“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” – Rosalynn Carter

Leadership 101: Definition, Traits, Styles and More

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Leadership is a concept everyone is aware of, but only a few master it and its implications. In this guide, we will examine what leadership truly stands for and what it means in the modern world. We’ll explore the traits and characteristics of leadership, as well as the skills needed in order to lead. We’ll also explain the different leadership theories and the styles which current and future leaders can take advantage of.


Defining leadership might seem straightforward; you just go to Google and type in ‘definition of leadership’, right? But the results tell a different story. Instead of a single definition of what leadership is and isn’t, you’ll be greeted with millions of pages analyzing the subject. Leadership is not an easy concept to characterize.

If you examine the definitions in the Dictionary, you get a selection of descriptions. Leadership is defined as “the position of function of a leader, a person who guides or directs a group” and “an act of instance of leading; guidance; direction”, for example. But these definitions tend to feel like they are just scraping the surface and providing a stripped-down version of the word.

The attempts to define leadership have been around since the start of the 20th century, when theorists started to tackle the issues surrounding leadership and management in more detail. One of the influential leadership theorists, Dr Bernard Bass, has said in the book Stodgill’s Handbook of Leadership: A Survey of Theory and Research in 1981, “There are as many different definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept.

If you study different leadership theories, you find different conceptualizations. Not everyone agrees with the concept of leadership meaning guiding the teams or even directing people, as some see leadership more as a motivating tool for empowering the individuals within the team.

To understand how complex and varied the definitions can be, Warwick University compiled a list of popular definitions. These are great at showing some of the distinctions in how people view leadership. Here are a few popular definitions of leadership:

  • Leadership is the process of influencing the activities of an individual or group in efforts toward goal achievement in a given situation. – Hersey and Blanchard
  • Leadership is the art of influencing others to their maximum performance to accomplish any task, objective or project. – Cohen
  • Leadership is the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for the shared aspirations. – Kouzes and Posner
  • Leadership is the behavior of an individual when he is directing the activities of a group toward a shared goal. – Hemphill and Coons

Furthermore, when it comes to defining leadership, it’s often easier to focus on the aspects that are not part of leadership rather than those that define it. Leadership is not about having a specific title or a position of power. Being at the top of a company does not make anyone a good leader. But perhaps some disagreement comes from whether leadership is seen as a force for good or for bad.

Travis Bradberry and Kevin Kruse defined leadership in their article What Makes A Leader as “a process of social influence which maximizes the efforts of others toward the achievement of a greater good”. But as history has proved to us, there can be leaders who are using influence and guidance to do bad things.

Considering the various definitions and discussions surrounding leadership, it could be argued the theories have a few things in common. They tend to define leadership as a process:

  • Of influence
  • Of increased attention and effort by others
  • Of pursuing a pre-determined goal

As the following sections will show, the means of doing any of the above can differ greatly between different theories and style.


One of the common misconceptions surrounding leadership is to conflate it with management. People who are simply managing can be considered leaders, while leaders might not actually be leading but simply managing. But how can you tell the difference?

Warren Bennis wrote extensively about the differences of these concepts in his 1989 book On Becoming a Leader. In the book, he listed the differences, which are outlined in the following image:

The difference is essentially about the direction or movement of the group. This distinction is clear even from the words: leadership is about leading, of taking the group towards something, while management is about managing, of controlling the current situation and holding on to the status quo. In a way, leadership is always about a specific objective or goal, which is not yet achieved. On the other hand, management is about ensuring the achieved progress doesn’t slip away.

Furthermore, the objectives of the leader or manager can vary greatly. Management is concerned about the tasks and processes of maintaining the status quo. This means the attention is divided more towards processes and resources. Management often considers what tasks are required, how they can be improved or maintained, and what is the best use of current resources.

Therefore, the role of management is about planning, organizing and monitoring. John Kotter, Konosuke Matsushita professor of leadership at Harvard University, told in a Guardian interview that:

Management is a set of processes that keep an organization functioning. They make it work today – they make it hit this quarter’s numbers. The processes are about planning, budgeting, staffing, clarifying jobs, measuring performance, and problem-solving when results did not go to plan.

