Which Leadership Style Is Best for Your Team?

Female presenting in front of large group

Your natural leadership style may be a result of your personality, your values and your strengths and experiences. But effective business leaders avoid a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. They know they need to adapt to the needs of their teams in order to effectively lead.

The leadership style you’re naturally inclined to may not be appropriate for every situation. When used inappropriately, it can fail to motivate those you’re leading.

For example, if your preferred approach is serious, dry and aggressive, you may have trouble connecting with a team craving empathy and sensitivity from a leader. If you tend to be more soft-spoken and hands-off, you could fail your team in a situation that demands take-charge leadership.

Effective leadership is important for the workplace because managers account for at least 70 percent of variance in employee engagement at work, Gallup reports. That’s why it’s best to take a situational approach to leadership, and adapt based on what you’re facing.

It can help to take a leadership self-assessment so that you recognize your prevalent style. You should also learn other types of leadership styles and situations where they can be effective, so you can lead appropriately and be there for your team.

Here are six types of leaderships styles and what types of situations they work best in.

1. Authoritative Leadership

The authoritative leader knows the mission, is confident in working toward it, and empowers team members to take charge just as she is. The authoritative leader uses vision to drive strategy and encourages team members to use their strengths and emerge as leaders themselves.

The authoritative leader provides high-level direction, but she lets those she leads figure out the best way to get there. Authoritative leaders are always striving for progress. They inspire others to adopt a similar attitude.

When This Type of Leadership Style Works Best

Authoritative leadership is not restrictive. It propels advancements when:

  • A leader is truly competent to take charge.
  • Detailed instructions are not required.
  • Employees already have the tools they need to do their most effective work.

Those who adopt an authoritative leadership style when they don’t have the appropriate experience, or when they try to wield authority over others in an aggressive way, will fail. An authoritative leader must be confident and have the experience to back it up in order to be successful.

2. Transactional Leadership

A transactional leader may be in a position of leadership, such as in a managing role, but this leader is not necessarily one to embrace going above and beyond what is expected. The transactional leader dangles a carrot in front of each workhorse. If the employee does something positive, they are rewarded. If they don’t meet the exact expectation, they may be punished.

This type of task-oriented leadership focuses on meeting basic expectations. The transactional leader may decide roles and ways to monitor performance so that results are delivered. But encouraging innovation isn’t as prevalent with this type of leadership style.

When This Type of Leadership Style Works Best

Transactional leadership may be appropriate when:

  • You are working with team members who are new to a certain type of project or need detailed guidance.
  • Clear goals and a plan to get there will increase productivity.
  • The team will benefit from celebrating victories together or holding each other accountable when someone doesn’t do the work they’re supposed to.

The downside to transactional leadership is that this type of style focuses on the work, not the people. Employees want to feel like their work has a broader purpose and want to meaningfully connect with work. Transactional leadership doesn’t foster the human-work connection.

3. Servant Leadership

Servant leaders get in the trenches with their team. Their goal is to achieve the best outcome. To do that, these types of leaders make themselves available to help with issues, work alongside those they manage, and develop those they manage into better employees.

Servant leaders coach. They’re willing to stay late and get in early when it’s called for, just like everyone else. Servant leaders are focused on constantly transforming their teams into stronger, more efficient, more productive and happier entities. Servant leaders are empathetic and use emotional intelligence to guide their leadership decisions.

When This Type of Leadership Style Works Best

You might want to employ a servant leader mindset when:

  • A team is in desperate need of a great example to look up to and learn from.
  • A team has conflict and needs mending.
  • Big projects require all hands on deck.

Servant leadership can have many positive outcomes, but it’s also time-consuming. Servant leaders must also be aware that they need to avoid doing all the work. When they give too much of themselves, they don’t give team members as much of a chance to learn. That can create inefficiencies and missed opportunities to lead in other areas.

4. Democratic Leadership

Just like a political democracy, where people with diverse opinions work together to come up with a consensus for decisions, a democratic leader gets everyone involved. The whole team is a part of creating a vision and the ideal way to get there. Democratic leaders embrace group meetings and surveys. They value transparency in decision-making. They want their team to feel as involved in work processes as they are.

Employees who work for a democratic leader are aware that they’re part of a larger team. They learn the value of collaboration and know they play a role in the evolution of their work environment. Democratic leaders foster discussion, but they also are able to step in when needed and make a decision that’s guided by overall input.

When This Type of Leadership Style Works Best

A democratic leadership style could help teams when:

  • A new project that will benefit from brainstorming is introduced.
  • There is a problem to tackle and fresh ideas are needed.
  • Tight-knit, highly collaborative teams are in the formation stage, like those at startups or new small businesses.

Using a democratic style on a constant basis can have drawbacks, though. A leader who never really takes charge and instead lets everyone else debate every decision can lose respect as an authority. Team members may not understand why they’re even reporting to someone who only leads in a democratic style in the workplace.

5. Empathetic Leadership

The empathetic leader recognizes that great work starts with engaged workers. This type of leader strives to create strong emotional bonds on a team so that those working on it feel a sense of belonging. The empathetic leader makes it a priority to make teammates satisfied with them as a manager and with their team. The empathetic leader focuses on people first, then work.

Empathetic leaders aren’t micromanagers. They empower team members to do their work, and offer themselves up as a resource whenever their team members need them. They’re quick to dole out praise and offer support when needed.

When This Type of Leadership Style Works Best

Empathetic leadership can be effective when:

  • A competent team knows the job they need to do and how to effectively execute that.
  • Little direction is needed from the leader.
  • The team will benefit more from space and independence to complete tasks than micromanaging.

An empathetic leader who only focuses on the people and not the work, though, can leave employees confused and unmotivated. With no clear direction, a hands-off approach to work-related leadership can lead to mistakes, inefficiencies and poor results.

6. Narcissistic Leadership: The Style to Avoid

One type of leadership that is best avoided in most work situations is the narcissistic leader, also known as a coercive leader. Instead of empowering team members to work toward the best possible outcome, the narcissistic leader has an agenda and aims to coerce those they’re leading to carry it out.

Narcissistic Traits

Narcissistic leadership is self-centered. It’s not often results-focused, and it is disrespectful to the team. This type of leader doesn’t lead – he dictates.

Leadership should foster collaboration and intrinsic motivation. A narcissistic leader who lacks empathy will instead breed disinterest or resentment.

There is one exception to when a narcissistic leadership style may be appropriate – when quick action is needed to avert a crisis, like a battlefield situation. But in the workplace, be aware when narcissistic leadership traits are emerging. Try to avoid those actions.

Find the Most Effective Leadership Style for You

If you recognize that there is one type of leadership style that dominates your work style, look for opportunities to put other leadership styles into practice when they’re appropriate.

If you haven’t connected with your team members on a personal level, put on your empathetic leader hat and have some one-on-ones where you get to know each team member’s perceived strengths and career goals. If you’ve taken a more hands-off approach to leadership, think about future projects where being more vocal can enhance the results.

Shifting your leadership style based on the situation or team member you’re dealing with doesn’t make you inconsistent. It can make you more successful, because you can connect more effectively and guide your team toward better results.

For more leadership insights, download our free ebook, The Executive’s Guide to Leading Millennials, Gen Xers and Baby Boomers.

The Wharton School is accredited by the International Association for Continuing Education and Training (IACET) and is authorized to issue the IACET CEU.

The Wharton School is accredited by IACET