Browse Categories

Many Styles of Leadership by Dave LaRue

I recently read a quote from John Quincy Adams “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, become more, then you are a leader”

I love what I do as a coach. One of the things I love about it is meeting many different entrepreneurs and getting to know their different leadership styles. If you love leadership, seeing all the different ways it’s done, is pure delight.

As I think back and try to describe all the leadership differences, I want to classify them to spot the patterns. And of course, this work has already been done by scholars. You can read about different academic systems that use 4, 5, 6, or more broad types to name and classify the range of leadership styles they observe in action. And of course, everyone’s personal leadership style is its own unique variation.

I thought it would be interesting to share some of the labels and patterns others have identified so you can see which style resembles yours the most, which styles you would like to lean more toward, and which styles don’t seem to fit the work and culture you need to lead.

It’s a fair point to share before I get into the style types that you can and should feel free to adapt your leadership style to better suit your people and your purposes. Your leadership style is not part of your destiny. You can change it as easily as you change any other communication habits or habits of mind. And don’t think you will be seen as inconsistent. Your people won’t feel disoriented, they will appreciate it.

An example might be reassuring. So consider Vince Lombardi, winner of the first two Super Bowls and go-to symbol of coaching, if not leadership. As he transitioned into the NFL from coaching college football, he quickly learned that the leadership style that worked with his college players didn’t work with the pros. As an offensive coach for the New York Giants, his players called him “Little General” and “Little Mussolini.” He was seen as loud and arrogant, and this leadership style antagonized and alienated his players. It didn’t look like Vince Lombardi was going to get results as a coach.

Until something unexpected happened: He adjusted. He became more approachable. He made an effort to visit with the players after hours. He acknowledged that he had a lot to learn—and he sought their advice, help, and loyalty. Instead of the authoritarian overlord boss, he positioned himself more as a smarter older brother. Now, they called him Vince or Vinnie, not “Coach” or “Mr. Lombardi.” He drank beers with them, laughed loudly at their jokes, and told them how much he wanted them to succeed.

Although you may be in a different situation—you may need to create more gravitas or a sense of distance or power rather than less, for instance—the lesson is the same. You can change to suit your people and what you’re trying to accomplish.

As leaders we should always be working and investing time in developing better skills; communicating, hearing others, being open to ideas, setting goals, creating a vision or mission, and trying to be congruent by doing what we lead others to do. If you’re a leader that is struggling with your leadership style and you need to work on them, all progress starts with telling yourself the truth. Here are some examples that leaders struggle with:
  • Feeling that they have to be the smartest or the one with the best idea/solutions.
  • Not being able to trust their team, leading them to hold too much task responsibility (delegate poorly), set others up for failure, or micromanage them.
  • Being consumed by or identified with the power of the role, lending the impression that others should feel lucky to spend time with them.
  • Having no real accountability for decisions, being great at deflection, avoiding responsibility, and creatively pointing fingers.

All of these sound like serious, if not insurmountable problems—if you look at them as part of the personality of the leader. But they aren’t insurmountable. Not if you see these as outcomes of leadership style. Once you see that and understand how these things can—and are supposed to—change, the sunlight comes bursting into the room and the path to progress is clear.

So let’s dig into some of the different leadership styles. If nothing else, it’s a nice way to peel the onion on the layers of leadership and dig into what leadership is and what the moving pieces are. Let’s start with a more general, descriptive system based on the research of Hay McBer, covered by Daniel Goleman. These are more general modes of leadership, so they probably won’t be anyone’s lone mode of operation, but they are the threads that make up a style. See where you see yourself or leaders you have worked for.

1. Coercive leaders demand immediate compliance. The phrase most descriptive of this leader is: “Do what I tell you!”. This style can destroy an organization’s culture. The downside is far greater than the upside. Therefore, a Coercive style should only be used with extreme caution. It is useful in an emergency and may work in a crisis. In addition, it can help in a turnaround situation or as a last resort with a problem employee. 

The Coercive leadership style has the most negative impact (-.26) on the overall organizational culture.

2. Pacesetting
leaders set extremely high standards for performance—their own. The phrase most descriptive of this leader is: “Do as I do, now!” A Pacesetting style can destroy a good culture. It only works with a highly motivated and competent team who are empowered to get the results they are expected to achieve. All others will feel overwhelmed and give up, not knowing how to meet the leader’s standards. 

The Pacesetter has virtually the same negative impact (-.25) on the overall organizational culture as a Coercive leader. This style particularly impacts rewards and commitment.

3. Coaching leaders focus on developing people for the future. The phrase most descriptive of this leader is: “Try this.”
Coaching leaders are great delegators. They are willing to put up with short-term failures—as long as they serve long-term development. This style works best when you want to help employees improve their performance or develop their long-term strengths.
The coach has a positive impact (.42) on the overall organizational culture.

4. Democratic leaders achieve consensus through participation. The phrase most descriptive of this leader is: “What do you think?”
This style builds trust, as well as respect and commitment. Furthermore, it works best when you want to receive input or get employees to “buy in” or achieve consensus. It doesn’t work under severe time constraints or if employees are confused or uninformed.
If handled correctly, this style has a positive impact (.43) on the overall organizational culture.