On the other hand, you have leadership, which isn’t about the here and now, but what could be and the future the organization should move towards. Leadership is therefore more concerned about what the objectives should be and how the team can be motivated to reach the goals together.

Professor Kotter identified leadership to be “about aligning people to the vision, that means buy-in and communication, motivation and inspiration”. For leadership, the processes are not necessarily the focus; it’s more about empowering the followers to work towards these set objectives.

One further key area of difference comes from the approaches management and leadership take on communicating with the team. The traditional view is one where management is not about empowering or inspiring. It’s task-focused and so the objective of the manager is to help the team finish the procedures as efficiently as possible. There is a certain level of communication, but it is focused on managing the group, not elevating it to reach higher.

Management isn’t aiming to necessarily boost the group or make it achieve something unique; as the goal is to get through the set tasks as efficiently as possible. But management is slowly changing on this aspect, as people skills are increasing in their importance in all aspects of the workspace.

Therefore, the traditional hands-off approach, where management only reacts is starting to transform into a more people-focused. Nonetheless, management is still mainly interested in getting the job done as set out, but it’s starting to go about it in a more communicative manner.

On the other hand, leadership is often built around the interaction with the team. In many leadership theories, although not all (see authoritarian leadership, for example), the onus is on empowering the subordinates to achieve more and follow the leader’s vision. The leadership is not about managing existing groups, but gaining the attraction and respect of the teams that buy into the vision.

It’s hard to make any leadership style to work if the subordinates are not willing to listen to the message. Because the style relies heavily on the team buying into the vision, leaders need to focus on people skills. In a way, instead of managing tasks, leadership manages the people and empowers them to achieve more.

Finally, an Inc. article mentioned an interesting point about how the two concepts differ in accountability. According to the post, management can often come across more delegating in terms of accountability. Managers share responsibility with the team and therefore are removing responsibility away from their own desks. On the other leadership tends to hold on to accountability, even when the leader takes a relaxed approach to being in charge. Since the vision is generally created by the leader, the failures along the way to achieve it mean the leader has the ultimate responsibility.

The above doesn’t mean leaders cannot be managers and vice versa. In fact, leadership and management do often go hand in hand. A good leader often has to be able to mobilize and influence the team, while also focusing on directing people and ensuring conformance. While the differences are there, it’s not to say management and its characteristics wouldn’t be an important concept for leaders to understand.


Leadership characteristics are not something mystical. The traits and qualities required for leadership are also not something you either have or you don’t have. These characteristics can be learned over the course of your career and developed further. All it takes is focus and determination to understand the building blocks of a solid leadership.


Leadership requires awareness because the leader has to be able to see the surroundings, understand the intricacies of different elements, and be able to analytically view the actions of others and his- or herself. Awareness requires the leader to understand the unique position he or she is in. This is not about thinking you are better than others as the leader, but about acknowledging the unique responsibilities and challenges you face as a leader.

A key part of enhancing awareness is about self-knowledge. The more able you are with identifying your own strengths and weaknesses, the better you’ll be at identifying them in others. Knowledge as a whole is an important element in awareness, whether it is knowledge about the industry, the organization, or the human consciousness. Improvements in these areas can help leaders develop better awareness.


Confidence is a state of mind – the feeling of trust and reliance on yourself and the things around you. Without confidence, leadership would crumble. No one wants to follow a leader who doesn’t have confidence in his or her abilities, or the vision they’ve put out. If the leader is confident, it doesn’t just help attract others to work towards the vision, it breeds more confidence within the team.

There are numerous ways to building confidence, but the key to understand is that it can take time and conscious effort to change habits of low self-esteem and lack of belief. If you want to build confidence in yourself and in other people, try the following steps:

  • Pay attention to your inner voice. Your inner voice has an important role to play in how you are perceived by the world. Ensure you focus on a positive tone. Instead of thinking, “I’ll fail”, tell yourself, “I can do this, I just need to try”.
  • Shift attention away from comparisons. Stop paying so much attention to what others are doing and keep your focus on your
  • Leave the comfort zone. Doing something you’ve never done before will boost your confidence because it provides you a sense of accomplishment.


