6 Common Types of Leadership Styles -- How to Find Your Own Style

12 min read
Jun 29, 2020


As a manager, you are able to tap into multiple leadership styles already. Most likely, one of them is dominant. But there are several different approaches you can tap into at the most appropriate times.

But here’s the crucial thing.

You need to be aware of the people you are leading and the situation at hand. Only then can you respond accordingly with a leadership style that would best suit the moment. 

You’re still being true to yourself. But you’re also accommodating your team members and finding the leader in you that would best address the current situation. 

It’s like having different facets of your personality—one that you emphasize more when you hang out with your parents and the other one that you emphasize more when you’re with your partner. In both cases, you’re still yourself. It’s just that you focus on different parts of yourself in different situations. 

With that in mind, here are the six styles of leadership that characterize managers: 

  • Directive leaders demand compliance, obedience, and following the rules. Example: Henry Ford
  • Engaged leaders mobilize people around a shared purpose and values. Example: Steve Jobs
  • Coaching leaders develop people for leadership roles. Example: Jack Welch
  • Consensus leaders build agreement through participation. Example: Tim Cook
  • Affiliative leaders create emotional bonds and harmony. Example: Richard Branson
  • Expert leaders expect competence and self-direction. Example: Elon Musk

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Chances are you’ve already used all of these different leadership styles at one point or another. Still, one of them is your predominant style. If you want to reach your full potential as a leader, you need to master the rest of them to be able to use them as the situation requires moving forward. 

With that in mind, let’s explore the details of each leadership style so you can learn to utilize different styles at the most effective times. 

1. Directive leadership style


The directive leadership style was quite common in the past. It’s a transactional leadership style that demands immediate compliance from team members. 

This style was especially effective in the manufacturing industry and the military, where time was scarce and you had to be obedient and follow orders to get things done. It was the hallmark of authoritarian style and autocratic leadership. 

This style is mostly used in crises because it’s best suited for difficult times. At times of crisis, you need to be able to direct people’s attention, thoughts, and actions through your charismatic leadership, and you need to do it fast. 

One of the drawbacks of this leadership style is that you trade obedience for acceptance. People are listening and following your orders, but there is no buy-in from them. 

The most prominent example of this style was Henry Ford, the founder of Ford motors. He once said something that probably isn’t very popular today and is hardly shared on social media, but nonetheless has elements of truth in it. 

“Why is it every time I ask for a pair of hands, they come with a brain attached?”

Back in the day, making high-quality cars required executing on established processes, so it’s no wonder that Ford was a directive type of leader.

This style is mostly out-of-date today, except during the crises (such as the start of the coronavirus pandemic, which we will talk about later on). 

The world today prefers our next style and that is...

2. Engaged leadership style


The engaged leadership style is the most common one today because of its participative nature. You, as a leader and manager, are actively engaged with people at all levels of the organization. In turn, they are encouraged to engage back.

With this approach, you mobilize people around a shared vision and influence their attention, thoughts, and actions.

This leadership style works really well when you have an educated and highly skilled team which just needs to be put on the right track. This style is more common than other styles because most of the work today is done by experienced and skilled workers who don’t need someone looking over their shoulder every 10 minutes. 

One of the trade-offs of this style is control, though. You, as a manager, are using your power to influence other people through participative leadership—instead of commanding them. 

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One of the most successful leaders of the engaged style was Steve Jobs, the founder and former CEO of Apple. Not one of his Apple commercials was about his products; all of them were about the why behind Apple. 

The famous “here’s to the crazy ones…” commercial doesn’t mention a computer at all. It simply talks about the vision of the world and the values that unite the people. 

3. Coaching leadership style


The coaching leadership style brings out the best in people and prepares them for future leadership roles. Usually, the people who use this kind of style are heavily invested in people’s development in order to help them achieve their full potential over the long term. 

Here’s one of the tradeoffs of this approach: Since you only coach the team members (delegative in nature) and don’t directly influence their actions, they can have disagreements with you and choose their own plan of action. 

The best example of this style would be Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric. In Good to Great, Jim Collins said that the biggest and best product of GE wasn’t its aviation division, manufacturing or lighting. Instead, it was the company’s ability to produce top-quality leaders.

