Leadership Styles and Frameworks You Should Know

Key Takeaways

  • Leadership styles refer to leaders” characteristic behaviors in directing or managing groups of people.
  • Knowing and deliberately adjusting one’s leadership style can help managers better communicate and foster positive relationships within their teams.
  • Lewin and his colleagues conducted the first notable study of leadership styles on young children completing arts and crafts projects. They identified three leadership styles: autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire.
  • There are numerous leadership styles beyond those that Lewin identified. Among them are strategic, coach-style, bureaucratic, transformational, and transactional leadership.
  • Each leadership style has its own advantages and disadvantages. As a result, the best leadership style for a manager to take on depends on their goals and the organizational circumstances they must cope with.

What Are Leadership Styles?

A leadership style is a leader’s characteristic behaviors when directing or managing groups of people. A person’s default leadership style is the way they feel most comfortable leading others to achieve their vision.

Barchiesi et al. (2007) measured the effect that leadership effectiveness had on the performance and attitudes of teams.

The researchers found that, while high leadership score indexes are not related to the past performance of a team, they are associated both to a higher probability that the team’s performance will increase in the future and a higher reputability of the organizations that these teams belong to.

Information about leadership style can be powerful for managers in that it gives them an awareness of how they are perceived by others.

This awareness can enable leaders to communicate better, assess others” needs, and forge positive relationships.

Lewin’s Leadership Styles

Lewin (1939) and his colleagues set out to identify different leadership styles. While other researchers have identified more, Lewin’s original work has provided a basis for more defined leadership theories.

Lewin et al. began experimental research into leadership and group processes by 1939, looking at effective work ethics under different styles of leadership.

Lewin assigned schoolchildren to one of three groups with an authoritarian, democratic, or laissez-faire leader, and then led an arts and crafts project.

Autocratic Leadership

Autocratic leadership, otherwise known as autocratic leadership, is focused on the leader. Authoritarian leaders provide clear expectations around what needs to be done, when it should be done, and when it should be done.

As a result, there is a division between the leader and members as the leader makes decisions independent of the group.

Arrogance or selfish management concept. Bossy manager doesnt listen to subordinates opinion. People shout out for haughty boss sitting in chair with megaphone. Flat cartoon vector illustration

Because only one person is the decision maker in this style, decision making can be much faster than it is in other leadership styles. This can achieve the performance and decrease the stress of certain groups — such as small teams or countries in a life-or-death conflict.

On the downside, however, Autocratic leadership can lead to fear and frustration among those who follow the leader, as they feel that they are not being heard.

On the upper level, an autocratic leadership style can lead to new opportunities from those below the leader being missed, and, ultimately, a breakdown in communication.

As a result, decision-making tends to be less creative. Lewin also concluded that moving from an authoritarian to a democratic style, or vice-versa, is more difficult than moving between other leadership styles.

For these reasons, autocratic leadership styles are best to use when quick decisions are needed, when close supervision is necessary, and workflows need to be streamlined quickly.

The most famous autocratic leaders are dictators such as Adolph Hitler and Napoleon Bonaparte; however, there are situations where the style can provide good outcomes.

Consider the distribution of supplies and evacuation plans proceeding and following a natural disaster. If this natural disaster was particularly unexpected, those who normally make decisions about, say, rescuing others and distributing food may have very little time to make a decision.

Leadership styles that slow down the pace of decision making — such as democratic or laissez-faire leadership — have considerable disadvantages over an autocratic style that allows the leader to quickly make decisions.

Autocratic leadership styles are also useful in situations where subordinates know little about the problem at hand, and do not have the time to learn. For example, consider a plane that lands on water.

The flight attendants on the plane have a limited amount of time to evacuate the passengers on specialized life rafts.

In this situation, the flight attendants may lead the passengers autocratically, providing precise instructions for the passengers to follow for the task at hand.

Democratic Leadership

Lewin’s original (1939) study on schoolchildren found that, generally, participative or democratic leadership was most often the most effective in making arts and crafts.

Democratic leaders offer guidance to group members while also allowing participation and input from other group members. While children in this group were less productive than those of the authoritarian group, their contributions were of a higher quality.

In contrast to autocratic leadership, those who use democratic leadership focus on the team, meaning that team members share decision-making.