Leadership is built on courage. The ability to create a vision, present it and get people to follow. Knowing that if your plan fails, the blame is likely to fall on your desk as the leader is not something most people are able to withstand. Without courage and the awareness that everything in life is rather uncertain, a leader cannot create positive change. Moving from one way of doing things to another will always require perseverance.

The below Brian Tracy video will provide insight into building up courage in different ways in all parts of life:


As mentioned above, leadership differs from management due to its emphasis on employee development. Big part of the empowerment and development is driven by empathy. The best leaders are those who seek to create meaningful relationship with the team and who are genuinely interested in how the employee is doing. When leaders notice issues with subordinates, they don’t turn it into a personal blame game, but rather help the subordinate find constructive solutions to the issues.

It might seem like empathy is a leadership trait you either have or you don’t. But studies have shown people can be taught to be more compassionate. Things like compassion training – where you consciously show more compassion for yourself, your family, strangers and even people you don’t like – can create changes in your brain and help you show more empathy in everyday life.


Leadership can easily be seen as a pure mechanism for power, but the best leaders are also able to show humility. Leadership gives you an immense responsibility and power, and this should make you feel humble. Leadership is about being accountable and stepping in when you’ve made a mistake.

Humble people don’t feel bad about responsibility or try to hide away from the limelight. Humility means learning to respect and to understand the value of other people and systems around you, and acknowledging the impact they played on your journey to being a leader.


Honesty is another major characteristic defining leadership. It’s about the ability to stay true to yourself and the vision, even when things get tough. It’s also about the ability to take in criticism, as well as to provide it, without it creating more issues. Above all, honesty means sharing information openly with the team.

Naturally, it doesn’t mean spitting out sensitive information, but it does imply the leader having an open door and not trying to actively hide away information from the team – leadership is not about spin control. Ray Davis, CEO of Umpqua Bank, put it well in his book Leading Through Uncertainty, when he said:

I always tell our people that they’re entitled to get answers to like to answers. But it’s going to be truthful, and I know they can deal with the truth. This might create additional questions, but we’ll get through them. And we do.

Furthermore, below is a short clip about honesty and it’s importance to leadership:


Leadership relies heavily on conviction since you can’t put forward a vision if you aren’t committed enough to see it through. Conviction means that you trust and believe in your idea, and you are willing to weather the storms to achieve the vision. If you show conviction as a leader, you’ll inspire others to follow.

It’s crucial to understand conviction isn’t the same as blind stubbornness. Trust in your vision doesn’t mean you aren’t willing to listen, to improve, and to change your path if the evidence tells you to do so. It simply means you don’t give up just because someone doesn’t agree with you or if you encounter a problem.

The World Economic Forum published a post by Dr Travis Bradberry, the award-winning author and entrepreneur, who explained in detail why conviction matters and how to practice it. The key points to take away from the article, in terms of the actions that show conviction, include:

  • Start thinking positively and remain confident.
  • Learn to trust your intuition and show strength in the face of adversity.
  • Lead by example, but avoid a preaching attitude. Do what you think is right, don’t tell others what to do.
  • Stop second-guessing what might happen and live in the moment.


As mentioned before, conviction doesn’t equity to stubbornness and therefore, leadership requires flexibility. A good leader understands that situations change, people are different, and therefore, solutions might not always be the same. Flexibility is a trait ensuring the leader is able to read the moment, predict the future, and react to change without it causing disturbance in the vision.


Sometimes assertiveness is mixed with aggressive behavior or being ‘bossy’. But it’s actually a characteristic of being able to stand up for what you believe in. Assertive behavior is not about using your leadership position to bully people or be aggressive. Assertiveness simply means getting your point and vision across in a positive manner.

The image below outlines the key qualities of an assertive person. Examine it and start using both the verbal and non-verbal cues in your everyday life and communication.


Source: Lifehacker


Perhaps the most important trait for a leader is the ability to inspire. Leadership is always about creating a vision of a something better or new. But since the human mind is often wary of change, the leader’s role is to communicate the vision in a way that inspires the team to action. Leadership is largely about creating an environment that motivates others to follow and pursue the goals, even if they seem far away and difficult to achieve.