4. Consensus leadership style


The consensus leadership style tends to bring everyone from the team to the same playing field while giving everyone the same amount of power. 

Nobody is left behind and everyone has an equal voice. Most nonprofit organizations use this kind of democratic style to motivate and include everyone in the decision-making process. 

One of the trade-offs of this style is speed. Since you, as a manager, spend so much time getting everyone on the same page and have them share their thoughts and concerns, you don’t solve things quickly, which can be a problem in certain situations where speed is of utmost importance. 

One of the best examples of this style is Herb Kelleher, the founder and CEO of Southwest Airlines, the only airline that’s been profitable for 45 years in a row.

Kelleher treats his employees as equals and has only a couple of guidelines they need to follow. Everything else is autonomous. That’s why one of their flight attendants created this hilarious, yet effective pre-flight speech.

5. Affiliative leadership style


An affiliative leadership style builds bonds of trust among people. 

Building and keeping harmony in the team is more important than any short-term goals. This leadership style is subtle and restrained. But don’t mistake that as ineffective laissez-faire leadership. 

You, as a manager, provide emotional support. But you don’t provide a clear direction of where the team should head. Sometimes, having the clarity of where the team is going can be lost because of the focus on teamwork and the team’s connections. The people under this leadership style usually grow fast, reach their potential, and develop emotional bonds which bring out the best in the team. 

The most prominent example of this is Richard Branson, the founder and former CEO of Virgin Group, which controls more than 400 companies in many different fields. 

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Branson spends most of his time on Necker Island and on one occasion during dinner, when the conversation started to shift toward business topics that sounded really technical and could stiffen the atmosphere, Branson stood up, climbed the table and started dancing with people. He values the human connection and genuine interaction more than any short-term business goals and, in turn, that’s what makes him a highly successful business leader.

6. Expert leadership style


This style of leadership is all about knowledge and expertise. 

Managers who use this style rely heavily on what they know and expect their team to be the experts, each in their own field and work autonomously at their tasks. If they are experts, they should know what they need to do. 

One of the trade-offs of this style is coordination. Since you expect everyone to be the master of what they do and you provide them the autonomy to do it, coordinating between all of these people can become a problem. 

If you want to learn more about this style, you should read about leaders who best embody this leadership style—like Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX. 

Elon has an engineering background and has read voraciously ever since he was a kid. And he expects the same drive from all of his employees. Musk believes that you need to reason from First Principles to figure out the difference between what can be done but hasn’t been done before and what simply can’t be done. 

That mental reasoning process helped him develop multiple successful businesses, such as PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX. 

As you can see, these types of leadership styles will help you deal with any contexts and situations that arise during a crisis. They will also help you delegate tasks while increasing your job satisfaction, increasing the morale of the group members, and making it easier to make a final decision when appropriate. 

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Now that you have a better understanding of the different types of leadership styles, let's see how you can use this leadership model in different situations to display strategic leadership.

How to lead a remote team during the coronavirus pandemic

The current coronavirus pandemic has forced many companies and teams into drastic changes and transitions. For many businesses, there was a state of high confusion and a lack of direction. During a crisis, when people don’t know what to do, they look up to their leaders for direction and decisiveness. 

How to be prepared when the crisis hits

One leadership style that does great when a crisis emerges is the directive leadership style. These are situations where most team members want you to tell them what to do and how to do it. And they want that information fast. 

As soon as things get disrupted and everything appears to be falling apart, it’s time to take the reins and direct people toward the outcomes and actions that you want. 

There’s an old-school term for this: firefighting.

It was about figuring out what needs to be done, communicating it fast, and directing people so that everyone goes through the crisis as unscathed as possible. 

Not sure what your employees are concerned about during the COVID-19 crisis? Check this out. 

Make sure that the employees are safe

One of the biggest employee concerns during the crisis is the impact on the company and their job security. As a leader, you need to address this as soon as possible. Employees respect leaders who tell them what they know but also those who tell them what they don’t know. 

So don’t wait for all the answers to come to you to share them with your employees. Be vulnerable and lead them through uncertainty with the information you have. It's this kind of transformational leadership that builds transparency and trust.

Ensure that employees are safe at home and productive at home 

If employees are coming to the office, you need to communicate to them that their safety is a top priority. Employees need to know that their safety is a top priority and that economic considerations don’t trump that. 