The shared decision-making of democratic teams can reduce the risk of complete failure, as members bring their own perspectives to their decisions, as well as leading to a higher team morale and a more cooperative working environment.

On the downside, democratic leadership can lead to slow decision-making as well as an over-dependence of individuals on the team. These two factors can combine to create a collaborative burden.

According to Lewin, democratic leadership is best used when team members are experts and it is necessary to create ownership.

Democratic leaders aim to empower subordinates by allowing them to participate in decision-making; however, ultimately, the final decision is up to the leader.

Two historical examples of successful democratic leadership are that of General Dwight Eisenhower and Nelson Mandela.

In the business world, a democratic CEO may participate in meetings with their subordinates, where participants can put forth their opinions and silent team members are specifically asked for their opinions to make sure all perspectives are heard.

For example, in deciding how highly to price a product, the democratic leader may consider the feedback and opinions of a large group before coming to a final decision.

Laissez-faire Leadership

In Laissez-faire leadership, the leader allows the team to self-direct, rather than interfering directly with decision making. In this style, all of the authority to set goals, solve problems, and make decisions is given to subordinates.

From the leader’s perspective, the goal of laissez-faire leadership is to build a strong team and then avoid interference.

Laissez-faire leaders are typically concerned with the creation and articulation of their vision as well as which steps to take to achieve their vision.

However, once the leader’s vision has been articulated, it then becomes the team’s task to figure out how to implement it.

Laissez-faire leadership tends to work in the high levels of an organization, where senior leaders appoint other senior leaders and allow them to solve particular problems (Lewin, 1939).

One advantage of laissez-faire leadership is that it creates personal responsibility. Another is that it supports fast course corrections, as motivated people working autonomously overcome problems and adjust their direction far more quickly than they would if they needed to seek approval.

Lastly, laissez-faire leadership supports higher retention within organizations (Chaudhry & Javed, 2012).

Laissez-faire leadership tends to work best in situations where an organization’s team members are highly skilled and thus able to overcome barriers more quickly than they would if they were waiting for the leader to create a response to the problem.

Perhaps the most notable example of laissez-faire leadership in the business world is Warren buffet.

For example, consider a research lab with many highly-skilled scientists working on their own projects.

During the group meeting, the lab’s leader may sit in the chair, only offering their opinion when it is specifically sought out by a team member.

Individual team members may bring up their problems and solve them through the efforts of the group, but not the leader.

As a result, each scientist is able to exercise autonomy and hold a sense of personal responsibility over their research.

Additional Leadership Styles and Models

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leaders model behavior, set clear goals, have high expectations, and offer support. At the core of the style is the presentation of a compelling vision and a set of values to work by.

Transformational leaders create a culture that tends to avoid blame, rather than focusing on the problems that the team faces collectively and how these can be solved.

Transformational leaders are often known as “quiet leaders,” preferring to model behavior rather than explicate on it.

They are also known for not making detailed plans, instead facilitating conversations between people inside and outside of an organization to achieve their end.

On the upside, transformational leadership can balance the need for both short and long-term goals. Subordinates often trust transformational leaders because they behave with integrity and form coalitions.

thirdly, transformational leaders have vision-focused communication. By communicating about a long-term goal objectively and passionately, transformational leaders can keep everyone in the organization motivated and brought-in to achieving the vision.

However, there are also disadvantages to transformational leadership. Firstly, it can be ineffective in the beginning. This happens because transformational leadership is based on trust.

At the beginning of their tenure, before they have built trust and collaboration within their organization, it may be difficult for others to unite with the leader in pursuing a shared goal.

Another disadvantage of transformational leadership is its de-emphasis on details.

Because transformational leaders are motivated to inspire others, they can struggle with the details of day-to-day implementation.

Transformational leadership is most effective when a team needs a long-term inspiring vision, when the right to lead has been earned, and when an urgent, short-term focus is not necessary.

Transformational leadership is often not appropriate when someone is new to an organization, and is yet to build trust with their team.

Transactional Leadership

The transactional leadership style views the relationship between leaders and followers like a transaction. In this view, the follower joins the leader and agrees to be compensated for meeting specific goals or performance criteria.

The transactional leader then validates the relationship between performance and reward in a way that encourages the subordinate to improve performance.

According to Kahai et al. (2004), group efficacy was higher under the transactional leadership condition than others.

