9 Leadership Styles – When to Use Each to Maximize the Impact on Employee and Organizational Performance


Managers and supervisors are leaders who play an important role in organizations of all kinds and sizes. They are the individuals responsible for providing direction, support, feedback, and encouragement to get the work of a department or division, successfully and productively accomplished.

To do this, leaders need to have a variety of leadership skills to help them effectively engage and motivate others to achieve individual goals in support of organizational goals.

While leaders may have a natural leadership style that they feel most comfortable with, it’s important for all leaders to recognize that there are several leadership skills that can help them lead effectively in various types of situations. 

quote on the leveraging various skills to be a successful leader

It’s important to understand what these leadership styles are, how they work in practice, and when they are most effective. Leadership training can be a very effective way to develop or improve leadership skills for managers at all levels and in any setting.

Leadership Styles and Why They Matter   

Leadership styles reflect the ways that leaders lead—the approach they take to communicating and providing direction and support to others. 

Leadership styles matter because an organization’s leaders can have significant impacts on the teams they lead and the business overall.   

Bad leaders can have a negative impact on your business. Investing in your current and future leaders to ensure they can apply the right leadership styles to address a wide range of business needs will help them and your organization succeeds. 

Here we look at the nine most common leadership styles, and their pros and cons. 

9 Most Common Leadership Styles  

Autocratic Leadership  

Autocratic leaders take charge and call all the shots. The phrase “my way or the highway” is a good way, to sum up the overall approach of autocratic leaders.

Autocratic leaders give direction and expect their direct reports to follow that direction. It’s a “command-and-control” type of approach that has become less prevalent in modern times but still has value in certain situations.

For instance, a military leader, a firefighter, or a surgeon in an operating suite might all need to exhibit an autocratic leadership style—calling the shots and demanding adherence to what they ask for in dangerous, or life-and-death situations.

The pros of autocratic leadership is that it is direct and leaves no question in employees’ minds about what is expected of them. As we’ve seen it can also be effective in ensuring that followers do as they’re told in serious or dangerous situations.

The cons, though, are that employees generally balk at this type of leadership style and resent the command-and-control aspects of the direction they receive. It allows for little to no autonomy and can be disheartening and demotivating for many employees.

Democratic Leadership  

Democratic leadership sits in sharp contrast to autocratic leadership. Democratic leaders seek input from others before making decisions and consider their direct reports to be equal in the job of getting the work of the department or division done. 

Under democratic leaders, employees have the autonomy to make decisions on their own and feel empowered to get their work done their way. Teams often benefit from a strong culture of trust and collaboration. 

In situations where decisions need to be made quickly, though, the democratic leadership style may not be effective and may have a negative impact on productivity and positive outcomes for the team.

Laissez-Faire Leadership  

Laissez-faire literally means letting people act and behave how they want with no intervention. Laissez-faire leaders step back from their leadership responsibilities and let their employees do their own thing. 

While many employees appreciate the ability to have autonomy in their work, laissez-faire leaders take this to the extreme and may appear uncommitted to the work of the team, and the work of the organization. 

Herbert Hoover is often pointed to as an example of laissez-faire leadership. As the 31st President of the United States, he had a very hands-off leadership style, trusting his teams to act based on their experience and expertise. He is generally believed to have been an effective leader, but this approach doesn’t work with all teams. 

The pros of laissez-faire leadership are that it can lead to more opportunities for employees to be directly involved in decision-making and to hone their own leadership skills. 

The cons, though, involve not providing employees with a foundation of clear direction and support to ensure their success. They may feel, at best, ignored and, at worst, abandoned. 

Participative Leadership  

The participative leadership style, as it sounds, is a style that encourages employees or team members to participate in the leadership of the team. It’s a “we’re all in this together” approach. Participative leaders actively seek team members’ input and include them in decision-making. 

An example of a participative leader would be a Director of Marketing who involves team members in creating and implementing a marketing campaign. This is a good example of a situation where multiple viewpoints can help to create more innovative ideas. 

The pros of a participative leadership style are that it leverages the knowledge of the group and serves to engage and motivate employees. It also boosts the odds that good decisions will be made because it calls upon the input and insights of others.