Forbes contributor Erika Anderson wrote about a study by Keas, an employee health and wellness company, which examined the HR mistakes leaders tend to make most. The top answers and the easiest ways to become more inspirational were:

  • 64% of respondents said leaders don’t know what motivates the employees – Therefore, you need to start understanding and analyzing the passions and interests of the subordinates.
  • 41% of respondents felt leaders don’t lead by example – If you expect a specific behavior from your subordinates, you should be willing to lead by example.
  • 32% of respondents told leaders don’t prioritize company culture – Leadership’s major focus should always be on creating a strong company culture that supports the vision.


An army of sheep led by a lion can defeat an army of lions led by a sheep.” – African proverb

The importance of leadership is perfectly captured by the above African proverb. A leader can make a difference in whether a team is a success or a failure. The human history is full of examples that outline the significance of a leader, for good and for bad.

Martin Luther King wasn’t the only one with a dream, but he was the only one who was able to articulate the dream with the nation and get people to follow his vision. Because of his leadership and his ability to empower people who agreed with his arguments, he was able to transform society and continue to inspire generations.

But it’s crucial to note, leadership’s transformative powers are not always a force for good. History has also provided leaders such as Joseph Stalin, who’s leadership ended creating destruction and led to the deaths of millions of people. Nonetheless, the examples encapsulate the power of leadership.

Leadership is essentially a catalyst for action and it can ensure the different elements within the organization are functioning as efficiently as possible. For good or for bad, depending on the type of leadership that’s present, leadership guarantees results. Leadership matters because it:

  • Provides a vision – Leadership should always start with a vision towards which the organization moves. No organization or team can survive without a clear idea of where it wants to be and what it wants to achieve.
  • Shows direction – The vision provides the organization with a direction and guarantees it stays on course. It ensures the organization isn’t aimlessly floating in the sea, but navigates its way towards the port.
  • Initiates action – The above two help initiate movement, as leadership generates a roadmap of actions for achieving the goals. Sometimes leadership’s influence is about directing people towards action, but sometimes the understanding of the vision can help people take action on their own.
  • Supplies guidance – Not only does leadership help start action, but it also creates an environment of support. It instructs the subordinates towards the right direction and explains the actions that are needed.
  • Sets out organizational culture – Leadership also provides organizations with a culture, which is important to ensuring there is coherence across the organization. It ensures employees and customers alike know what they are getting when they are dealing with the company.
  • Builds up confidence – With the help of a clearly outlined vision and an action plan, leadership is able to generate more confidence within a team. For subordinates, having a person to guide, explain and support you through the process can be a crucial part of succeeding.
  • Grants motivation – Leadership always provides subordinates with incentives to follow. The different styles have different ways of motivating, but leadership tends to generate an environment of reward, whether financial or non-financial.
  • Attracts talent – Today’s world is all about the knowledge worker. Today’s employee is not just looking to perform tasks; they want to put their own skills to good use and to develop their abilities further. The employee is essentially often looking for a challenge and appreciation. Leadership, through its vision and motivational nature, can better attract the right talent to the organization, which in turn will enhance its success rate.

In essence, leadership is important because it ensures the organization isn’t just operating, but actively achieving something. It provides the company with objectives, direction and guidance. It creates unity and cohesion, empowering people to work towards a shared vision and to succeed in doing so.

Watch the below video by LeaderMOOC in which different people answer the question ‘Why is leadership important?” for the multitude of reasons why leadership matters in each area of life:


We’ve discussed the characteristics and traits of leadership and leaders, but what about the skills? Studies have been conducted, asking leaders and subordinates alike what are the skills that can motivate and inspire people to follow the vision. The following five are often at the centre of the findings and are definitely the integral elements for creating solid leadership.

People skills

Leadership is all about attracting people to your vision and getting the team to perform tasks that bring the organization closer to the goals. Without the skills to interact, work and guide other people, the leadership is doomed to fall apart.

Although there is a lot of talk about things such as emotional intelligence, explained informatively in the SlideShare presentation below, people skills essentially boil down to a few basic interactions leaders need to excel in.