Transactional leaders tend to focus on task completion and employee compliance and rely heavily on organizational rewards and punishments (Burns, 2003).

Illustrative Example: Transformational and Transactional Leadership in Sales

Transactional leadership is common in situations where a leader’s relationship with their subordinate consists of the leader purchasing some product or resource from that subordinate.

This can often be seen in sales roles, where employees receive commissions — a portion of the price of the product that they are selling to someone else — in exchange for good performance.

Although transactional leadership is seen as the most common style in sales, there have been studies that show that transformational leadership may actually improve performance more.

For instance, MacKenzie, Podsakoff, and Rich (2001) examined the impact of transformational and transactional leadership behaviors on sale performance and the extent to which salespeople believe that they are part of an organization, as well as the mediating role played by trust and role ambiguity in the process.

The researchers found that transformational leader behaviors actually have a stronger direct and indirect relationship with sales performance and organizational citizen behavior than transactional leader behaviors, accounting for biases.

Strategic Leadership

Strategic leadership  balances the ability to influence teams to make decisions that lead to long-term success with understanding the current cultural and financial context of the organization. By doing this, strategic leaders can link long-range visions and concepts to daily work.

According to Davies and Davies (2004), strategic leaders have the organizational ability to:

  1. be strategically oriented;
  2. translate strategy into action;
  3. align people and organizations;
  4. determine effective strategic intervention points;
  5. develop strategic competencies.

Strategic leaders have these organizational abilities because they display:

  1. dissatisfaction or restlessness with the present;
  2. absorptive capacity;
  3. adaptive capacity;
  4. wisdom

Like transformational leadership, strategic leadership is visionary, focusing on understanding the current existing realities while also developing a clear sense of direction for the organization (Korac-Kakabadse & Kakabadse, 1998).

On the upside, this “visioning” can encourage debate and create strategic conversations based on future scenarios (Davies & Davies, 2007).

However, powerful visions can actually do damage to an organization.

By creating and communicating a clear vision, and by creating conditions that require a leader’s followers to commit themselves to that vision, Schwenk (1997) argues, a leader is in danger of imposing uniformity of thinking and stifling healthy debate, destroying the dissent and discussion which are essential to creative decision making.

Bureaucratic Leadership

Bureaucratic leadership relies on a clear hierarchy, strict regulations, and conformity by its followers.

The style aims to acquire rationality as well as avoid ambiguity (Aydin, 2010). The style is characterized by:

  • Well-structured management, often with written rules and regulations. Hers, managers must pay attention to details and formal rules that outline the rights and responsibilities of subordinates;
  • A formal, well-defined, hierarchical structure, where subordinates are selected and promoted based on qualification and specialization;
    – Strong managers who work on maintaining the well-structured framework for what is oftentimes a large workforce; and,
  • Task-oriented managers who clearly defined tasks to subordinates and put forth guidelines.

Bureaucratic leadership is advantageous in that it is scalable, predictable, seeks to create best practices, leads to a strong level of job security, centralizes duties and roles within teams, and encourages familiarity (Kaleem, Asad, & Khan, 2013).

However, the style also tends to limit forward movement within organizations, may lead to stifled productivity, is often based on a quotas system, often bases decisions on cost structures, allows less space for team input and creativity than some other styles, is not necessarily efficient, and can be difficult in the face of change.

Coach-Style Leadership

Coach-style leadership is characterized by collaboration, and guidance. Leaders focus on recognizing each team member’s strengths, weaknesses, and motivations in order to help them improve.

In opposition to Lewin’s autocratic-style leadership, coach-style leaders focus on bringing out the best in individual team members over top-down decision-making.

Over time, this leads to short-term problem-solving being replaced by longer-term strategic thinking (Berg & Karlsen, 2016).

Coach-style leadership has many characteristics. Lee et al. (2020) explicate on them as:

  • Feedback provided by both management and the team. Everyone, regardless of their status in the organization, is encouraged to take constructive feedback and act upon it.
  • Leaders become effective communicators that share, engage, and listen to the team.
  • Delegation is effective and deliberate. This enables employees to work to their strengths and grow their skills. Team members are credited with their successes.
  • The leader’s objective is to help their teams visualize the goals behind what they are doing. After communicating this vision, leaders can allow their subordinates the autonomy to complete their own work.
  • Micromanaging is discouraged. Instead, the coach-style leader is motivated in enabling others to succeed and reach personal and group goals.
  • Clear empathy and awareness in the leader’s action and communication.
  • Encouraging the personal and professional development of employees.
  • Opportunities for individual growth and creative thinking.

