Eight Leadership Styles and When to Use Them

Blanken Leadership December 2, 2019 By: Rhea Blanken, FASAE

Some situations call for a leader like Oprah; others need Gordon Ramsay. If you're leading well, you won't have just one leadership style. You'll mix and match to engage your team and achieve your goals. Look over these eight style types to see what you're doing right—and what you might be missing.

There is no such thing as a born leader. Leadership is an acquired attribute that begins early in school and on the playground. Some children develop a take-charge attitude, some make friends fast, while others are happy just to make the team.

As time goes on, education, jobs, and life experiences shape a leader's philosophy and psychology. How best to get the job done and work with others? How to set goals and objectives and manage their results? The answers to these questions become a leader's winning formula for success.

But over time, a leader may find that her winning formula is no longer producing results. New challenges require new leadership skills, behaviors, and ways of communicating. It's time for her to unlearn her familiar leadership approach, recognize her limitations, and adapt her leadership style to become the leader she needs to be.

Louis R. Mobley, the director of IBM's executive school in the 1950s and 1960s, first alerted executives to the need to "wake up" to the comfortable parameters they worked in so they could better "feel" their leadership potential. His lessons still apply today.

Mobley taught that leadership is based in experience and habit, not intellect, noting that success comes 20 percent from knowledge and 80 percent from behavior. For Mobley, waking up to leadership meant being responsible for one's impact on others. He pushed for a "radical revolution in consciousness," believing that great leaders don't know different things from everyone else, but they think in utterly different ways. Leadership lives in how we think, not what we think.

Consider the eight leadership styles outlined here and the real-world leaders who exemplify them. No style is inherently right or wrong; each is its own valuable resource. If you are aware of these different ways of leading, you can adapt your style to manage circumstances and advance your intended goals. How do you decide which styles to employ? Read, reflect, and go experiment.

The Charismatic Leader

The Icon: Oprah Winfrey, media executive, actor, and philanthropist

A media mogul who came from humble beginnings, Oprah Winfrey become known throughout the world by her first name alone. She picks a book to read and makes it a bestseller overnight, leads her own television network and magazine, and has more than 42 million Twitter followers. Her word can influence markets and propel social issues to broader acceptance.

Influences others through the power of personality
Acts energetically, motivating others to move forward 
Inspires passion, commitment, and action
Believes and trusts in self first and foremost 

When to Use It
To spur others into action
To expand an organization's image, contribution, or footprint in the marketplace
To raise team morale and motivate others to fulfill their potential

Impact on Others
Can create risk that a project or group will flounder if the leader leaves
Leader's feeling of invincibility can ruin a team by taking on too much risk too soon
Team success seen as directly connected to the leader's presence

The Innovative Leader

The Icon: José Andrés, chef and humanitarian

Spanish-American chef José Andrés is often credited with bringing the small-plates dining concept to America. His nonprofit World Central Kitchen brought innovation to disaster relief, providing grassroots mobilization of chefs and volunteers to establish communications networks, systems for food supply, and other resources necessary for immediate massive meal delivery in response to earthquakes, hurricanes, and other catastrophes. The organization has served millions from Haiti and Puerto Rico to Indonesia and Mozambique, as well as within the United States.

Grasps the entire situation and goes above and beyond the usual course of action 
Can see what is not working and brings new thinking and action into play
Operates by envisioning the desired result and works backwards to deliver the breakthrough

When to Use It 
To break open entrenched, intractable issues, processes, policies, and ways of thinking
To create a work environment where others can apply innovative thinking to solve problems and create new products, services, and delivery systems

Impact on Others
Risk-taking is increased for all, yet failures do not impede progress
Team gains job satisfaction in atmosphere of respect for others' ideas
Team consistently goes beyond their comfort level to maximize their contribution

The Command-and-Control Leader 

The Icon: Gordon Ramsay, chef, television personality, and entrepreneur

In the culinary world, French brigade kitchens are the epitome of command and control, with a strict, hierarchical power structure. Television reality-show chef Gordon Ramsay embodies the pinnacle of that system. His demanding and often bad-tempered TV demeanor is controversial, but his insistence on excellence has driven high achievement: Over the course of his career, Ramsay’s restaurants have been awarded 16 Michelin stars. In 2006, he was named the most influential person in the U.K. hospitality industry and in 2013 was inducted into the Culinary Hall of Fame.

Follows the rules and expects others to do the same 
Believes in the chain of command and is the sole decision maker
Engages in top-down interactions 

When to Use It 
In situations of real urgency with no time for discussion
When safety is at stake
For meeting inflexible deadlines
When immediate compliance is required (for example, in situations involving financial, legal, or HR issues)

Impact on Others 
If used too much, feels restrictive and limits others' ability to develop their own leadership skills
Others have little chance to debrief what was learned before next encounter with leader 
Insistence on consistency builds a team’s sense of accomplishment

The Laissez-Faire Leader

The Icon: Beth Ford, CEO, Land O’Lakes, Inc.

