Getting your first 90 days right: secrets for new HR directors
10 January 2022

Five leadership styles and how to find the right one for you

Are you autocratic, democratic, laissez-faire, transactional or transformational? Ciphr explores the best leadership styles for you

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Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir

Maryam Munir worked as a content marketing writer at Ciphr from 2019 to 2021.

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Leadership and management Performance

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Are you autocratic, democratic, laissez-faire, transactional or transformational? Ciphr explores the best leadership styles for you

A well-defined and applied leadership style influences the working behaviour of employees and leads to a better functioning organisation. You need to find the leadership style that works for you so that you can understand employees, be decisive yet collaborative, and attentive but not micro-managing. Displaying all of these behaviours, however, isn’t an easy task.

Your leadership style needs to be authentic if you want to succeed in looking after and leading your employees, but how can you determine which leadership style is right for you?

Traditional leadership styles

In 1939, a group of researchers led by psychologist Kurt Lewin set out to identify different styles of leadership and found three main styles – autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire (also known as delegative).

Autocratic 

An autocratic leadership style is when one person takes control of all matters in a team or organisation with little input from other employees.

This style is suited for you if you like to make decisions based solely on your own ideas and judgements, if you’re self-motivated, and confident in your ability.

Benefits for your organisation

  • Increases employee productivity – a strong and confident autocratic leader can improve an organisation’s or team’s performance with planning and firm deadlines
  • Reduces stress – because autocratic leaders clearly enforce all rules and standards, employees know what tasks need to be done and are given clear instructions by their leader. This means reduced stress because there’s less confusion over tasks
  • Faster decision-making – by usingtheir high level of expertise and skills to efficiently make decisions without asking various people for their opinion, autocratic leaders can help save time when making decisions

Drawbacks for your organisation

  • Kills creativity – since output from the team is limited under an autocratic leadership style, creativity and innovation is also limited
  • Reduces employee morale – employees may not like the lack of autonomy, and this dissatisfaction could lead to employees being less motivated to achieve results or even stay at the company
  • Lack of trust from employees – autocratic leaders want employees to report on what they are doing, which could be seen as micromanaging. Employees may then feel that their manager/leader doesn’t trust them to fulfil their duties

Democratic

Compared to an autocratic leadership style, where only leaders are involved in the decision-making process, a democratic leadership style is based on empowering employees to participate in decision making.

This may be the right leadership style for you if you like sharing ideas, encouraging and rewarding creativity, and working as a team to make decisions.

Benefits for your organisation

  • Increases employee satisfaction – employees who feel like their contribution matters are likely to be satisfied at work and more committed to their job
  • Greater levels of innovation – by working with employees and sharing ideas, you can benefit from different viewpoints, which could lead to surprising new ways of problem solving
  • Improves productivity – employees who are happier at work are more likely to be productive

Drawbacks for your organisation

  • Time-consuming decision-making process –you need to take the time to listen to employees’ different opinions, which may be a lengthy process
  • Not always effective – if employees are unskilled or inexperienced, they may not be a big help for you when it comes to making decisions, or they may contribute towards you making poor decisions

Laissez-faire

The laissez-faire leadership style – also known as delegative leadership – is one where you give employees the freedom to take responsibility for their work by delegating projects and allowing them to work independently.

If your team is made up of experienced employees who have, in the past, proven their ability to work to a high standard, this leadership style may be effective for you.

Benefits for your organisation

  • Increases creativity – employees might thrive when given the space to think and work independently, and, in turn, come up with creative results
  • Creates a positive culture – by delegating tasks to employees, you are proving to them that you trust them. This can make your people feel valued, leading to happier, more loyal employees

Drawbacks for your organisation

  • Overwhelms employees – not all employees want to work independently. For those who enjoy working as a team, or need support with tasks, this leadership style may make them feel isolated and overwhelmed
  • Accountability isn’t always clear – when employees work independently, it can prove difficult to determine who has overall responsibility for a decision or a project if communication is poor. As a result, if something goes wrong, it is harder for leaders to determine who is actually accountable

While these three traditional leadership styles remain popular, there are also other styles that have evolved which may be best for you.

