire style was another of the three styles observed and described by Lewin and his colleagues.
This style is characterized by:
- Little direction from the leader
- Lots of freedom for group members
- Team members are responsible for making all decisions
- Great deal of autonomy
Laissez-faire leaders are sometimes referred to as delegative leaders. Rather than attempt to direct and control the group, they instead hand over the responsibility of leading the group to the team members themselves.
The laissez-faire style can have both advantages and disadvantages, depending upon the characteristics of the situation and the group. When the members of the group are highly skilled and knowledgeable, letting them guide themselves can be a great strategy. In such cases, the leader can still offer support and advice when needed, but followers are mostly able to make their own choices.
This leadership style can be a poor choice in situations that require quick decision-making or where members of the group lack the skills to succeed. In such cases, team members may be left feeling unsure of what they should do. Such situations also lead to a lack of accountability, missed deadlines, and low commitment to the group.
Transactional Leadership Styles
Transactional leadership, also known as managerial leadership, is all about managing others using rewards and punishments. People with this leadership style tend to prefer a great deal of structure with clearly defined roles and expectations.
The transactional leadership style is characterized by:
- Lots of instruction
- Clear expectations
- Clear goals
- Focused on following rules
Transactional leaders usually lay out their rules and expectations. Each member of the group is given clear directions about what they should be doing, how they should be doing it, and when it should be done. The focus of this style is on making sure that things are completed correctly, on time, and according to the rules.
Because it is centered on productivity, efficiency, and safety, this can be an effective style when used within an organizational structure. It can be stifling in settings where workers feel micro-managed. Because this style is so focused on extrinsic motivations, with rewards and bonuses offered for meeting or exceeding goals, followers may not develop much intrinsic motivation for their work.
Transformational Leadership Styles
Transformational leadership is characterized by high levels of motivation, inspiration, and commitment. People with this leadership style take charge of the group by presenting a clear vision of the outcome, display a great deal of passion for the work, and help group members feel inspired and committed to the goals.
People who have this leadership style are often described as:
Transformational leaders are not only highly creative; they also inspire creativity in others. They offer support and guidance in order to help each member of the team achieve their full potential. Team members look to the leader as a role model. Because of this, followers tend to internalize the ideals of the leader and strive to emulate these qualities.
There are many different leadership styles, but the best approach may depend on factors such as the characteristics of the situation and the group. There is no single leadership style that is best in each and every situation. In some cases, an authoritarian style may be more effective and productive. In other situations, a transformational leader may excel.
Learn more about your own leadership tendencies by taking our leadership style quiz.
Bass, B. M, (1985). Leadership and Performance, N.Y. Free Press.
Bass, B. M. & Riggio, R. E. (2008). Transformational Leadership. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
Schyns, B & Hansbrough, T. (2010). When Leadership Goes Wrong: Destructive Leadership, Mistakes, and Ethical Failures. Charlotte: NC.