Beth Ford runs a $15 billion agricultural co-operative with 4,000 members who share ownership in the co-op. Ford enables members to work together with the Land O’Lakes staff to innovate the production of dairy products and animal feeds. By supporting the use of new technologies like satellites and artificial intelligence in agriculture, Ford empowers the co-op’s members to do more with less in their farm-to-fork efforts.

Knows what is happening but not directly involved in all of it 
Trusts others to keep their word
Monitors performance, gives feedback regularly

When to Use It 
When the team is working in multiple locations or remotely 
When a project, under multiple leaders, must come together by a specific date
When team is skilled, experienced, and self-directed in use of time and resources
To get quick results from a highly cohesive team

Impact on Others 
Team members take ownership of their projects
Autonomy of team members leads to high job satisfaction and increased productivity 

The Pace Setter

The Icon: Virginia (Ginni) Rometty, CEO, IBM

IBM’s first woman president and CEO, Ginni Rometty confesses to being obsessed with what’s new and continuously looking for the next big thing.  She has taken IBM further into hybrid cloud computing and the IT consulting business and is a champion of artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, she has quickly moved the company deep into blockchain, betting that it will revolutionize healthcare and finance. A key Rometty quote: “I learned to always take on things I’d never done before. Growth and comfort do not coexist.”

Sets high performance standards for self and the group 
Epitomizes the behavior sought from others
Sticks up for own beliefs

When to Use It 
With staff who are self-motivated and highly skilled, able to embrace new projects and move with speed
When actions are critical, results are key, and competition is expected
When time is limited

Impact on Others 
Level of activity can’t be sustained too long, as staff will burn out from demanding pace 
Staff effort sometimes can’t match leader’s demand for delivering results 
Job satisfaction can suffer if pace is more important than staff ownership of work

The Servant Leader 

The Icon: Salman Kahn, founder, Khan Academy

Salman Kahn founded his nonprofit educational academy in 2008 to create free online tools in the form of short video lessons for students and to provide practice exercises and materials for educators. His goal for the academy is to supplement in-class learning, improve teacher effectiveness, free up teachers from more traditional teaching formats, and enable them to give more time and attention to individual students' needs.

Puts service to others before self-interest
Includes the whole team in decision making
Provides tools to get the job done
Stays out of the limelight and lets team accept credit for results

When to Use It
When leader is elected or appointed to a team, organization, committee, or community
When anyone, at any level of the group, meets the needs of the team

Impact on Others 
Organizations with these leaders often appear on "best places to work" lists 
Can create a positive culture and lead to high morale
Can frustrate team members in situations that call for quick decisions or meeting tight deadlines

The Situational Leader

The Icon: Pat Summitt, college basketball coach

As the former head coach of the University of Tennessee women's basketball team, Pat Summitt holds the record as the all-time winningest Division I coach in NCAA history. Summitt, who died in 2016, knew how to adapt her coaching to her young players' skills and needs—always standing for empowering people to achieve their full potential. Dozens of people she mentored as players or as members of her coaching staff have moved on to coaching and administrative leadership positions—an extraordinary record of transferring expertise and knowledge with deep staying power.

Adapts as needed to different situations 
Matches leader’s conduct with group's readiness
Directs and instructs while also empowering and supporting

When to Use It 
When flexibility is required, as determined by the group’s effectiveness, goals, and deadlines
Where ongoing procedures need refinement, reinvention, or retirement

Impact on Others 
Can be confusing if leader’s behavior changes unpredictably and too often 
Likely to reduce uncertainty as leader adapts behavior appropriately

The Transformational Leader 

The Icon: Mark Parker, president, chairman, and CEO, Nike

In an interview with Fast Company, Mark Parker laid out a transformative vision for his industry: “Retail has really become more of a two-way dialogue. Instead of just selling products, we’re actually interacting, communicating, gaining knowledge, and then using that to create even richer experiences.” Example: In partnership with DreamWorks, Nike is building a 3D digital design system to transform its product creation process. Parker has also made his company a pioneer in sustainable infrastructure, bringing best practices for reducing energy and water use, carbon emissions, and waste to its global supply chain with a goal of running entirely on renewable energy by 2025.

Expects team to transform even when it's uncomfortable 
Counts on everyone giving their best
Serves as a role model for all involved 

When to Use It
To encourage the group to pursue innovative and creative ideas and actions
To motivate the group by strengthening team optimism, enthusiasm, and commitment

Impact on Others 
Can lead to high productivity and engagement from all team members 
Team needs detailed-oriented people to ensure scheduled work is done

Rhea Blanken, FASAE

Rhea Blanken, FASAE, is president of Results Technology, Inc., in Bethesda, Maryland.