[slideshare id=44125859&doc=ob-emotionalintelligence-150201065833-conversion-gate02&w=640&h=330]

The core elements to improving people skills are:

  • Learning how to delegate. Leaders have to be able to share responsibility, find the right people for specific tasks, motivate and guide people through the process.
  • Knowing how to give and receive feedback. Leadership requires plenty of feedback, occasionally going in both directions: to and from the leader. It’s vital to know how to provide constructive feedback that will improve performance and help with achieving the objectives.
  • Understanding behavior. This is similar to emotional intelligence, in a sense that leaders need to be able to read the reasons behind people’s actions. It’s crucial to understand what emotions can tell you and how to direct behavior into something more positive.
  • Being able to work as a team. While leadership is often about leading others, there are still plenty of elements of co-operation. Leaders must be able to work also as part of a team, not just be good at taking charge.


Related to people skills is the skill of communication. Leaders are essentially visionary storytellers who must be able to convince and inspire others with their message. Communication is also much more than the ability to talk in an inspiring way. Communication is built through the ability to listen, to negotiate and by creating meaningful connections.

The Lynda.com video explains the keys to communicating in a business environment. The video itself is a great example of effective communication and getting your message across in a concise manner.


As we’ll see in the later sections, decision-making can differ in different leadership styles, but it’s nonetheless an essential skill to possess. All of us need to make decision multiple times a day, and it’s often something we do without paying much attention. Leadership is about being able to make decisions in an efficient manner and with confidence that you’ve made the right choice.

In an informative article on decision-making, Skills You Need suggests there to be two separate ways of making a decision: intuition and reasoning. Intuition is about listening to you inner feeling, about relying on what your emotions are telling you, while the reasoning method is about the utilization of facts and figures.

It removes the emotion out of your decision-making and relies on the logical conclusions. It might seem like reasoning is the best course of action to take, but it can actually be helpful to use both strategies.


Being able to make decisions is an important skill, but to complement it, leadership needs to solve problems as well. John Foster Dulles, former US Secretary of State, has once said,

The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year.

If you can’t solve problems, you can’t move towards the vision.

Whenever there is a problem, you should implement the following steps:

  • Identify the problem. First, you need to recognize there’s a problem and stop avoiding it. You must then identify exactly what the issue is and define it clearly.
  • Structure the problem. It’s a good idea to observe the issue and carefully dissect it into smaller pieces. For example, if customer complaints are about ineffective customer service, pay attention to how the system works and identify the different elements creating the bigger issue.
  • Look for solutions. Once you are aware of the different components, you can start looking for solutions to each problem. Remember to use people’s expertise and don’t be afraid to ask other people for opinions.
  • Make a decision. After you have solutions available, pick the ones you think are the best. Think about the bigger picture. While some solutions might provide quick fixes, they might be costlier and so on. Weigh in these elements and choose the best for the organization and for the mission you are achieving.
  • Implement your solution and monitor progress. Create a clear plan of action for implementation and start monitoring the effectiveness of your solution.

Strategic thinking

Perhaps one of the most essential leadership skills is strategic thinking. Strategic thinking is often considered as a skill only a selected few posses, but it can be learned and developed. What is strategic thinking? It’s essentially the ability to have a long-term vision combined with short-term actions. It uses problem solving and decision making to get from point A to point B without harming the objectives along the way.

Improving your strategic thinking isn’t difficult. The strategies to apply it can also be used during all sorts of activities, both in private and business lives. Development of a strategy consists of:

  • Realizing where you are. You need to start by analyzing and understanding your current position.
  • Identifying the position, you want to be. The next step is about imagining the position you should be at any particular time. You want to be detailed on what the ideal position looks like and identify the positions you definitely need to avoid.
  • Considering the essential elements in that position. Identify the key elements that matter in the future or the current position. These could be things such as the organization’s values or growth figures.
  • Creating an action plan between the current and the future. Your next step is about working out the steps and actions that need to be taken between ‘now’ and ‘then’ to guarantee success. Think in terms of actions, but also intermediate milestones that help measure success.


Although we’ve had leaders and leadership throughout the human history, people haven’t always been as focused on examining the differences in leadership. The real boom in leadership theories started in the 20th century, when more focus began pouring in to solving the great mysteries of effective and good leadership.