Transactional

The transactional leadership style – which was first described by Max Weber in 1947 and then by Bernard Bass in 1981 – takes a behavioural approach to leadership by basing it on a system of rewards and punishments.

You, as a leader, would view the relationship between yourself and subordinates as an exchange – when subordinates perform well and achieve goals, they receive a reward. When they perform poorly, they are penalised according to rules, procedures, and standards.

Benefits for your organisation

  • Clear chain of command – employees know where they fit into the organisation chart or command structure. This clear structure prevents workers from ‘going rogue’ by attempting to assume leadership roles that they have not earned or to which they have not been assigned
  • Motivates employees – when workers know they can receive a reward for achieving a goal, they are likely to put more effort into their work. Rewards act as a clear motivator and push employees to be productive
  • Easy to implement – this leadership style is simple and easy to implement. You do not need to have extensive training, a high emotional intelligence, or specific personal leadership traits. All you have to do is enforce rules

Drawbacks for your organisation

  • Limits creativity and innovation – employees are not encouraged to be creative or to find new solutions to problems, limiting innovation
  • Creates followers instead of future leaders – because all responsibilities are in the hands of the leader, and employees have to just do what they are assigned, transactional leadership ends up creating followers. If the leader was to leave the company or team, employees wouldn’t have the skills or experience needed to step up (making internal recruitment for leadership positions much harder)
  • Lack of loyalty – transactional leaders work under rules and regulations, and do not mix their emotions with work. While this may be effective in some cases, it also means that relationships with employees may not be close because this leader doesn’t take the time to understand and address how employees feel. For employees, this can create a lack of loyalty to the organisation because they don’t view their relationship with their leader as one that matters significantly

Transformational leadership

A transformational leadership style – which started with James V. Downton in 1973 and was expanded by James Burns in 1978 – is one where leaders encourage, inspire and motivate employees to innovate and create change that will help grow and shape the future success of the company. This is accomplished by being a role model.

This style is for someone who likes to encourage employees, who provides coaching and mentoring to employees and who follows the organisation’s values, priorities, and standards.

Under this leadership style, employees are intrinsically motivated to follow the leader’s example because they respect the leader (compared to transactional leadership where they are motivated by rewards).

Benefits for your organisation

  • Boosts morale – with a leader who follows the transformational style, employees are motivated to do what is asked of them because work is perceived as a purposeful and enjoyable adventure, resulting in more productive employees
  • Close relationships – by acting as a mentor, this leader can develop close bonds. This strong relationship means employees have someone to turn to, and someone who they feel comfortable around
  • Reduces turnover – employees are likely to respect their leader and want to help shape the future of the company so they are likely to stay at the company for a while, reducing turnover rates

Drawbacks for your organisation

  • Risk of burnout – transformational leaders put a lot of emphasis on authenticity and living and breathing the company culture and values. Employees may feel overwhelmed by this and the need to consistently perform well could lead to burnout, impacting mental health
  • Misuse of power – transformational leaders are excellent at influencing others, which makes it easy for people to misuse their power. Leaders should have a high level of honesty and integrity in their work if they want to avoid misusing their power

Developing your leadership style

Before you delve into developing and implementing your leadership style, it’s important to note that these five leadership styles are not the only styles – ethical and coaching leadership styles are examples of other styles that you can choose to follow.

When deciding which leadership style is right for you, remember that you don’t have to follow one specific leadership style all the time – researchers have noted that not one single leadership style is appropriate all the time, and leaders should actually use various styles depending on the situation and people they are dealing with. It might help you to reflect on your natural leadership style preference, and on the preferences of the people you manage, so you can begin to adapt and tailor your leadership style more appropriately. At the same time, you should take care to remain authentic as a leader, because authenticity is a key ingredient for successful leadership at work.