On the other hand, if employees are working from home, they need to receive emotional and technical support with an “open door” policy and with tips on how to be productive at home.

Stop and smell the roses: Gratitude

When a crisis hits, everyone becomes worried about the uncertain and unsafe future. You need to make sure that your employees “stop and smell roses.” By that, I mean that you need to make space for them to self-reflect on everything that they’ve done so far and notice their contribution to the company. 

This self-reflective mode will evoke gratitude from them for the job well done and will boost their spirits with positivity and motivation. So, as a manager, create a space where your employees can self-reflect. Great things will happen.

Surprising Effects of Employee Recognition

Don’t forget the culture in isolation

When people transition from working in the office to working at home, they will notice their productivity drop and it will also affect the culture at work. There are no longer water cooler moments, spontaneous “let’s grab lunch” invitations, and drinks after work. 

All of this will make your employees feel isolated from other team members and it will impact your work culture. 

The way that you, as a manager, should react here is that you need to recreate team rituals that existed before the crisis hit. So, if everyone in the team had a joint breakfast in the morning, keep doing that even if it’s over a video call. 

You need to provide cultural rituals for your team because that will prevent the isolation from becoming overwhelming.

Great Leadership

Communicate, communicate, communicate

It’s better to err on the side of overcommunicating than undercommunicating. When you’re working from home, your team members can no longer see your body language, and the message that you’re trying to convey might be lost in the process as a result. 

This can be a great lesson for your team members as well. Don’t take a message for granted and always try to have it in written form with questions. “Is anything unclear?”

Keeping the morale high

Once the initial mess passes through and people get over the offline-to-online transition, then it’s time to change your leadership style. 

Now, the directive leadership no longer has that much merit and it’s time to switch to a more engaged and affiliative leadership style. The work after the transition slowly fades is all about keeping relationships strong, morale high, and mental health intact. 

And this is where the affiliative and engaged leadership style suits them the best. 

Different situations require different situational leadership. These styles are best for this moment because people need emotional support and something strong to fall back on, and relationships are always the best way to go here. 

Here, one of the prime examples is Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos. Hsieh led his company like he would lead his family—with compassion, engagement, and motivation, The company struggled at the beginning and it took conviction and strong relationships to build momentum.

The decision to move the company and over 80 percent of his staff from San Francisco to Las Vegas wouldn’t be possible if there weren’t strong emotional bonds among the employees. And Hsieh made that possible.

During this time, he made sure to create safe channels of communication for its employees, communicate on a regular basis, and give employees the autonomy to choose whether they’d uproot for the company or not.

The way that he acted during this transition required empathy, transparency, and decisiveness. So, try to emulate Hsieh’s approach and focus on these aspects of your leadership style. 

Leading through the ‘new normal’

If the remote work becomes the standard for years to come and people get used to that way of operating, you can switch to the expert and coaching leadership styles. Here, you give autonomy to your highly-skilled and qualified team members and prepare them for the future leadership roles.

This is a pragmatic way of leading your team. You focus on the best way your team can grow in this environment and making sure everyone gets ahead. One of the ways you do that is through performance management and 1-to-1 meetings.

Great leaders who embody this leadership style are Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia of Airbnb. Nobody understood the idea and their proposal when they first presented it and the company seemed like it was doomed to fail a couple of times. But their leadership approach helped them recognize that the time of sharing economy was about to come, and they knew that their idea would work. The duo understood the market and that it would work out—they just needed a little bit of time. 

Patience is a virtue: Today, they are a $30 billion company.  

Ready to try a new leadership style?

Common leadership styles are about finding different ways to demonstrate how you can authentically lead your people during different times, situations, and contexts. 

Tapping into the directive, engaged, coaching, consensus, affiliative, and expert leadership styles will help you become a better manager and leader. And that, in turn, will help your team members thrive in any environment under any external influences. 

Learn all of them and apply them when necessary because that’s how you will make sure you lead your people in the best possible way no matter what the situation calls for. 

The coronavirus pandemic isn’t an exception to this. In fact, it’s the perfect opportunity to try adapting yourself and then leading your team with a new style. 

Give it a whirl. Mastering these each of these leadership styles will make you an exceptional manager.

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