Leadership theories are often categorized based on what the theory believes to be the defining trait or characteristic of the leader or the framework he or she uses. While there are a number of theories, the most popular theories include: the Great Man Theory, Trait Theories, Behavioral Theories, Contingency Theories, Transactional Theories, and Transformational Theories.

Each of these categories has various leadership styles, which can slightly differ from each other, but nonetheless, belong to the core group. Let’s examine the theories and the assumptions they make about leadership.

The Great Man Theory

The Great Man Theory is among the oldest leadership theories and it evolved during the mid-19th century. The premise of the leadership theory was essentially the argument that great leaders are born with intrinsic traits. It argued leaders aren’t developed or taught, but you quite simply either have the qualities and characteristics to be a great leader or you don’t. Furthermore, as the name implies, the leadership theory assumed only a man would have these intrinsic qualities – females are not born to lead.

The theory became especially popular after Thomas Carlyle, a writer and teacher, published a book called On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. In his book, Carlyle examined and compared leaders from history and wrote,

There needs not a great soul to make a hero; there needs a god-created soul which will be true to its origin; that will be a great soul!

To Carlyle and other people who supported the Great Man Theory, leadership was often something instilled by a god, with the leader being destined to achieve greatness.

The Great Man Theory didn’t base its arguments on any scientific knowledge or research. In 1860, the theory attracted a lot of criticism from Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher, who began talking about the importance of environment and society in shaping leaders.

Trait Theories

The trait theories are somewhat similar to the Great Man Theory in that they believe certain qualities in the leader will guarantee success in leadership. But unlike the Great Man Theory, trait theories don’t assume these are necessarily something people are born with or that only men can posses them. Instead, they understand that these can be taught or developed during one’s lifetime, providing everyone the possibility of being a leader.

The trait model is essentially focused on answering the question “What are the qualities that make a good leader?” According to these theories, qualities such as intelligence, innovation, and a sense of responsibility are some of the characteristics you need to be an effective leader. The idea of certain traits guaranteeing better leadership results has remained popular to this day. Studies on leadership characteristics are commonly conducted, with similar traits often mentioned in the findings.

However, it’s not ever been proven that by having a specific set of traits you would be guaranteed to be a good or a successful leader. An American psychologist Gordon Allport studied trait theories and found that personality traits are can be unreliable when measured. Furthermore, the relationship between a specific trait and its impact on leadership often vaguely explained.

Behavioral Theories

From the shortcomings of the trait theories, the focus shifted to behavioral theories. Instead of looking at the traits of a person, the aim is to discover what behaviors drive successful leadership. The question became “What are the actions and behaviors of a good leader?

One of the most influential sets of behavior leadership theories was developed in the 1930s by Kurt Lewin. He identified three distinctive leadership behaviors in terms of decision-making and guidance: authoritarian style, participative/democratic style, and delegation/laissez faire style. Lewin’s theories are summarized in the graph below:

Furthermore, the behavioral theories were either focused on the tasks or the people. The task-focused theory, often referred to as the Role Theory, examined how people’s behaviors change by the role they are doing. It argued that different roles might cause different reactions. On the other hand, the people-based theories considered the different levels of concern leaders show towards the subordinates and its impact on performance.

Behavioral theories are popular because they understand leadership is something people can become better at. Despite this, the theory has lost some ground due to the realization that different behavioral styles don’t always suit every situation and while specific behavior might yield good results in certain circumstances, it can be catastrophic in others.

Contingency Theories

The next step of evolution saw the question move to asking about the circumstances of leadership. “How does the situation influence effective leadership?” became the examination point for theories. The central argument of these theories was the idea that leadership styles’ effectiveness depends on the situation. It believes people who perform well in a specific situation, can actually perform badly in others.

There is a certain similarity between contingency theories and trait theories. Both realize that personal characteristics are linked to the situations in which the leaders use their leadership. Certain traits, in essence, perform better under specific leadership styles.

There have been a number of famous contingency theories, such as the Cognitive Resource theory and the Path-Goal theory. Perhaps the most common example of this style is the Situational Leadership developed by Hersey and Blanchard.

Transactional Theories

Transactional theories are also often referred to as exchange theories. These theories focus on the power and influence of leadership and the different ways leaders can leverage these to achieve objectives. The basis for the theory is the examination of the transactions between the leader and the followers, focusing on understanding how to build a positive and effective relationship.

