There’s no “right” type of leader. But honestly speaking, there might be a few wrong types. At Lead Belay, we’re about helping you identify your own leadership style that’s authentic to who you are, while still relying on the core principles we know make a strong leader.
There’s no “right” type of leader. But, honestly speaking, there might be a few wrong types. Someone (or a few people) might even be coming to mind for you right now.
While there isn’t a right type, there has been a lot of effort to describe and codify different “leadership styles” to define and identify which ones are the best — and how you can fit into them. At Lead Belay, that’s not what we’re about. We’re about helping you identify your own leadership style that’s authentic to who you are, while still relying on the core principles we know make a strong leader.
Those core principles include treating humans like humans, with respect and dignity for each team member. It means getting to know your team and genuinely caring about them, finding out what their goals are and where they’d like to grow. Without these fundamentals which help to create a cohesive team environment, it really doesn’t matter what “style” of leader you choose to be. You won’t be able to lead effectively.
No one will fit perfectly into just one of these ten categories. Nonetheless, it is absolutely important to engage in self-reflection and examination, understand the tendencies and choices you make, and how they can impact others. For the purposes of this blog, that’s your “style.”
1. Autocratic. Has complete control and makes all decisions with little to no input from others.
2. Democratic. Offers guidance and has the final say, but everyone is allowed to participate in decisions.
3. Laissez-Faire. Hands-off, delegating most if not all of the decision-making to others.
4. Coaching. Allows teams to make decisions. Asks clarifying questions. Provides insights from own experience.
5. Transformational. Uses big-picture thinking. Challenges the status quo. Invested in reshaping teams and cultures.
6. Charismatic. Influences others with savvy communication skills, persuasiveness, and charm.
7. Bureaucratic. Enforces structured systems where tasks are carried out systematically.
8. Visionary. Inspires others to invest in a long-term vision. Focuses on goal setting and participation to realize that vision.
9. Pacesetter. Holds their teams accountable to meeting goals quickly. Sets high standards.
10. Servant. Puts team members first. Gets them what they need to succeed and gets out of their way.
Now, let's dig in and consider these styles in practice ...
1. Autocratic Leadership
Has complete control and makes all decisions with little to no input from others.
It might seem like this type of leader is one of the “wrong” types we mentioned earlier. If you find yourself always acting from this approach, you’d be right.
But there are also times when a command and control structure from the top, with no ambiguity and complete clarity, is necessary. I have a friend who works in the fire and rescue service, and talks about the difference between “on and off the fire.” On the fire, there’s no space for discussion or questioning protocols. You have to go with the gut of the most experienced or senior leader available, and trust them to make the right call. But no organization, not even a fire-fighting one, can operate in this leadership environment all the time. There’s also “off the fire” leadership, where team members can be heard and evaluate what’s happened together.
Autocratic leaders thrive in crises, emergencies, or war zones. But realistically, most business contexts just don’t have that level of urgency. Extending that mentality to every situation can often have disastrous effects. You’ll end up hearing only what other people think you want to, and rarely receive the right information that leads to good decision-making and effective outcomes.
2. Democratic Leadership
Offers guidance and has the final say, but everyone is allowed to participate in decisions.
Democratic leaders practice a participative leadership style. They consult with their teams and invite their input. Over time, the team learns together and can make better decisions quickly with their depth and breadth of knowledge.
One of the drawbacks of democratic leadership is it can imply an A or B decision. Asking people to choose between two options can limit creative solutions to problems and differing points of view. Conversely, too many points of view and opinions can create too many choices, leading to decision paralysis.
While it may be one of the more-liked leadership styles in a business setting, some pitfalls should be carefully avoided if you find yourself operating in this environment.
3. Laissez-Faire Leadership
Hands-off, delegating most if not all of the decision-making to others.
If the members of your team are more informed than you, are more knowledgeable than you, and if their incentives are aligned and accountable, maybe it is best to let them make the decisions. But you also need to be responsible for ensuring all of the above is true, and making sure they are supported in what they’re doing.
Laissez-faire leaders still need to have an understanding of decisions as well as their direction and how they align with the broader goals across the team and organization. While you won’t be looking over your team’s shoulders, you still need to know where they are and where they are going.
4. Coaching Leadership
Allows their teams to make decisions but asks clarifying questions and insights from their own experience to help.
This is probably one leadership style you know you like. To some, the style might sound like a mix of two styles — typically, coaching is thought of as encouraging reflection by questions, while sharing insights sounds more like mentoring. Ultimately, if you have a team of people who don’t know what they don’t know, no amount of asking questions will get them there. Even as a coach, you may need to provide your perspective, and draw on your history with a problem or issue to arrive at an answer.
This style of leadership can also take time. Just like on a sports field, coaches must invest time and energy into developing their teams. When they do, they nurture long-term strengths, and can see truly amazing results in their teams.
