Common Leadership Styles and When to Use Them


A leadership style refers to a leader’s characteristic behaviors when directing, motivating, guiding and managing groups of people. Great leaders can inspire political movements and social change. They can also motivate others to perform, create and innovate.

As you start to consider some of the people who you think of as great leaders, you can immediately see that there are often vast differences in how each person leads.

Fortunately, researchers have developed different theories and frameworks that allow us to better identify and understand these different leadership styles.

The following are just a few of the most prominent leadership frameworks and styles that have been identified.

Lewin’s Leadership Styles

In 1939, a group of researchers led by psychologist Kurt Lewin set out to identify different styles of leadership. While further research has identified more distinct types of leadership, this early study was very influential and established three major leadership styles.

In the study, schoolchildren were assigned to one of three groups with an authoritarian, democratic or laissez-faire leader. The children were then led in an arts and crafts project while researchers observed the behavior of children in response to the different styles of leadership. The researchers found that democratic leadership tended to be the most effective at inspiring followers to perform well.

Let’s take a closer look at the three styles Lewin identified:

Authoritarian Leadership (Autocratic)

Authoritarian leaders, also known as autocratic leaders, provide clear expectations for what needs to be done, when it should be done, and how it should be done. This style of leadership is strongly focused on both command by the leader and control of the followers.

There is also a clear division between the leader and the members. Authoritarian leaders make decisions independently with little or no input from the rest of the group.

Researchers found that decision-making was less creative under authoritarian leadership. Lewin also concluded that it is harder to move from an authoritarian style to a democratic style than vice versa. Abuse of this method is usually viewed as controlling, bossy, and dictatorial.

Authoritarian leadership is best applied to situations where there is little time for group decision-making or where the leader is the most knowledgeable member of the group. The autocratic approach can be a good thing when the situation calls for rapid decisions and decisive actions. However, it tends to create dysfunctional and even hostile environments, often pitting followers against the domineering leader.

Participative Leadership (Democratic)

Lewin’s study found that participative leadership, also known as democratic leadership, is typically the most effective leadership style.

Democratic leaders offer guidance to group members, but they also participate in the group and allow input from other group members. In Lewin’s study, children in this group were less productive than the members of the authoritarian group, but their contributions were of a higher quality.

Participative leaders encourage group members to participate but retain the final say in the decision-making process. Group members feel engaged in the process and are more motivated and creative. Democratic leaders tend to make followers feel like they are an important part of the team, which helps foster commitment to the goals of the group.

Delegative (Laissez-Faire) Leadership

Researchers found that children under delegative leadership, also known as laissez-fair leadership, were the least productive of all three groups. The children in this group also made more demands on the leader, showed little cooperation and were unable to work independently.

Delegative leaders offer little or no guidance to group members and leave decision-making up to group members. While this style can be useful in situations involving highly qualified experts, it often leads to poorly defined roles and a lack of motivation.

Lewin noted that laissez-faire leadership tended to result in groups that lacked direction where members blamed each other for mistakes, refused to accept personality responsibility, and produced a lack of progress and work.

Observations About Lewin’s Leadership Styles

In their book The Bass Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications (2008), Bass and Bass note that authoritarian leadership is often presented solely in negative, often even pejorative terms. Authoritarian leaders are often described as controlling and close-minded, yet this overlooks the potential positives of stressing rules, expecting obedience and taking responsibility.

While authoritarian leadership certainly is not the best choice for each and every situation, it can be effective and beneficial in cases where followers need a great deal of direction and where rules and standards must be followed to the letter. Another often overlooked benefit of the authoritarian style is the ability to maintain a sense of order.

Bass and Bass note that democratic leadership tends to be centered on the followers and is an effective approach when trying to maintain relationships with others. People who work under such leaders tend to get along well, support one another and consult other members of the group when making decisions.

Additional Leadership Styles and Models

In addition to the three styles identified by Lewin and his colleagues, researchers have described numerous other characteristic patterns of leadership.

The following are just a few of the best-known:

The Transformational Leadership Style

Transformational leadership is often identified as the single most effective style. This style was first described during the late 1970s and later expanded upon by researcher Bernard M. Bass. Some of the key characteristics of his style of leadership are the abilities to motivate and inspire followers and to direct positive changes in groups.

Transformational leaders tend to be emotionally intelligent, energetic and passionate. They are not only committed to helping the organization achieve its goals, but also to helping group members fulfill their potential.

Research has revealed that this style of leadership resulted in higher performance and improved group satisfaction than other leadership styles. One study also found that transformation leadership led to improved well-being among group members.

The Transactional Leadership Style

The transactional leadership style views the leader-follower relationship as a transaction. By accepting a position as a member of the group, the individual has agreed to obey the leader. In most situations, this involves the employer-employee relationship, and the transaction focuses on the follower completing required tasks in exchanged for monetary compensation.

One of the main advantages of this leadership style is that it creates clearly defined roles. People know what they are required to do and what they will be receiving in exchange for completing these tasks. It also allows leaders to offer a great deal of supervision and direction if it is needed. Group members may also be motivated to perform well to receive rewards. One of the biggest downsides is that the transactional style tends to stifle creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

Situational Leadership Styles

Situational theories of leaders stress the significant influence of the environment and the situation on leadership.

Hershey and Blanchard’s Leadership Styles

Hershey and Blanchard’s model is one of the best-known situational theories. First published in 1969, this model describes four primary styles of leadership.

  1. The telling style is characterized by telling people what to do.
  2. The selling style involves leaders convincing followers to buy into their ideas and messages.
  3. The participating style is marked by allowing group members to take a more active role in the decision-making process.
  4. Finally, the delegating style involves taking a hands-off approach to leadership and allowing group members to make the majority of decisions.

Blanchard’s SLII Leadership Styles

Later, Blanchard expanded upon the original Hershey and Blanchard model to emphasize how the developmental and skill level of the learners influences the style that should be used by leaders. Blanchard also described four different learning styles.

  1. The Directing style involves giving orders and expecting obedience, but offers little in the way of guidance and assistance.
  2. The Coaching style means giving lots of orders, but leaders also lots of supportive behaviors.
  3. The Supporting style, on the other hand, is an approach that offers plenty of help, but very little direction.
  4. Finally, the Delegating style is low in both direction and support.

What’s Your Learning Style?

As you can see, there are different ways to conceive of leadership styles. You probably have also noticed that some of these leadership styles bear many similarities to the three core styles initially described by Lewin and his colleagues. Still unsure? Take this Leadership Style quiz and find out!


Bass, B. M., & Bass, R. (2008). The Bass Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications. New York: Free Press.

Hersey, P. and Blanchard, K. H. (1969). Management of Organizational Behavior – Utilizing Human Resources. New Jersey/Prentice Hall.

Hersey, P. and Blanchard, K. H. (1969). Life cycle theory of leadership. Training and Development Journal, 23 (5), 26–34.

Lewin, K., Lippit, R. and White, R.K. (1939). Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created social climates. Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 271-301


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