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The Four Different Leadership Styles – And How to Find Yours

There are many different leadership theories and styles – some are better than others. Understand the pros and cons of each so that you can become a better leader.

By Gustavo Razzetti

July 28, 2021

Not all leaders are made equal. What kind of leader are you?

Most organizational problems are caused by bad leadership. I'm not talking about leaders per se but a leadership model that is broken.

We have an unhealthy relationship with leadership. That’s why we end up getting the leaders we deserve, not the ones we need. As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Amy Edmondson wrote, “We are so seduced by confidence that we habitually end up with overconfident, arrogant leaders.”

We worship leaders as superheroes. However, self-confidence and competence usually don’t come together. Having the ability to say “I don’t know” is a sign of strength and growth. Vulnerable, self-aware leaders deliver better business results.

Not all leaders are created equal. Actually, unlike what most people think, most leaders are not born but developed. Start by understanding the different leadership styles and which works better for you.

Leadership: Power or Authority?

We need to stop putting so much emphasis on the leader (the person) and instead focus on improving leadership (the behavior).

Leadership is more than a position; it’s a mindset and behavior. Everyone in your organization can – and must – lead, regardless of their role or title.  

Good leadership is not the result of one person, but the aggregation of multiple leaders. That’s why most leadership programs fail: they focus on the individual rather than on building collective leadership.

There are three kinds of leadership: positional, personality, and functional. Only the first requires a title.

Positional leadership works on the basis of authority that comes with the title and rank rather than the respect or trust their peers have in them. It’s based on power and hierarchy, originating compliance.

Personality leadership, by contrast, relies on organic relationships between people. You get to inspire or influence others not because you’re the boss, but because they trust you. Personality leadership is based on influence and strong relationships.

Functional leadership relies on the functions and roles people play and how they add value to the team and organization. It’s based on reputation – a result of mastery and value creation.

Each kind of leadership has pros and cons.

Positional leadership can become toxic when people abuse formal authority. Personality leadership can drive manipulation or create silos rather than move the organization forward. Lastly, functional leadership can make people too dependent on experts – especially on difficult topics – taking their advice at face value without questioning it.

Authority and power are two crucial concepts in leadership. Unfortunately, most people use them interchangeably, confusing one with the other. What matters is not the division of power or how to achieve power, but the method of organization that will generate power.

Mary Follett believed that management is “the art of getting things done through people.” She advocated a pull rather than push approach to employee motivation – real power requires to “power-with” rather than "power-over.” The mother of modern management advanced insightful ideas on negotiation, conflict resolution, and power sharing.

While power-over is coercion, power-with is coactive. Sharing control provides personal enrichment for everyone, boosting morale and engagement.

On the subject of authority, Follet pointed out that ownership – or just having a certain position – doesn’t give you authority. Real authority, which people obey, comes from function and experience. The challenge of good leadership is giving authority to those who have real responsibility for their function.

“Power is not a pre-existing thing which can be handed out to someone, or wrenched from someone,” Mary Follett wrote. “To confer authority where capacity has not been developed is fatal to both government and business. You cannot confer power, because power is the blossoming of experience.”

Rather than establishing a strict hierarchy and delegating power to certain individuals over others, Follett believed that workers should practice co-active power. Powering with their team is better than powering over them – each member feels just as valued as the next.

Structure is still crucial, but employees should not feel like they are less valuable than their managers. You should value group power over personal power. Organizations do not exist for one person's benefit, but rather the entire company of workers.

The Four Different Leadership Styles

There are many different leadership styles and models.

Psychologist Kurt Lewin created one of the most common leadership models. His research identified three styles of leadership: authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire. Each covered a wide range of approaches: from autocratic/ command-and-control to participative/ collaborative and delegative/ detached.

Daniel Goleman developed an emotional leadership model, emphasizing the need for more self-aware leaders. His framework outlines six leadership styles, each fitting a specific situation: Visionary, Coaching, Affiliative, Commanding, Democratic, and Pacesetting.

An effective leader must be emotionally intelligent enough to determine which type of leadership to employ.

American psychologist Bernard Bass documented two more leadership styles: transformational and transactional. Transformational leaders focus on the big picture, rallying people around a big mission. Transactional leaders believe in extrinsic motivation – they use rewards and punishments to motivate their teams.

As you can see, there are many theories and ways of thinking about leadership. Some are too simple; others provide too many options.

Based on proprietary research, our leadership style model covers four types of leadership behaviors, considering the following two axes:

- Protecting (of traditions, status quo, relationships) – or – Growth (vision, creativity, business)

- Individualism (divide-and-conquer) – or – Collectivism (unite-and-build)

The intersection of both creates four key leadership styles: Coaching, Fearful, Fearless, and Challenger. This matrix aligns with the Four Types of Company Culture Canvas – both frameworks go hand-in-hand.

Coaching Leaders:

Coaching leadership is built on trust, respect, and strong relationships. It’s comparable to participative, servant, or affiliative styles. These leaders drive team building, employee involvement, and participation. People often perceive them as gardeners, mentors, or parental figures.

Coaching leaders are team-driven – it’s all about taking care of the tribe. They believe in internal motivation: they focus on designing the right culture and then let people thrive.

Zappos’ former CEO, Tony Hsieh, was a perfect example. He defined his job as “to architect the greenhouse.” Rather than being the plant others aspired to be, he created the conditions for everyone to thrive.

Coaching leaders are growth and development-oriented – they are empathetic and selfless. They reward belonging to the team.

Fearful Leaders:

Fearful leadership is comparable to coercive or commanding leadership. This style is built on positional power, hierarchy, and control. People often perceive them as impersonal, autocratic, hierarchical, and know-it-all.

