13 common leadership styles

Common Leadership Styles

Leadership is a process of motivating others to work together collaboratively to accomplish great things. As you progress in your career and develop leadership skills, you’ll likely use different techniques and methods to achieve your organization’s objectives while engaging employees who report to you. These different approaches of providing direction, executing plans, and motivating people are known as leadership styles.

The most effective leaders are self-aware. They are able to understand their strengths and weaknesses and proactively learn (and practice!) the leadership style that best suits them and their organization.

By learning about your strongest qualities and then refining and accentuating them, while working on the qualities that need improvement, you’ll be able to connect with – and inspire – members of your team on a deeper level.

But how many styles of leadership are there, and do you need to stick to just one?

Different leadership styles

Being familiar with the different leadership styles you most closely relate to is important because it helps you connect and communicate better with your team. When your team members and employer are able to identify what type of leader you are, they feel more comfortable in their roles and in their interactions with you. They know what to expect – and what not to expect – and can better understand how to capitalize on your own unique brand of support.

Are you curious as to which style of leadership you resemble most? We’ll explain the 13 most common leadership styles below so you can identify which one matches your personality most. By taking the time to familiarize yourself with each of these types of leadership, you might recognize certain areas to improve upon or expand upon in your own leadership style. You can also identify other ways to lead that might better serve your current goals, personalities on your team, organizational culture, and understand how to work with managers who follow a different style than your own.

Autocratic, Authoritarian, Coercive, or Commanding 

Autocratic leaders make decisions without seeking input from anyone who reports to them, or anyone at all, usually. Team members are not consulted prior to direction and are expected to fall in line with the leader’s expectations. Also known as Authoritarian, Coercive, or Commanding, this leadership style is rarely effective and can lead to low job satisfaction and poor morale. However, autocratic leadership can be effective in crisis situations when quick decisions need to be made.


Affiliative leaders strive to create emotional bonds with their team members and direct reports. Leaders who utilize this style put people before profit and believe the team always comes first. This style is focused on building trust within the team and fostering a sense of belonging to the organization. Particularly effective during times of heightened stress, affiliative leaders are effective at boosting low morale, improving communication, and creating a harmonious working environment.

The downside of this leadership style is that constant praise and nurturing can cause performance issues to be overlooked and unaddressed.


Bureaucratic leaders tend to follow a textbook template as to how a leader should act, and are generally risk averse. While they may differ from autocratic leaders by seeking input from others, they are biased toward upholding company policy or past practices.

Bureaucratic leaders are typically found in large, established organizations or highly regulated environments where adherence to strict rules is important. New ideas can be rejected because the organization is successful with the current processes in place. Implementing something new and different could waste time or resources if it doesn't work. This leadership style stifles innovation among employees and struggles to respond effectively to change.


A coaching leader is one who spends a great deal of time and energy on identifying and nurturing the individual strengths of each member of their team. They will take the time to cultivate deep connections with direct reports to gain a thorough understanding of each team member’s hopes, beliefs, dreams and values. The coaching leadership style is similar to democratic and affiliative leadership, but coaching leaders place more emphasis on the growth and success of individual employees.

Coaching leaders typically foster a positive environment where encouragement and communication can flow freely. However, in many cases employees feel like they’re being micromanaged. It’s important for coaching leaders to periodically take a step back and let their team breathe.

Democratic, Facilitative, or Participative 

Similar to the affiliative leadership style, a leader who employs the democratic leadership style places a high value on the knowledge, skills, and diversity of their team. They are consensus-builders and are constantly asking for input from their direct reports and peers. Democratic leaders are excellent listeners, and they develop confidence in their leadership by utilizing the collective wisdom their team has to offer. They are leader-breeders; by empowering lower-level employees to exercise authority, they are effectively preparing them for more senior positions.

In stressful or emergency situations, democratic leaders can falter as their decision-making style can be too time-consuming. 

Laissez-Faire or Delegative

The French term "laissez faire" translated to English is "let them do." In other words, a laissez-faire leader trusts their employees to do what they’re supposed to do and offers minimal interference – and direction.

The laissez-faire leader is most commonly found in entrepreneurial start-ups, where the founder puts full trust in their team so they may focus on executing the company’s overall strategy.

Laissez-faire leadership is the least intrusive leadership style. It can result in an empowered group of employees, but can also limit their development. At times some employees may need a course-correction, but they won’t get it from a laissez-faire leader. This can result in missed growth opportunities and inefficiencies.

Laissez-faire leadership can develop into the most subtly destructive leadership style: absentee leadershipAbsentee leaders are "people in leadership roles who are psychologically absent from them. They were promoted into management, and enjoy the privileges and rewards of a leadership role, but avoid meaningful involvement with their teams." Absentee leaders take value out of an organization without putting value in.


Emergent leadership is a type of leadership in which a team member is not appointed or elected to a leadership role. Instead, their leadership develops over time as a result of the team’s interaction. An emergent leader needs to rely on influence rather than authority, and often team members don’t immediately accept a new leader who has not been appointed or elected.

A common tactic for emergent leaders to influences their team by utilizing the concept of reciprocity and the exchange of favours. This leadership style is relationship-focused. For this style to be effective, it’s important for the emergent leader to be well-versed in developing, maintaining, and repairing relationships.


