Leadership. It’s a word that’s used frequently in your career. But what does it actually mean?
Well, that’s surprisingly tricky to answer — because ultimately, leadership means something different to everyone. For example, you might prefer a leader who is hands-off and gives you tons of autonomy, while someone else thrives with a leader who provides lots of guidance and clear directions.
Those types of differences are really at the root of someone’s leadership style. Your leadership style represents the different traits and ideas about leadership that you possess and how you use those to influence and inspire others.
But I’ll be honest: if you had asked me even a year ago what my own leadership style was, I would’ve stared at you blankly for a moment before responding with something like, “Uhh…hopefully a good one?”
So, to save you from uttering a similar lackluster reply, I’m breaking down everything you need to know about leadership styles here — including how you can find (and refine!) your own.
What types of leadership styles are out there?
That means that the below is by no means a comprehensive roster, but it does provide a brief description of a few of the more common leadership styles.
Democratic Leadership: Thinking of the word “democracy”? You’re not far off. Democratic leaders are highly-collaborative, often involving others in the decision-making process — rather than just charging forward with their own choices.
Autocratic Leadership: On the total opposite side of that coin, autocratic leaders have absolute power. They make the choices, and what they say goes.
Bureaucratic Leadership: Bureaucratic leaders tend to think of leadership as a job to be done. They have a formal title that gives them leadership capabilities, which comes along with clearly-defined rules that they feel need to be met.
Transactional Leadership: What’s a transaction? It’s exchanging something (like money, for example) for something else (like a product). That’s the core of transactional leadership. These leaders give instructions, and then make use of things like rewards and penalties to encourage or reprimand the resulting behaviors.
Transformational Leadership: Transformational leaders are all about making changes and improvements. They’re highly innovative and focused on empowering team members to find better ways to do things.
Servant Leadership: You’ve probably heard this term before, as it’s sort of become a buzzword in modern workplaces — and is often considered the “gold standard” of leadership styles. Servant leaders put the needs of others above their own, and channel the majority of their energy into helping other people.
Charismatic Leadership: Do you know those people you just gravitate toward? Who seem to be packed with so much charisma, you can’t help but listen to them? That’s exactly what a charismatic leader is. These types of leaders are especially effective at using communication to rally a team around a specific goal.
Laissez-Faire Leadership: If you’re anything like me, you still remember this term from your high school history class. It’s French, and it translates to “leave it be.” That’s exactly what these hands-off leaders do. They give people what they need to do their jobs and then get out of the way.
Situational Leadership: Are you relating with quite a few of the above approaches? That’s where situational leadership comes into play. With this model, leaders use a variety of styles and approaches depending on who they’re leading and what the specific scenario is. They’re always switchings things up to be as effective as possible.
How can you find your own leadership style?
Maybe you read one of the descriptions above and immediately thought, “Yep, that’s me — that’s exactly how I lead a team or a project.”
But what if you didn’t? What if you’re totally stumped and don’t have a clue what your default leadership style might be? Don’t panic yet. Here are a few things you can try to better pinpoint what leadership approach you tend to rely on.
Give yourself a quiz
Do you remember those quizzes you used to take in those teen magazines way back when — where you’d have to picture yourself in certain scenarios and pick a choice for how you’d typically respond?
You don’t need to whip out a gel pen like you did in the good old days, but asking yourself some thought-provoking questions just like those magazine-style ones can help you reflect and pull out some common threads about your interactions in the office.
What sorts of questions should you ask yourself? Here are a few to get you started:
- A team member has fallen behind on their portion of a shared project. How do you motivate them to pick up the pace?
- You need to make a large decision at work. Who (if anyone) do you consult?
- You’ve just made it into the office, and your inbox is overflowing, your coffee cup is empty, and a co-worker needs help. What do you prioritize first, second, and third?
Are you going to use rewards to inspire that team member to get moving? That’s pretty transactional. Are you going to consult everyone who could be impacted by that decision before making your choice? That’s democratic. Are you always prioritizing other people —even ahead of your morning coffee? That’s servant leadership.
Keep in mind that you might not identify with just one style. In those cases, it’s likely that you rely on situational leadership and are frequently adjusting your approach to meet the needs of that circumstance.
Ask for feedback
We often have a lot of blind spots about our own personalities and behaviors. That’s why it can be so helpful to ask other people — whether it’s your manager, your colleagues, your direct reports, or all of the above — for feedback.
We often have a lot of blind spots about our own personalities and behaviors.
Are you not quite sure how you typically respond in high-stress situations? Do you not have a good grasp on whether or not you’re an obsessive micromanager or way too hands-off? Get the opinions of others.
Whether it’s through a formal review, a one-on-one conversation, or even an anonymous feedback form, you’re bound to get some enlightening insights that clue you in on what style you tend to lean on most.
Be open to change
Here’s the real nightmare: you finally pinpoint your leadership style, and you realize you don’t like it. That’s not the type of leader you want to be.
Now what? Well, the good news is that your leadership style isn’t set in stone — you can work to refine it through some conscious effort and habit changes.
One of the best places to start is by thinking about a leader that you really admired. Grab a notepad and start jotting down what exactly you liked about them. Were there certain things they said or did that really impacted you in a positive way? Once you’ve identified those, you can find ways to incorporate something similar into your own approach.
For example, perhaps you really loved that former boss who started each and every one-on-one meeting with some friendly small talk about what was happening with you outside the office. It made you feel like a whole person, rather than like another cog in the wheel.
Start doing something similar! Whether it’s with your colleagues or even the person you see every morning at the coffee cart, that small change will help you take steps toward being the leader you really want to be.
Are you actually a leader?
We’ve talked a lot about leadership in the office, but do these leadership styles and tactics really only matter if you have a designated management position on your company’s org chart?
Definitely not. There are endless opportunities for you to be a leader in the office every day — whether it’s leading a project, organizing your team’s upcoming outing, or even just setting a good example for everyone else you work with.
The biggest mistake you can make is to assume that leadership only matters once you achieve the fancy job title and the corner office.
The biggest mistake you can make is to assume that leadership only matters once you achieve the fancy job title and the corner office. And remember, it’s the people who start exhibiting positive leadership traits now that actually end up achieving those things.