leaders meeting image for the four different types of leadership styles blogIn this article, you’re going to learn about 4 different types of leadership styles.

Reflect for a moment on the best leaders you’ve experienced, perhaps as a boss, a director, a CEO or manager. What did you admire the most? What about their styles of leadership that actually made the time you spent at work feel worthwhile, even inspiring? Great leaders can inspire political and social change (think Kamala Harris) or environmental responsibility (think Canadian industry leader, Annette Verschuren). 

Now, think for a moment of the worst kinds of leadership you’ve experienced. Unfortunately, this isn’t difficult to do. Leaders themselves are often at a loss to tell which ones are going to be successful, and which ones are going to struggle. According to one HBR study, just three in five newly appointed CEOs live up to performance expectations in their first 18 months on the job.  

Leadership style refers to a leader’s characteristic behaviors when directing, engaging, guiding, and managing people, both individually and in teams. 

The ongoing quest for how to  tell if a leader is going to excel in their job has led to countless studies. The traditional idea of a leader as an ultimate authority figure has been expanded thanks to recent research and the role of emotional intelligence in leadership. It is widely recognized today that there are various leadership styles, and one is not necessarily better than the other. Different circumstances call for a different style

An obvious example would be a military leader preparing a team for deployment. There’s not a lot of time for collaboration when instructions need to be followed in life and death situations. It’s a very different case when a leader is managing a team of experts about to embark on the development of a complex piece of technology. Success lies in the very fact that there’s going to be shared ideas and decision-making along the way. There are exceptions, however. Many like to engage in a critique of a leader’s style when it tends toward the directive. For example: Steve Jobs is legendary for defining the ultimate “autocratic” approach. At the same time, no one disagrees that without Job’s meticulous eye for detail and insistence that he was the ultimate authority, Apple would never have achieved the success it did.

There is one thing that those of us that work with organizational development and leaders know to be true: Those who are most effective as leaders exhibit more than one style of leadership, and are able to switch seamlessly from one style to another as required. 

There are numerous styles of leadership, and if you ask a group of leaders you may hear them describe themselves using different words.  But in general, let’s talk about four that are the most common leadership styles, and uncover some of the more extreme differences between each one. 

What Are The 4 Leadership Styles?

The Four Styles of Leadership are:

  • Directive
  • Supportive
  • Affiliative
  • Coaching

What is the Directive Leadership Style? 

The directive leadership style is based on the path-goal theory developed by organizational behaviour professor in the 1970s, Martin G. Evans, from Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. The directive style (in the same category as autocratic) is one of four leadership behaviors that sets clearly defined objectives and rules for team members. 

Some dismiss the directive style of leadership because it seems to go against the emphasis these days on a team approach and collaboration, i.e., the directive type of leader might say, “do this because I say so,” instead of, “let’s talk about it.”

There is, however, a time and place for the directive style. For instance, when overseeing work that is outsourced or delegated to another company or team, setting milestones and specific outcomes are key to successful completion. The directive style also takes a load off of the heavy responsibilities carried by the boss. Once the goals and objectives are given with clear directions as to what needs to be done, the leader can step aside. There’s no need for supervision or a constant level of support. In this way, the directive style is an excellent managing tool for building accountability.  

There are workplaces that thrive in such a goal-setting environment. For individuals and teams that need firm boundaries and expectations, it provides a clear chain of command without getting in the way of the job getting done. It does, however, need to be combined with good communication skills so staff understand that they are part of the larger picture. If this style is over-used when managing a team, it can take away the role of the members to have any meaningful part except for the execution of tasks. Employees end up feeling like a bunch of worker bees—not a great environment for engagement and retention.  

What is the Supportive Leadership Style?

The supportive leadership style (same category as collaborative) is about working together: sharing ideas, suggestions and solutions within a group; but with the leader taking accountability for the final say. Notice the immediate difference from the directive style. The ideal supportive leader does not aim to achieve all goals alone. Instead, supportive leaders view themselves as one of the team members, which means setting the rules and milestones, but also respecting the team’s strengths and accepting recommendations for changes. 

The supportive style of leadership works where the leader doesn’t need to be fully involved until a decision needs to be made. Hiring an employee is a good example of this process. A manager or director may have full control of the recruitment process but the final decision needs CEO approval. 

The supportive leader believes that constructive feedback can only happen with employee dialogue. Such leaders are known for keeping the channels of communication open. They are easily accessible to employees and check-in routinely to offer corrections (i.e. “management by walking around”). They are willing to receive suggestions, even critique, themselves because they don’t let their egos get in the way of what is best for the whole. 

Those who work for supportive leaders are generally engaged in their work because they feel directly heard and involved in the decision-making process. They are given space to prove themselves as they move through tasks and projects and are given opportunities to be leaders themselves within the team

The supportive style sounds very positive, but there are some definite downsides, particularly when tough decisions have to be made. It is one of the types of leadership styles that takes time, which isn’t always an option, especially in workplaces where decisions have to be made quickly (think, perhaps, of a hospital environment!)  Let’s face it, there are times when the “buck” actually does stop at the top. This is where a supportive leader may struggle; whereas, a directive leader can take control. In addition, as a group, team members have to be able to manage conflict in an environment where ideas are being shared. This can be challenging for goal-oriented leaders who don’t have the patience to deal with “group think.” 

