The six different leadership styles

different leadership styles

Although most leaders have an instinctive style, it’s useful to understand the different leadership or management styles. Certain situations, teams or projects will call for one style over another, and being able to employ the appropriate one lets you improve your leadership technique.

Organisational psychologist and author Daniel Goleman defined six categories of leadership styles, based on a three-year study of more than 3000 middle managers in the US. He called them Coercive leadership, Authoritative leadership, Affiliative leadership, Democratic leadership, Pacesetting leadership and Coaching leadership.

You’ll likely find your natural style fits into just one or two categories, but it’s important to learn how to leverage every style to get the most out of those you’re leading, whether your role is as a manager, a mentor or a CEO. 

Coercive leadership style (the leader is the boss)

In coercive leadership, the leader makes all the decisions and gives orders without discussion. Close management and clearly defined roles and expectations are core elements of this style. 

Coercive leadership is often used to great effect within the military or during times of crisis when decisions need to be made and acted on quickly and with clarity, but should be used sparingly in other situations. Goleman’s research found that coercive leadership had a negative effect on team climate and left no room for creativity, flexibility or shared responsibility. 

Authoritative leadership style (the leader is the visionary)

Authoritative leaders are more creative, empathetic and passionate. They have a strong vision for the big-picture future of their team or organisation and are focused on rallying people around that vision. 

An authoritative leader sets long-term goals and communicates them in a way that inspires the team to share these goals and take steps towards them. This requires high levels of emotional intelligence and strong communication skills, and Goleman’s study found a strong correlation with flexibility, clarity, commitment, rewards, and good teamwork.

However, overuse of this leadership style can cause short-term activities and necessary tasks to be overlooked in favour of the grand vision, to the detriment of the organisation.


Affiliative leadership style (the leader is the carer)

An affiliative style of leadership puts people and relationships first, with a focus on creating a harmonious environment and emotional bonds. An affiliative leader has high levels of empathy and strong communication skills, allowing them to lead with motivation, care and trust.

Goleman’s research found that affiliative leadership has a positive impact on team climate, however leaders who rely too strongly on this style may find they avoid conflict and don’t offer constructive criticism. This can mean they’re seen more as friends than leaders or managers, which reduces accountability and productivity.

Democratic leadership style (the leader is the listener)
A democratic leadership style relies heavily on team participation, and leaders who favour this style have excellent listening, collaboration and communication skills. 

These leaders are particularly good at creating an agile workforce, such as start-ups, as they can leverage ideas and skills from a range of team members and stakeholders. They flatten the leadership hierarchy to ensure consensus in decision making, creative solutions and a sense of engagement and ownership by all members. 

To balance this leadership style, it’s important to put rules and boundaries in place to maintain structure, accountability and progress. 


Pacesetting leadership style (also known as the hustler)

This style of leadership is focused on performance and results, with expectations of excellence at all times – these leaders expect the same from themselves and lead by example. Pacesetting leadership works well for competitive, driven and motivated teams with tight deadlines and high stakes. Short-term, high-value projects, for example, are led extremely well by pacesetting leaders.

However, by leading with their own passion and discipline, the hustler can unknowingly pressure their team into working more or harder than necessary. Long term, this can lead to burnout, exhaustion and high turnover, and Goleman’s research showed a negative correlation with many aspects of team climate. 

Coaching leadership style (also known as the mentor)

The coaching leadership style concentrates on developing individual team members for success and collaboration in the long term. This style works to bring out the best in people by empowering them to use their natural skills and learn new ones that help them, and therefore the team, succeed. This leadership style helps build commitment, engagement and loyalty in your team, and prepare them to become leaders themselves. 

Coaching leadership is time-consuming and requires a certain amount of skill, and it will only work if the team members are open to being “coached”. In addition, overuse of coaching and too much focus on long-term development may come at the cost of short term and operational goals.

Blended leadership styles in management

You may have recognised your intuitive style or styles of leadership in the list below but if not, there are a few things you can do to identify your style. You can take a formal leadership-style test or assessment; you can identify traits in other leaders that you admire; or you can ask for input from people who have seen you at work as a leader.

Don’t worry if you can’t pin down your natural fit; it’s important to develop skills across all the leadership styles. Research shows that leaders who can implement a range of leadership styles tailored to different circumstances, teams and projects deliver the best results. 

This is why our Leadership Essentials Digital Badge is an essential tool in your leadership toolbox. This suite of on-demand short courses teaches you to guide, inspire and empower, supporting you on your path to leadership. In just six to 12 self-directed hours, you’ll cover Management vs Leadership, Building Your Leadership Brand, Positive Leadership in Action, Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Styles, The GROW Model for Coaching, and Demonstrating Leadership in Times of Crisis. By the end, you’ll be prepared to advance your career in leadership and management, with a verifiable qualification to share. 

Contact us to find out more about how our Smart Skills Digital Badges can help you develop the leadership skills you need for your career.

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