The transactional theories pay close attention to the motivations behind the actions. Therefore, the theories are interested in understanding the reward and punishment systems and their use in aligning the needs of the organization with the needs of the subordinate.

While the transactional style has been popular and it can be efficient in creating meaningful relationships between the leader and the subordinates, it’s also attracted criticism. The most common objection to the style is its assumption that humans operate only to maximize pleasure or reward. It can sometimes dismiss other motivational factors altogether and just assume financial gain is all subordinates seek, for example.

Transformational Theories

The final major category of leadership theories is transformational leadership. The focus of these theories is on the personal relationship the leader forges with the followers. The theories believe effective leadership is about transforming the followers into something different, aside from simply achieving the organizational vision. The leaders who can do this are charismatic and inspirational, creating a sense of trust that helps the followers feel more motivated.

The popular transformational theories include James McGregor Burns’ transformational leadership theory, which was later developed further by Bass’ theory. Burns’ core ideas are:

  • Approach is more holistic and supportive
  • High expectations for the group
  • Lead by example
  • Collaborate with the group to challenge and support
  • Inspire group around its purpose and remind each group member of his worth

Both the transformational and the transactional leadership theories have also been developed and used as leadership styles, some of which we will delve into in the next section.


There are also plenty of different leadership styles. While leadership theories are focused on understanding what makes leaders successful, the leadership styles focus specifically on the traits and behaviors of leaders under a specific theory. Therefore, the leadership theory often contains a number of different styles, as we saw in the examples above. Let’s now examine some of the most popular leadership styles.

Lewin’s leadership styles

Psychologist Kurt Lewin developed his framework of leadership styles in the 1930s, providing the foundation for many other styles following later. According to Lewin, there are essentially three core leadership styles, each of which is shortly summarized below.

Autocratic leadership

Autocratic or authoritarian leadership style emphasizes the role of the leader in terms of the decision-making process. The leader won’t involve or even consult the team when it comes to deciding the next course of action.

The style is efficient in terms of making decisions, and can often be effective in crises or in circumstances where the leader has access to knowledge the subordinates don’t. Nonetheless, autocratic leadership style can also lead to high staff turnover.

Democratic leadership

Lewin’s second leadership style was the democratic model. Lewin’s style saw leaders under this framework still in charge of the final decisions, but instead of rejecting input from the subordinates, the leader seeks and encourages engagement. Therefore, the subordinates are more involved with the tasks or courses of action, even though they might not have actual power to decide.

The democratic style can remove the issues of low morale and high turnover through the more participative approach. On the other hand, decisions can take a long-time to make and the subordinate’s ability to comprehend the intricacies of certain circumstances might not be equal.

Laissez faire leadership

The final leadership style Lewin identified was the laissez faire leadership. Under this framework, the subordinates are given the ultimate power to decide how they want to achieve the vision set forward by the leader. The leader’s role is essentially to provide the subordinates with the right resources and advice, if needed.

Like the democratic leadership style, this can help increase job satisfaction, but the lack of structure can create problems within the organization. It also needs experienced and enthusiastic employees to work efficiently.

Goleman’s 6 leadership styles

After Lewin’s three theories, a number of styles used these examples and developed the ideas further. In 2002, Daniel Goleman published a book Primal Leadership together with Richard Boyatzis and Annie Mckee in which he introduced six leadership styles.

According to Goleman, each of these styles is based around the emotional state of the subordinate and leaders need to understand both the styles and the emotional responses in order to succeed. To Goleman, the six styles weren’t separate, but rather pieces of a puzzle the leader can use in order to achieve the desired outcome.

Below is a short introduction to the six styles. Before you read them, check out this interview with Goleman regarding what makes a great leader.

Visionary leadership

Visionary leadership is about creating a clear vision for the organization and ensuring everyone within the organization follows it. Goleman’s visionary leadership style is often referred to as the authoritative style, as it involves clear guidance on what needs to be done. But it also provides a lot of autonomy in terms of how subordinates can achieve the objectives. It can help organizations that are lacking in direction, but it has similar downsides as the laissez faire style.