A pacesetting leader is one who leads by example. They set high standards for themselves in the hope that others will follow suit. A team comprised of self-motivated, high-performers who value continuous improvement will thrive under the direction of a pacesetting leader. Like autocratic leadership, pacesetting leaders are most commonly found in the military – but the pacesetting leadership style is much more effective.

Like the previously mentioned laissez-faire style, leadership styles that rely on autonomy can be problematic for those who require detailed guidance. It can also create an environment where individuals in the team might feel they’re being pushed too hard by a leader whose standards don’t mirror their own, a common occurrence in start-ups.


The term “servant leadership” was coined by American author Robert Greenleaf in his 1970 book The Servant as Leader.

“The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.” - Robert K. Greenleaf 

In business, leaders typically serve the interests of shareholders and the bottom line. A servant leader is focused primarily on the well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. Servant leaders share authority, put the needs of others first, and help people realize their full potential. They are concerned more with the well-being of the societies in which they operate than their own functional responsibilities. In a servant leadership organization, the leader exists to serve his or her direct reports, not the other way around.

The Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Martin Luther King Jr., and Eleanor Roosevelt are notable examples of servant leaders. Starbucks and Zappos are two large organizations that have been successful in implementing a servant leadership culture.


Strategic leaders sit at the intersection between “keeping the lights on” – managing a company’s day-to-day operations – and capitalizing on its growth opportunities. A strategic leader has the unenviable task of maintaining current equitable working conditions while catering to executive interests and executing organizational change. Strategic leaders work in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment and are influenced by factors and organizations external to their own.

The main objective of strategic leadership is productivity. To achieve this objective, a strategic leader must develop an environment in which their employees are able to forecast the organization’s needs within the context of their own responsibilities. Rewards and incentive programs are popular tools employed by strategic leaders to encourage employees to consistently perform at a high level.

The ideal strategic leader must create a vision, clearly communicate that vision, and effectively drive that vision into reality.


Transactional leaders are only concerned with the work their employees do. Common among sales teams, a transactional leader will often set a sales target and reward the individuals who reach it with a bonus.

When working for a transactional leader, your role and responsibilities are clearly defined – there is no ambiguity. However, the transactional leadership style can be demotivating. Employees may do the bare minimum at work if they know how much their effort is worth all the time. In these situations, a transactional leader may use unscheduled gestures of appreciation to try to keep employees engaged and motivated.


Transformational leaders are focused on continuous improvement. They constantly push their team outside of their comfort zone and implement stretch goals. This style is often associated with charismatic leadership, a leadership style rooted in the charm and persuasiveness of the leader. The most effective transformational leaders are charismatic because they are skilled communicators, verbally eloquent, but also able to communicate to employees on a deep, emotional level.

High-growth organizations embrace the transformational leadership style because it motivates employees to achieve beyond what they consider themselves capable of. Yet transformational leaders can risk burning out direct reports if they don’t receive the right coaching and direction to guide them through challenging new responsibilities.


Organizations that want to build a culture of innovation are best served by tapping the talents of visionary leadership. Visionary leaders are natural born problem solvers and rely on abstract thinking to visualize possibilities that most are unable to see. These “big picture” thinkers can not only see what’s possible, but they can also effectively articulate it to their team. Steve Jobs is an example of a visionary leader: passionate, open-minded, and creative, he was most effective at inspiring forward momentum and creating a culture of innovation during his two stints at Apple.

It’s important for visionary leaders to be complemented with a team composed of diverse talents and skillsets. Visionary leaders prefer not to involve themselves with details or implementation. Instead, they lean heavily on others to execute their vision.

Situational leadership

While you may feel naturally inclined to adopt a specific leadership style from the list above, it’s important to note that you can flex your leadership style if the situation calls for it. Some leadership styles are more effective at tackling specific challenges than others, so in these instances, great leaders employ situational leadership.

Situational leadership is a set of behaviours that a leader consciously chooses to best fit a situation. When the situation a leader is in changes, so does the style. Switching leadership styles means that you are role flexible. You are not locked into a particular style; you can change your leadership style depending on what is required of you.

Research has shown that there is no single “best” leadership style. When contemplating solutions to leadership challenges, it’s important to be aware of the different strengths and weaknesses within these types of leadership styles. Often you’ll need to two, three, or even four of these styles to achieve your goals. Sometimes a teammate needs a hug. Other times a teammate needs direction or constructive criticism. And sometimes they need to be left alone to do their job. Choosing the right style to fit each situation is a key element of leader effectiveness.

What type of leader are you?

Whether you're an emerging leader, a mid-career leader looking to amplify your leadership impact across an organization, or a senior executive who wants to prepare for the next level of leadership, The Ivey Academy offers executive education programs to help you realize your full leadership potential. Our leadership suite of programs offers participants the opportunity to really get to know themselves as leaders and how they can best flex their own leadership styles to meet the needs of their team. With The Ivey Academy's learning embedded in action and practice, you'll be able to refine and accentuate your strongest leadership qualities while working on gaps that need improvement - all in a safe, risk-free environment. You'll return to the office having practiced what you've learned so you can connect with – and inspire – members of your team on a deeper level.

For more information on The Ivey Academy's executive education leadership programs, view our leadership suite or view our individual programs below. 


About The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School
The Ivey Academy at Ivey Business School is the home for executive Learning and Development (L&D) in Canada. It is Canada’s only full-service L&D house, blending Financial Times top-ranked university-based executive education with talent assessment, instructional design and strategy, and behaviour change sustainment. 

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