The most effective leaders are the ones who forgo their natural tendencies in favor of the leadership style that best supports their teams. Strong leaders understand that even strategies that are generally regarded as positive aren’t effective in all situations.
For example, inspirational messages likely won’t motivate a team that’s just working for a paycheck and regular coaching will annoy teams of senior individual contributors who know more about their subject matter than you do.
Choosing the leadership style that’s the best fit for your team has a significant impact on their performance. According to Gallup, leadership effectiveness accounts for 70% of the variance in employee engagement - a metric that plays a substantial role in employee productivity and commitment.
In this article, we’ll dive into six of the most popular leadership styles, what types of teams they work best for, and how to implement them:
If you lead two or more groups, you may need to adapt your style to meet the needs of each one.
Effective Leadership Traits
Transformational leaders seek to inspire their teams to succeed by being an authentic role model and giving employees a clear vision to follow. This is one of the most effective leadership styles because of its emphasis on supporting employee success.
This leadership style works best for teams that:
- Working towards a meaningful goal (ex. Supporting a social cause, bringing a life-changing product to the market, etc. ). For this leadership style to work, you need to have a purpose to rally your employees around.
- Are full of knowledge workers and/or creatives who are working towards unprecedented and somewhat ambiguous goals (ex. Developing a brand new technology or hitting a record-breaking sales goal).
- Are undergoing a period of rapid change and need an inspirational leader to remain motivated through all of the changes.
To adopt the transformational leadership style you need to:
- Foster continuous learning and creativity. Empowering your employees to experiment without fear of failure enables them to develop more innovative solutions and builds trust in leadership.
- Offer individualized support. Whether it’s providing feedback on how to solve a problem or being a sounding board for ideas, you need to provide one-on-one support.
- Reinforce a clear vision. To keep your team motivated, regularly reinforce what they’re trying to achieve and the purpose behind it. For best results, communicate this message in multiple mediums (team meetings, emails, 1:1 meetings, etc. )
Keep in mind that the transformational leadership style will result in failure if you solely focus on your vision don’t invest enough effort on implementation.
Transactional leadership is results-driven, no-fuss style that rewards and punishes employees in accordance with their actions. It’s lost favor as more inspirational leadership styles have risen in popularity, however, it’s great at setting clear expectations and rewarding employees for achieving their goals.
This leadership style is a good fit for teams that:
- Work on objective, process-driven projects that have a clear definition of success.
- Tend to lack a deeper sense of meaning in their work. Instead, they’re driven by personal success and/or the pay.
- Are highly motivated by extrinsic rewards including cash bonuses, free meals, and extra PTO.
Here’s how to get started with the transactional leadership style:
- Set clear goals for your employees and provide specific criteria for what success looks like.
- Ensure they have all of the resources (information, tools, etc.) that they need to succeed.
- Create an incentive plan that rewards your team for achieving their goals.
- Provide constructive criticism when employees fail to meet expectations.
To learn more about adopting a transactional leadership style, check out our article:
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The democratic leadership style encourages leaders to treat their employees as thought partners and give everyone an opportunity to be involved in decision-making. This style is often used by leaders who are very open-minded and prefer to work alongside their employees instead of control them.
The democratic leadership style is ideal for teams that:
- Use Agile or a similar methodology where individual contributors already have a strong say in the projects they work on.
- Are filled with individual contributors who are experts at what they do.
- Are part of a company culture that is very egalitarian.
Warning: Introducing the democratic leadership style to a team that is accustomed to more authoritative leaders may result in frustration, confusion, and rebellion since they expect leaders to provide strong guidance.
Here’s how to use the democratic leadership style effectively:
- Solicit your team’s input when you’re making big decisions. You can do this by having everyone discuss issues together during team meetings or by asking for input individually if you’re worried about one or two people overpowering the conversation.
- Give your team generous access to information so that they can give informed opinions.
- Set communication guidelines so that employees know how to give fair feedback and not take offense when others push to move forward with ideas that contradict their own.
Though this leadership style calls on you to take everyone’s opinions into consideration, you need to take ownership of your decision-making authority and take decisive actions when your team cannot come to a consensus.
Just like sports coaches, the coaching leadership style focuses on teaching people how to improve. This can be both the most time-consuming and the most rewarding style since it requires you to provide individual feedback on a regular basis and foster strong relationships with your employees.
Use this leadership style if:
- You’re leading a team of junior employees who require a lot of feedback to perform their best.
- Your team is working on the kinds of projects that you excelled in when you were an individual contributor.
- You have expertise that enables you to provide valuable feedback.
Here’s how to adopt the coaching leadership style:
- Have weekly or biweekly 1:1’s with your employees to give feedback on their work and help them with any challenges they’re experiencing.
- Give your team stretch projects that require them to learn new skills.
- Tailor their projects to align with their professional goals and interests.
To use this leadership style effectively, you need to consistently provide actionable feedback that helps your team improve. To do so consistently, prepare your suggestions ahead of your 1:1’s and strive to always provide a mix of positive and constructive feedback.
Strategic leaders are highly observant and future-oriented leaders who focus on helping their teams develop innovative solutions to adapt to their ever-changing business environment.
Adopt the strategic leadership style if:
- You’re leading a team in a highly volatile industry
- You’re striving to achieve progressively growing goals
- You’re leading a team that’s expected to consistently produce innovative results
According to research published in the Harvard Business Review, you must master six skills to adopt the strategic leadership style:
- Anticipate the internal and external factors that are likely to create opportunities and/or challenges for your team. Having an idea of what’s coming sets the foundation for strategic planning.
- Challenge your beliefs by encouraging your team to share differing opinions with you. Since your employees are responsible for implementation, they’ll often have ideas that contradict your own. Embrace those ideas and use them to improve your plans.
- Interpret data rather than accepting at face-value. Strategic leaders discover the why behind facts and use those reasons to make more effective decisions.
- Take into consideration a wide array of options to make decisions instead of opting for the easiest choices.
- Align your goals with all the stakeholders involved. Strategic leaders understand the importance of expectation setting with all relevant individuals.
- Learn from your successes and losses and encourage your team to do the same. Developing and implementing strategic plans requires you to engage in continuous learning so you have skills needed to solve unprecedented challenges.
To learn more about how to be a strategic leader, check out our article:
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Delegative (also known as laissez-faire) leadership is a hands-off style that delegates authority to employees so that they are empowered to work on projects without interference from their managers.
This style is typically used by managers who lead teams that are:
- Full of highly competent individual contributors who understand how to do their jobs better than you do.
- Striving to achieve ambiguous goals and require a lot of autonomy for experimentation.
- Very self-motivated and can successfully complete work without being closely monitored.
Many leaders adopt this style because they believe giving employees as much autonomy as possible is key to making them successful. However, studies show that this style is often ineffective since it enables employees to spend too much time focusing on the wrong activities.
To successfully use the delegative leadership strategy, you need to ensure your team stays focused on the right goals. Here’s how:
- Share your vision with your team on a quarterly or monthly basis (depending on how long it takes your team to make meaningful progress). Include clear expectations outlining what you want them to achieve within the time period.
- Check in periodically to ensure that what they’re working on aligns with the goals you set. If they aren’t, give them constructive feedback to revise their strategies. However, don’t dictate all of the specific actions they need to take to improve.
- Host post-mortem meetings when projects are completed. These meetings bring your team together to reflect on what went well, what didn’t go well, and what actions they can take to improve for the next project.
To become a master of the delegative leadership style, read our guide: How to Use Delegative Leadership to Empower Team Success