Feb 08, 2023

What are the 4-styles of leadership?

What is leadership? Is it to have followers, influence, a title or a vision? Your answer will have a major impact on your natural style. Although, if you learn to adapt and maximize the 4-styles of leadership, you’ll have a greater chance of success. 

To lead or to follow? 

There seem to be over 1000 different definitions for leadership, according to this paper on What is Leadership. The challenge is that leadership is often contextual and naturally biased by those trying to explain it. Moreover, cultural and societal changes heavily influence our views on leadership, in a sense, it’s easier to understand and define the 4-styles of leadership.

Psychologist Kurt Lewin was the first who defined leadership styles, originally three, based on innovative experiments conducted in 1939. The three leadership styles are authoritarian, democratic and laissez-faire. Although interestingly, as this review of Kurt Lewin’s leadership studies explains, history might have distorted the level of positive versus negative in the styles. In short, all 3, or, as in today’s 4-styles of leadership, have pros and cons. What matters is how you use the styles, as we’ll see shortly.

A shift in leadership styles

Kurt Lewin’s theory is still useful today because it’s easy to understand and highlights the alternative to autocratic leadership. Whilst that can be an appropriate approach to leadership when decisions need to be made quickly, for instance, it can also be highly demoralizing. 

The role of work is changing and today, people expect to be empowered and included. Instead, more recently we have transformational leadership as well servant leadership. The reason the latter isn’t included in the 4-styles of leadership is that it’s still not commonly used, despite its potential for success. 

Currently, leaders and businesses still prioritize profits and market position. They appreciate that people are at the core of making that happen. Nevertheless, the majority of leaders don’t see their primary goal as serving the people, as servant leaders do. 

Many believe that servant leaders do not deal with resistance and unrest adequately enough. Although, as this university article on servant leaders demonstrates, Abraham Lincoln is the perfect example and was highly successful. The issue isn’t the servant leadership approach but knowing how to use it which takes immense self-transformation. 

The 4 main types of leadership styles

Various writers talk about a range of leadership styles that include pacesetting, affiliative, strategic, visionary and coaching styles. These are all perfectly valid but they are sub-themes of the following core styles. 

Democratic or Participative 

If you have a democratic leadership style, you naturally involve every team member around you, regardless of hierarchy. You enable creativity and open discussion by creating positive team spirit where everyone feels safe to speak up. Generally, this creates a highly productive environment. 

The downside of democratic leadership, also known as participative leadership, is that it can slow down the decision-making process. Moreover, some people might feel left out if their style doesn’t fit the overall team approach.  

Autocratic or Authoritative 

An autocratic leader is an extreme form of transactional leadership where they rely on rules, processes and punishment to get people to meet their goals. On the surface, it feels appealing because leaders “get things done”. Underneath, it usually harbors discontent. 

While authoritarian leadership can work in crisis mode, it generally makes people overly dependent on that leader. As a consequence, they don’t tend to make any effort or attempt to develop strategic insight because they know their inputs won’t be considered. 

Laissez Faire or Delegative Leadership

Laissez-faire comes from the French meaning “let it be” or in the case of laissez-faire leaders, “let them be”. They’re very hands-off and give their teams huge autonomy. This can be invigorating for people who are already skilled and comfortable with their work. 

Some people struggle with laissez-faire leadership if they need direction and motivation to feel useful. They might get lost without some supervision or input from above.

Transformational Leadership 

As explained in our transformational leadership example blog, this approach leverages 4 pillars. These are: individual consideration, intellectual stimulation, inspirational motivation and idealized influence. 

Another way to think of it is that transformational leaders enable employee growth, through their coaching style, and inspire people with a vision that builds team purpose. They engender trust and respect while making everyone feel both like a valued individual and a prime team member. Such visionary leaders put the greater good ahead of their self-interest to improve not just the business but also the community around them. 

How can you, as a leader, maximize your portfolio of the 4-styles of leadership?

To implement effective leadership styles, you need a combination of challenging leadership opportunities, feedback and self-reflection, usually with a leadership coach. Without a coach, you risk falling into your unconscious biases and not being aware of how you can change. 

Here are some useful techniques to explore and evaluate with your coach to gauge the appropriate leadership style: 

  • Blake Mouton managerial grid: this managerial leadership grid is a useful framework to balance the need for completing tasks with that of understanding each group member in order to find the right task for them. You can assess yourself with this questionnaire and work through the results with a leadership coach. 
  • Self-reflection: you can’t adapt your style if you don’t know your current approach. As you observe yourself, reflect on your intentions and the gap with the outcome. Your coach will guide you to close that gap with the right approach.
  • Personality assessments: a powerful way to improve working conditions and effectively leverage the 4-styles of leadership is to truly understand your teams. Not only do you need emotional intelligence but also to get to know your people. New teams particularly benefit from personality assessments. When reviewed with a coach, teams learn to appreciate how members work differently and what type of leaders they need. Moreover, a language coach will allow you to work on how language affects the dynamics of the team around you. 

What will your leadership style be this year? 

The 4-styles of leadership all have advantages and disadvantages although the transformational style stands above the rest. To be transformational means considering the individuals around you and what they need while also inspiring them and giving them purpose. Overall, it’s more inclusive and empowering. 

You too can keep aspiring for greatness to leave a positive impact on those around you. It takes courage and vulnerability but we all have it in us to remember that the more you serve others, the more greatness we can all do together. 

Or as Martin Luther King once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?”


Coaching, Communication, Company Culture, L&D, Leadership, People, Skills-Based Coaching

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