What Is the Delegative Leadership Style?

The delegative leadership style, also known as the affiliative leadership style,  is self-explanatory. Delegating leaders are very hands-off, which means, they have tremendous respect for the expertise of those around them. Using the delegating style, a leader gives full authority to the individual or team to make the final decision. Of the 4 types of leadership, the delegating leadership style is most successful when leading a team of senior leaders, managers or directors, and the CEO fully trusts their experience and their emotional maturity. You can see why this style is rarely used in teams made up of junior or mid-level staff, unless the decision is low-risk. 

Leaders that are able to practice the delegative style have the opportunity to create workplaces where there is tremendous satisfaction. Staff set their own schedules and their own approach for getting things done. In these days of “work from home”, the delegating leadership style is proving to be very effective in certain circumstances.  Many formerly reluctant leaders have been surprised at how well senior team members have managed during the pandemic using videoconferencing technologies and collaboration tools to get their work done outside a formal office setting.

There are, however, some serious issues if all leadership is done in a delegative style. Leaders can be viewed as detached, uninterested, or at worst, not suitable for their role as leaders. There’s also the issue of accountability. If mistakes are made, who is responsible? The team may point to the leader, and the leader blames the team. Neither case builds harmony or engagement. Another interesting result arises when teams continually work independently with little or no interaction with leadership. When a change in direction is required, such team members can be extremely resistant to change. After all, they’ve managed just fine without interference, why would they want to do things differently just because an absentee boss says so?

What Is the Coaching Leadership Style?

Of all the various leadership styles, research conducted by the Harvard Business Review concluded that the coaching leadership style is used least often. Many leaders claim that they don’t have the time in a typical high-pressure day for the slow and patient work of training people one-on-one and helping them grow. It’s too bad they don’t give it a try, conclude the authors of the study, “ …after the first session, it takes little or no time. Leaders who ignore this style are passing up a powerful tool: its impact on climate and performance are markedly positive.”

The coaching leadership style focuses on the performance competence of the employees. Those with coaching leadership skills (that is, specific training in leadership coaching) are able to help employees identify their unique strengths and weaknesses, and then tie them to their personal and career aspirations. Through personalized development plans and giving feedback, employees rise to the challenge of becoming the best they can be. In turn, leaders don’t have to make all the decisions or carry out all the tasks alone. They know that they have a competent, engaged team, one that is clear what is expected and is always up for the challenge. 

The coaching leadership style works well with employees who want to improve or are keen to acquire new abilities to help them advance in their careers. And, better yet, effective for those resistant to learning, growing, or fearful of feedback. This is a major issue—most people do not welcome being told what to correct, particularly if they’ve been used to a work culture focused on blame. 

It takes skill to be an effective leader-as-coach. That’s why developing specific coaching skills is needed to do this effectively.  Giving corrective feedback and managing “difficult conversations” requires management coaching training and practice. It also means that a leader needs to be “on the ground” in the workplace, and understanding the role of everyone being coached. In short,  you can’t coach if you never leave the corner office.

It’s important to note that the coaching leader is particularly focused on developing and improving the characteristics and talents of employees. If you’ve been assigned as a leader to turn around an organization, coaching alone isn’t likely to be enough to get the job done. However, those of us committed to leadership coaching know that a balance of the two styles—coaching and directive—with some delegative and supportive thrown in, can be extremely powerful in achieving a positive result. 

What Is My Leadership Style?

Self-knowledge is the best starting point for improving your leadership skills, regardless of your role or level of responsibility. The following should help start this process for you. 

  1. If you’ve already participated in a strength-based assessment, review the identified strengths. Which align with the above styles?
  2. Be open to learning where you have opportunities to grow in order to manage people appropriately in various circumstances. 
  3. Ask for feedback from trusted peers and superiors about the effectiveness and characteristics of your leadership style.
  4. Seek valid and reliable tools to gain self-awareness. There are many available, and not all are equal in providing effective self-awareness and clear priorities for development.  We’ve curated the best tools on the market.  Contact us at Einblau & Associates and we’ll tell you which ones have been the most valuable to our clients.

How to Improve My Leadership Style

Looking to develop a particular leadership style or refine a style in order to improve your own job satisfaction as a leader? Perhaps you’ve recently landed a new position that’s going to require some adjustments in your leadership style. 

An effective first step starts with understanding your own competencies in terms of emotional intelligence (the ones you have as well as the ones you are lacking). This can be done individually, but a full EQ 360 Degree assessment is best for obtaining input from those around you to add to your own perceptions. Working with a leadership development coach who specializes in EQ assessments, you will be coached in areas of strengths and define where to place your priorities for skills needing development. An effective coach will support you in the creation of an action plan that with additional resources and success measures.

Don’t be fooled by the myth that some are “born leaders”. All of us can learn to lead more effectively. Regardless of training, it takes time to master these skills,  and it’s never too late to expand your leadership style repertoire—great leaders know that as well! 

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