Coach-style leadership can be effective in environments where people lack the skills or knowledge to reach a shared vision or have otherwise become worn-down by providing direction and motivation and encouraging skill development. This results in a more robust and effective team.

Addition positives of coach-style leadership include (Lee et al., 2020):

  • Employees that spend more time sharing knowledge and engaging in growth and development;
  • Lower staff turnover;
  • A greater awareness of the challenges an organization faces and more creativity in how they can be resolved;
  • Long-term, sustainable performance improvements;
  • A feeling that staff benefit from being valued and increasingly related to the environment;
  • An increased sense of competence among staff and timely, constructive feedback that helps them continue their development;
  • Constructive two-way communication and collaboration;
  • A supportive environment enabling creativity;
    – Increased trust and empathy in leaders; and,
  • Greater autonomy as employees find solutions to their own problems.

Nonetheless, coach-style leadership also has disadvantages (Lee, 2020):

  • Leads to longer delivery times for tasks and goal completion. This makes coach-style leadership difficult to implement in a fast-paced, high-pressure, or in companies that want timely, predictable results;
  • Is difficult to implement if staff are unwilling to receive or are fearful of negative feedback;
  • Requires managers to spend more time with their staff.

One notable example of coach-style leadership is that at Microsoft. When Satya Nadella became CEO of Microsoft in 2014, the culture was stagnant and fixed.

Nadella encouraged his staff to learn from mistakes rather than avoiding or hiding from them, shifting the company from one that valued “knowing” to one valuing learning.

Participative Leadership

Participative leadership is one of the four participative decision-making styles. It is a leadership style in which, as the name suggests, all team members are encouraged to provide input and thoughts about group goals and decisions.

Some well-known examples of participative leaders include Bill Gates and Jim Lentz.


Further reading

Hersey, P., & Blanchard, K. H. (1969). Life cycle theory of leadership. Training & Development Journal.

Wang, H., & Guan, B. (2018). The positive effect of authoritarian leadership on employee performance: The moderating role of power distance. Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 357.

Gastil, J. (1994). A meta-analytic review of the productivity and satisfaction of democratic and autocratic leadership. Small Group Research, 25(3), 384-410.


Barchiesi, M. A., La Bella, A. (2007). Leadership styles of the world’s most admired companies: A holistic approach to measuring leadership effectiveness. International Conference on Management Science & Engineering.

Berg, M. E., & Karlsen, J. T. (2016). A study of coaching leadership style practice in projects. Management Research Review.

Burns, J. M. (2003). Transforming leadership: A new pursuit of happiness. Grove Press.

Chaudhry, A. Q., & Javed, H. (2012). Impact of transactional and laissez faire leadership style on motivation. International Journal of Business and Social Science, 3 (7).

Davies, B. J., & Davies, B. (2004). Strategic leadership. School leadership & management, 24 (1), 29-38.

Kahai, S. S., Sosik, J. J., & Avolio, B. J. (2004). Effects of participative and directive leadership in electronic groups. Group & Organization Management, 29 (1), 67-105.

Kaleem, Y., Asad, S., & Khan, H. (2013). Leadership styles and using appropriate styles in different circumstances.

Korac-Kakabadse, A., Korac-Kakabadse, N., & Myers, A. (1998). Demographics and leadership philosophy: exploring gender differences. Journal of Management Development.

Lee, A., Legood, A., Hughes, D., Tian, A. W., Newman, A., & Knight, C. (2020). Leadership, creativity and innovation: a meta-analytic review. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 29 (1), 1-35.

Lewin, K. (1939). Experiments in social space. Harvard Educational Review.

MacKenzie, S. B., Podsakoff, P. M., & Rich, G. A. (2001). Transformational and transactional leadership and salesperson performance. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 29(2), 115-134.

Schwenk, C. R. (1997). The case for ‘weaker leadership. Business Strategy Review, 8(3), 4-9.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education.

Charlotte Nickerson

Research Assistant at Harvard University

Undergraduate at Harvard University

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University obsessed with the intersection of mental health, productivity, and design.