Fearful leaders are control-driven. They believe in external motivation – fear and coercion are how they move people into action.

Many people considered Bill Gates a leader who ruled by dividing-and-conquering people and wanting to always be right. He used coercion to drive alignment (or agreement).

Fearful leaders are process and rules-oriented – they are structured and bossy. They reward compliance and loyalty toward them.

Challenger Leaders:

Challenger leadership is comparable to pacesetting and transactional leadership. This style is built on high bars, accountability, and rewards. People often perceive them as business-like, heroic, leading the charge, and relentless.

Challenger leaders are goals-driven. They believe in internal motivation – reward and punishment mechanisms drive people to achieve more.

Netflix’ Reed Hastings and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos are both great examples of challenger leaders. They believe in high-freedom/ high-accountability cultures – their role was to challenge people to become A-performers.

Challenger leaders are results and productivity-oriented – they are strategic and pacesetters. They reward high performance.

Fearless Leaders:

Fearless leadership is comparable to transformational and visionary leadership. This style is built on a strong sense of purpose, inspiration, and disruptive vision. Fearless leaders are constantly thinking ahead, exploring new paths, and developing new solutions.

Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, is a perfect example of a fearless leader who built a workplace culture of creativity and collaboration.

Fearless leaders are purpose-driven. They believe in external motivation – being part of something bigger than themselves is the why that drives them and their teams into action.

Fearless leaders are ideas and collaboration-oriented – they are visionary and open-minded. They reward creativity and innovative solutions.

Pros and Cons of the Different Leadership Styles

There’s no such thing as a “perfect” leadership style – there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all either. Each approach comes with benefits and drawbacks. Their effectiveness also depends on the context, culture, and current challenge.

Some styles might be more effective to lead a fast-growth organization, but not to deal with a crisis or restructure.

For example, Airbnb's CEO, Brian Chesky, practices a leadership style at the intersection of fearless and coaching. In normal times, he delegates plenty of authority – managers are facilitators and employees must take ownership. However, in times of crisis, Chesky takes over – he adopts a control-driven style.

Also, when using the matrix to map your leadership style – or that of your team members – remember that no one is 100% one style. We usually have a primary and a secondary one.

Coaching Leadership

Pros:

  • It promotes a great sense of belonging and participation
  • The group feels that everyone’s voices matter and that they can participate
  • Coaching leadership leverages the power of subcultures, driving belonging and motivation
  • People can make decisions on their own
  • The leader is seen as an ally, not a rival
  • Encourages two-way communication
  • Facilitates both personal and professional development

Cons:

  • Productivity can suffer at the expense of getting along
  • It can lead to low accountability and blame during crises
  • It relies on relationships, which are hard to nurture
  • Protecting the good vibe makes it difficult for teams to address conflict or what’s not working
  • Democratic decision-making could slow the team and lower the bar
  • Constantly taking care of others could drive leaders to burnout
  • Not the best choice for aggressive, high-performance cultures
  • Dissent is overridden by groupthink or the majority
  • Can be perceived as weak

Fearful Leadership

Pros:

  • Clarity of responsibilities and authority
  • Decisions are often made quickly
  • Effective model for people who like to be told what to do
  • Confusion is eliminated – tasks and expectations are clearly mapped out
  • Useful to deal with clearly defined problems
  • Stability and predictability
  • Highly visible rules, processes, and norms

Cons:

  • It can promote infights and politics
  • This style creates high dependency on the leader
  • It stifles collaboration and innovation
  • Fear inhibits people from speaking up and sharing ideas in the open
  • Initiative and agility are not rewarded
  • Status quo gets the organization stuck
  • Can lead to abuse of power
  • Inefficient, as it’s very centralized

Challenger Leadership

Pros:

  • Increase results and accountability
  • Accelerate pace and progress
  • Inspiration for goal-driven, high-performing individuals
  • Creates a competitive, growth culture

Cons:

  • A strong focus on results can take away the fun from work
  • Moving targets can seed frustration and demotivation
  • Challenger leaders can drive high stress and burnout
  • It can prioritize short-term goals over long-term vision
  • Blame and finger-pointing when results are not achieved
  • A Challenger leader can quickly become a bully or arrogant
  • Can lead to unethical behaviors

Fearless Leadership

Pros:

  • People are highly motivated by a purpose-driven mission
  • Highly collaborative environments lead to higher quality solutions
  • A creative environment is inspiring and engaging
  • High psychological safety environments at the service of innovation
  • Makes people feel part of something bigger than themselves
  • Gives people autonomy to define how to achieve the mission
  • Strengthen cross-team relationships
  • More opportunity for diverse perspectives

Cons:

  • The vision can distract from taking care of operational things
  • Not the best fit for bureaucratic or fearful cultures
  • It can create tunnel vision when leaders become obsessed with the mission
  • Has the potential to become self-serving
  • Can create feelings of uncertainty, ambiguity, and instability

Find Your Leadership Style

There are many different leadership theories and styles. Rather than thinking in right-or-wrong terms, consider the context. Which (combination of) leadership styles will help you succeed based on the company culture and challenges ahead?

Leaders are not born, but developed. Becoming a better leader is a lifetime job – it takes much more than an assessment or leadership training.

There isn’t one correct leadership style, but there is a style that you’re likely naturally drawn to. Which style did you relate to the most? What’s your default? Understand the pros and cons so that you can become a better leader.

The good news: You can experiment with new behaviors to become a better leader. Like anything, leadership is a learning process – adopt a trial-and-error approach. Rather than trying to be a great leader, become better at leading.

Want to radically transform how you lead yourself and others? Learn more about the new Fearless Leadership Program.

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