5. Affiliative leaders want to create harmony and build emotional bonds with employees. The phrase most descriptive of this leader is: “People come first.”
This style works best when you want to motivate employees—especially when they are facing stressful situations. This style also works well when you want to build team harmony, improve communication, increase morale, or repair broken trust.
An Affiliative leader has a positive impact (.46) on the overall organizational culture. This style has virtually no downside, and therefore it is often seen as the best overall approach.

6. Authoritative leaders mobilize people with enthusiasm and a clear vision. This is a visionary leader. They give people leeway to innovate and take calculated risks, provided that they move in the direction of the stated vision. The phrase most descriptive of this leader is: “Come with me.”
This style works best when change requires a new vision or when employees are looking for a new direction. However, this style fails when employees are more knowledgeable or experienced than the leader, or if the authoritative style becomes overbearing.
Provided that it is used with finesse, this style has the most positive impact (.54) on the overall organizational culture.

Overall, the research found that the best leaders master four or more styles, especially the Authoritative, Affiliative, Democratic, and Coaching styles. Leaders who can move seamlessly from one to the other, depending on the situation, produce the most positive organizational cultures and enjoy the greatest business successes.

So the lesson here is that there are many approaches to keep inside your leadership toolbox, that four different styles are a number to start with, and that the styles they mention are particularly useful.
Now, let’s look at a simpler, more bold-colored system. Bill Taylor, the co-founder of Fast Company, has a simple list of 4 leadership profiles I quote from or paraphrase below. As you might imagine, my own thoughts differ from how he defines “Classic Entrepreneur,” but it’s an interesting list regardless. You can read about them in more detail here on HBR.

The Classic Entrepreneur. For this profile, leadership is about the thrill of competition and the quest for success. No-nonsense variables, such as costs, quality, profit margins, and savvy deals, are the metrics that matter. Sure, these leaders care about the values their company stands for, but it’s the dollars-and-cents value proposition that matters most. They love to build killer products and butt-kicking companies. They are, in Doerr’s words, and he doesn’t mean this critically, “opportunistic” — they revel in “the pitch” and “the deal.” When faced with decisions about launching a new product, dealing with a disgruntled customer, or selling the company to an eager suitor, they focus on tough-minded calculations and no-nonsense financial returns.

The Modern Missionary. These leaders aim for more than mere business success; they aspire to success and significance. Winning is less about beating the competition than it is about building something original and meaningful. Success is less about making money than it is about making a difference and having an impact. Sure, economic value is important, but human values are what drive their passion to succeed. So these leaders may take risks that classic entrepreneurs won’t, even if the short-term returns aren’t obvious, or they may turn down deals that others might accept because the financial payoffs aren’t as important as the broader impact they hope to make. These leaders don’t just want to run companies; they aim to turn their companies into a cause.

The Problem Solver. They worry less about dramatic impact than about concrete results. They believe in the power of expertise and the value of experience. Disruptive technologies and blank-sheet-of-paper business models may be reshaping markets and industries, but past success is a good predictor of future impact. So as they rise through the ranks or lead organizations they’ve built, problem solvers are the first to confront difficulties and identify new opportunities. Yes, they rely on the advice of colleagues, but ultimately they fall back on everything they’ve learned and seen to guide the organization into the future. These top-down, take-charge, the-buck-stops-here executives may be the most recognizable sorts of leaders, in terms of the image we carry around of what it takes to get things done.

The Solution Finder. This style is about incremental results and concrete solutions, but these leaders believe that the most powerful contributions often come from the most unexpected places — the hidden genius of their colleagues, the collective genius that surrounds their organization. They are committed to making sure that what they know doesn’t limit what they can imagine. They’re ultimately responsible for business results, but they believe that achieving those results is everybody’s business. These modest, humble, self-effacing leaders don’t make headlines, but that doesn’t mean they’re not ambitious. They believe that humility in the service of ambition is the right mindset to do big things in a world of huge unknowns.
Why is it important to gain clarity about the leadership style that fits each of us best? Because the more we understand about ourselves — what we truly care about, how we make decisions, why we do what we do — the more effective we will be at marshaling the support of others for what we hope to achieve. In a time of wrenching disruptions and exhilarating advances, of unrelenting turmoil and unlimited promise, there have never been more roads to success — or more opportunities to fail.

Hope this gives you new insights into the kind of leadership you want to practice. I’ll be back with more soon.



Reflection Questions:
  1. Think about these descriptions. If you have quibbles with the labeling, write them out so you aren’t preoccupied with the rest of the substance of the list.
  2. Which one or two did you resonate with most?
  3. Would those you lead say you resemble the style you aspire to?
  4. What behaviors could you adapt to make high-impact adjustments to your leadership style to align with whatever you liked in what you read?


September August July June May April March February January
December November October September August July June May April March February January
December November October September August July June May April March February January
December November October September August July June May April March February January
December November October September August July June May April March February January
December November October September August July June May April March February January
December November October September August July June May April March February January
2016 2015 2014 2013