The cons can involve a longer time for decision-making and, for certain employees, may cause them to feel that the leader is not doing their job—instead of getting the answers they’re seeking they’re asked to participate in the process of coming up with those answers. 

Coaching Leadership 

Coaching leadership is an approach taken by leaders who are committed to developing the potential of others. They provide less specific direction to employees while encouraging and supporting them to make decisions and be proactive in performing their work.

Well-known business leaders who had a coaching style of leadership include Steve Jobs, Andrew Carnegie, and Richard Branson. They are often pointed to as examples of leaders who were able to generate passion and drive innovation among their employees. 

The pros of coaching leadership are that it serves to help develop people by providing positive support and more autonomy. 

The cons are, as we’ve seen with other approaches, it may take more time and may in some cases make team members feel frustrated that they’re not getting a clearer direction. 

Affiliative Leadership 

For affiliative leaders, it’s all about support and encouragement. Affiliative leaders are focused on meeting the emotional needs of their employees and encouraging strong relationships between and among team members. Affiliative leaders are hands-on but unlike more authoritative leaders in a more supportive than directive way. 

An example of affiliative leadership can be seen in healthcare settings. The director of a behavioral health department, for instance, will be focused on the emotional needs of therapists and work closely with them to ensure these needs are met. They are focused on forming a cohesive team that supports one another. 

The pros of the affiliative leadership style are that it can be very engaging for employees who feel they are cared for and supported by their managers. 

The cons can be that, especially during times of conflict, employees may not feel the leader is providing enough direction or constructive feedback. 

Transformational Leadership  

Transformational leadership is a leadership style that is used in situations where the company or department is going through a period of change. For instance, during the pandemic—especially when it first emerged—many organizations needed to rely on transformational leadership to help their teams and employees change course to handle how they created and delivered their products and services differently.

Transformational leaders are adept at leading employees through change, inspiring employees to achieve sometimes lofty goals. Start-up companies or companies in competitive markets can benefit from transformational leaders because they can help motivate employees to achieve lofty and challenging goals. 

The pros of transformational leadership are that it can lead to a strong company, and individual, success. The cons are that it may feel too demanding for some employees. 

Situational Leadership  

Situational leadership is a leadership style that adapts to the situation—in some cases the leader may behave in a more laissez-faire way, in others they may be more authoritative. It’s a leadership style that is adaptable and flexible, requiring a high level of expertise and confidence from the leader. 

Situational leadership requires leaders to be able to exhibit four different forms of leadership style: directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating, depending on the situation. 

The foundation of situational leadership is the recognition that there is no one style that will suit all situations. It requires a higher level of expertise among leaders who are flexible and comfortable with ambiguity and able to change their style as the situation requires. 

Servant Leadership  

Servant leadership turns the traditional concept of leadership on its head, putting the leader in the role of serving the needs of employees. Managers put the needs of their team members first and perceive their role as providing the resources and support to meet those needs. 

The leader of a sales team, for instance, might take a servant-leadership role in working to ensure that team members are able to meet their sales goals by providing support, direction, resources, and assistance to move them toward success. 

The pros of servant leadership include strong team relationships and support, an open environment of communication, and team cohesion. 

Cons may include that sometimes this type of leadership takes more time, and some employees may prefer a more hands-off approach from their managers. 

When Should You Use Each Type of Style?  

Leaders generally exhibit a range of leadership styles depending on the company or situation they’re in, and the traits and characteristics of their employees or team members. 

The leadership styles fall on a continuum from most directive (autocratic, authoritarian) to least directive (democratic, laissez-faire) – the others fall in between. 

  • More directive styles of leadership are generally best suited to situations where employees have lower-level skills and experience, as well as situations where time is of the essence and danger, or security, may be involved. 
  • Fewer directive styles of leadership work well when employees are highly experienced and comfortable working autonomously. 

It’s important for leaders to understand the different types of leadership styles available to them and when each might be used most effectively. Below you will find a list of the nine key leadership styles along with the positive and negative traits of each.

list of traits for each leadership style
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Categories: Leadership
Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Author: Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, SHRM-SCP

Lin is a business journalist and communication strategist with expertise in HR and employee relations. She is accredited through the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM-SCP) and Human Resource Certification Institute (SPHR) and writes frequently for SHRM, HR Daily Advisor, and a wide range of trade publications and corporate clients.