5. Transformational Leadership
Leads from a place of big-picture thinking. Asks questions that challenge the status quo and is invested in reshaping a team and culture for the better.
Transformational leaders are wired to look at a problem with fresh eyes and a disposition for imagining how things can be done differently.
If you’re a founder at a startup trying to do something fundamentally different in the world, you might have a playground for exactly this style of leadership. But for most, taking a look at this leadership style is more about what we can learn from its principles and apply them to tackle smaller problems.
One way to apply this style is to practice 'first principle thinking'. Essentially, that means asking questions to dig deeper and deeper until you are left with just the foundational truths of a situation. Step back and think about a problem as if you’d never encountered it before. Set aside your biases as best you can. Examine the problem like you don’t know anything about it, and embrace the energy and new perspectives of being free from what’s been done before. If you start to look at things differently, it won’t be long before you do things differently.
6. Charismatic Leadership
Influences others with savvy communication skills, persuasiveness, and charm.
Charismatic leaders have that X factor. Something about their personality, their enthusiasm, or just that something engenders confidence in other people and draws them in like a magnet. These leaders are comfortable in their own skin without being intimidating. This is one leadership style that can be hard to fake (and probably will come off as disingenuous if you do), but some of its aspects can be learned and applied.
Charisma can be powerful, but mostly it comes from just being yourself. When you are confident and comfortable with who you are, you can truly listen to others and help them feel seen, heard, and valued. That’s true leadership.
7. Bureaucratic Leadership
Enforces structured systems where tasks are carried out systematically.
This type of leadership can be a crucial step for success, especially when you’re working to scale a large organization. One caution here: make sure you know how much structure is really necessary, and that your systems don’t become the priority over the purpose you put them in place for.
Jeff Bezos has some good insights here. He talks often about Day One vs. Day Two thinking. In Day One thinking, the only right decisions improve experiences for customers. In Day Two thinking, you make decisions for the systems you’ve created. Day Two thinking is where stasis begins, followed quickly by a company’s decline and eventual failure. In Day One thinking, every day is the first day of your organization. There’s a world of possibilities and plenty to learn, but you have to stay focused.
8. Visionary Leadership
Inspires others to invest in a long-term vision. Focuses on goal setting and participation to realize that vision.
Trust us when we say a visionary leader is different from a transformational one. Transformational leaders often look back at how things have been done and see where things could have been different. Visionary leaders look ahead and imagine a new, brighter future.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is recognized as a visionary leader. He saw a new world for Black Americans, and was able to communicate his vision to inspire change. Much of the time, visionary leaders are also transformational. Once they have the vision, they can start to look back and see how it’s been done before and how it can be changed. Or vice versa, a transformational leader that wants to switch up the status quo may then turn towards vision, and what it will look like once changes are made. A blend of both can be magical.
9. Pacesetter Leadership
Holds their teams accountable to meeting goals quickly. Sets high standards.
Excellent and fast can often be at odds, especially regarding results at work. In today’s fast-paced world, done is better than great, and most quick results come at the expense of perfection.
Pacesetting can be a powerful way to motivate people, but it can also be taken too far. If you’re always insisting on both excellence and speed, you’ll crush your team. So use it sparingly.
It’s the classic project management triangle. Out of quality, speed, and cost, you only get to choose two. The cost could be your team, because as you push harder for quality and speed, you’ll need to hire more people, pay people better, or replace them when they burn out and quit.
Pacesetters need to be mindful of balance and learn when and where they can make tradeoffs for speed or perfection while still driving results.
10. Servant Leadership
Puts team members first. Gets them what they need to succeed and gets out of their way.
If you’ve made it this far down the list, this is probably the style you strive for. Most leaders would like to describe themselves this way, or at least would like to be able to. Putting team members first helps growth, and makes people care about their work.
It’s hard to find any potential pitfalls with servant leadership unless it’s so extreme it doesn’t allow for the realities of being a leader. There are times and places in any business environment when you’ll need fast results and will push your team to drive hard. You can’t spend all your time motivating and coaching others to success.
Ideally, in the day to day, being a servant leader is possible. Unfortunately, situations are rarely ideal, and there will be times that being a servant leader might not get the job done.
Wait, there's one more style!
At Lead Belay, we talk about situational leaders who practice several, if not all, of the leadership styles we’ve described above. The best leaders will have to be different things to different people, sometimes all at once. If you think that sounds hard, let us tell you — leadership IS hard.
But you don’t have to do it alone. At Lead Belay, we’re here to help you develop your own leadership style that can be a mix of what you’ll need to succeed and help you determine what contexts are appropriate for each. We help you understand the pros and cons of each style, and how you show up, make decisions, and where the tradeoffs lie.
For any leader to be successful, you have to evolve yourself over time, naturally, and in a way that’s genuine to who you are. It’s a journey that takes time, but it can start at Lead Belay.