Coaching leadership

Coaching style emphasizes leadership development and it is almost like a charismatic leadership style. The leader’s role is to develop subordinates in their professional approach and help them improve their understanding of the strengths and weaknesses they face professionally.

The aim is to create alignment with the goals of the organization and the subordinate. Coaching style can be great in motivating subordinates and improving the succession plan of the organization. On the other hand, the long-term focus can be problematic in any organization in the short-term, in terms of profitability or productivity.

Affiliate leadership

The aim of affiliate leadership is to bring harmony into the workplace and create an organization based on healthy relationships. The affiliate style is involved with conflict-resolution and the style is effective in overcoming disagreements, turning the focus back on the tasks.

Democratic leadership

Similar to Lewin’s theory, Goleman’s democratic style is about enhanced participation and active communication. The leader wants to get the subordinates involved and it seeks collaboration, instead of telling them what to do. It can be effective in terms of innovation and employee morale, but the style doesn’t always necessarily create the most efficient systems for responding the issues swiftly enough.

Pacesetting leadership

High standards and achievement of objectives are at the heart of Goleman’s pacesetting leadership style. The leadership puts short-term goals at the centre of its focus and uses them to drive up performance in the organization. The style often requires an element of quick rewards to motivate the subordinates to act and make quick returns.

The style can be effective in the short-term, but it’s among the styles Goleman believes can potentially have the most negative impact on an organization.

Commanding leadership

Finally, there is the coercive or commanding leadership style. The style’s near-military approach to leadership could also be referred to as the paternalistic style. The core message of the style is that the leader knows best and the subordinates’ role is to comply.

Although it provides guidance and clear instructions on how to achieve the organization’s objectives, the leader might come across as a ‘know-it-all’. The lack of input from subordinates and the coercive elements behind it can lead to lack of morale and low productivity.

Specific leadership styles

The above groups are often mentioned when leadership styles are discussed. As you saw, they provide a comprehensive analysis and basis to all sorts of different ways a leader can utilize emotions, decision-making and authority. But there are also popular styles that don’t necessarily fall under the styles identified by Goleman and Lewin. Here are a few of the most common of these styles.

Charismatic leadership

Charismatic leadership has its foundations in the work of the German sociologist Max Weber. Weber wrote in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that charismatic leadership was “a special personality characteristic that gives a person…exceptional powers that result in the person being treated as a leader”. The style is focused on the leader’s traits and often his or her own ambitions. Charismatic leadership doesn’t emphasize the development of the subordinates as much as his or her expertise.

Bureaucratic leadership

Bureaucratic leadership style is another leadership style first coined by Max Weber. He identified the bureaucratic style as a rule-based system, where the emphasis is on achieving tasks. The style is based on ensuring the setting up of clear guidelines and procedures for work, and making sure subordinates follow these guidelines as closely as possible. It’s a style aimed at organizations dealing with enhanced safety risks or routine tasks. But the style’s problems arise from lack of flexibility and innovation.

Servant leadership

The servant leadership style is based on the writings of Robert Greenleaf. The ideas were further developed in the 1990s by Larry Spears. The basic premise of the style is an emphasis on the subordinate and his or her needs. The leader’s role is to provide support for the subordinates and help them achieve more professionally, as well as privately. The style benefits from its focus on values and ethics, but it can be particularly tricky to implement and doesn’t work well in situations where quick and strategic decisions need to be made.

Authentic leadership

The authentic leadership style is among the newest styles developed in the field. It was first coined by Dr Bruce Avolio and Fred Luthans. The style focuses on four key aspects of leadership: self-awareness, relational transparency, balanced processing and internalized moral perspective. The idea is that leaders and subordinates alike are supposed to promote behaviors that lead to positive actions and the development of the self.

Situational leadership

Dr Paul Hersey and Dr Ken Blanchard developed the situational leadership style, which falls under the category of the contingency theory. The style is based on the idea that leaders need to be aware of the different maturity levels of the subordinate and once they know it, select the right approach.

The situational leadership style can be effective because it recognizes that not all subordinates or situations are alike. Nonetheless, it’s often considered more of a management style and can lead confusion within the workplace if the leader changes his or her approach from one to another.

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