The 12 Styles of Leadership

“All are born to observe order, but few are born to establish it,” wrote Joseph Joubert, an 18th-century French Christian idealist and moralist who served as inspector general of the University of France and whose fine mind and pleasant personality strongly influenced the course of Romanticism. As leaders of movements go, however, Joubert was an enigma. Although he supported the ideals of the French Revolution, he was disgusted by its tyranny. “Liberty is a tyrant governed by his caprices,” he wrote, adding: “I find it hard to leave Paris, because I must part from my friends, and the country, because I must part from myself.”

Joubert was an obscure genius. A literary perfectionist, he didn’t publish anything in his lifetime, remaining content to think and write for himself in clear, concise sentences the necessity, value and beauty of virtue. It was only after his death that his wife arranged for a collection of his writings to be published in 1838, helping establish his reputation as a philosopher and critic as well as one of the world’s greatest aphorists.

Joubert’s life underscores a vital but widely underappreciated feature of leaders: The act of leadership is less about what leaders want and more about the needs of the people or organizations they lead: The most effective leaders are those who, like Joubert, recognize the demands of a particular situation and help people adapt to the challenges before them. Successful leaders are those who understand the various styles of leadership and have the ability to move among them with ease, adopting whatever style happens to be most suitable to the situation at hand.

There are arguably as many styles of leadership as there are leaders. But psychologists and business gurus have identified some broad categories that accurately and astutely sum up the qualities of extraordinary leaders. Based on thousands of studies, these styles of leadership can be narrowed down to a few dozen, each type described by a single word:

  • Charismatic
  • Authoritative
  • Innovative
  • Laissez-Faire
  • Situational
  • Pacesetter
  • Servant
  • Transformational
  • Visionary
  • Coaching
  • Transactional
  • Level-5

Let’s consider their various attributes:

Charismatic: From Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher in Britain to John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton in the United States, charismatic leaders have walked the world stage throughout the 20th century and long before that. Hitler was a charismatic leader—a magnetic man who cast his evil spell on an entire nation and led it to ruinous war and genocide. On the opposite end of the spectrum from Hitler was Mother Teresa, a humble nun from Albania who made her home in India, where she loved and cared for the lowliest of the low, the unwanted, the wretched and the sick. More recently, charismatic leaders have included Steve Jobs of Apple and Vince Lombardi, one of the greatest football coaches of all time. For all his entrepreneurial talent, Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Group, is widely considered to be a charismatic businessman who started out at the age of 16 as the owner of a single magazine called Student and went on to build a global empire comprising some 400 companies. “Dream big by setting yourself seemingly impossible challenges,” Branson was once quoted as telling Inc. Magazine. “You then have to catch up with them.”

An increasing amount of evidence suggests that charisma—or dynamic charm—is a valuable element of leadership. Without charisma, it’s virtually impossible for anyone in the world of politics or business to sustain a high level of public visibility, especially in the information age. Charismatic leaders tend to possess a great deal of self-confidence and a bold, overarching vision for the future designed to achieve radical change. Such leaders are typically optimistic and have the ability to articulate their vision while successfully communicating to their followers a strong sense of conviction in that vision.

The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born-that there is a genetic factor to leadership. This myth asserts that people simply either have certain charismatic qualities or not. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.    Warren Bennis

We’re trained to see the world in terms of charismatic organizations and charismatic people. That’s who we look to for leadership and change, for transformation. We’re awaiting the next J.F.K., the next Martin Luther King, the next Gandhi, the next Nelson Mandela.       Paul Hawken

Authoritative: Daniel Goleman, a psychologist who wrote the 1995 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence, coined the term “authoritative leadership” to describe the classic model of “military” style control over an organization. This form of leadership is also widely prevalent in the restaurant industry, which, like the military, employs a large number of people and whose success depends to a great extent on their smooth functioning as a cohesive team.

Authoritative leaders tend to be enthusiastic and skilled at mobilizing people toward a vision or a goal aimed at taking an organization in a new direction. They are excellent motivators who somehow convince their followers that everything they do has an impact on the organization, and that there’s little or no difference between their own best interests and those of the company they work for. They want to make a difference in the world. Beyond that, the authoritative leader gives employees plenty of freedom to innovate and experiment.

Let’s say that a once-popular chain of restaurants that specializes in pizzas is having a problem with sales. No matter how many times the chain changes its menu—each time likely re-designed by some know-it-all food consultant—customers remain unimpressed. Interior design improvements also fail to have any impact on revenue. The company’s board of directors hires and fires six CEOs in two years, and neither one of them is able to turn sales around.

In desperation, the company holds an offsite conference at a beachside resort, hoping that some downtime will boost employee morale and, with it, hopefully the bottom line. In one of the meetings, managers of each of the chain’s restaurants are invited to speak about what they think the company should do to change its dwindling fortunes. That’s when a manager everyone knows as Joe comes forward and lays out the broad outlines of a plan that will eventually pull the company from its financial doldrums.

“We’re really not in the restaurant business,” Joe starts out by saying. “We’re a company that makes high-quality pizzas that customers find convenient to get.” That—and nothing else—should guide everything that the company does, Joe suggests. His enthusiasm—backed by a clear, back-to-basics idea—are so infectious that the company’s directors decide to follow Joe’s suggestion. They give Joe six months to do just about whatever he wants. Joe wastes no time in crafting a new mission statement—focused on making gourmet pizzas conveniently available to customers. And then he embarks on a strategic planning process aimed at realizing the mission statement.

The key to Joe’s planning process? Make sure that every manager in the company clearly understands that the company’s success lies in finding new, innovative ways to sell pizzas in higher volumes than ever before. The managers, fired up by Joe’s vision and his confidence in them, begin acting like entrepreneurs. They find creative ways to sell pizzas at new branches—on streets corners and at train stations and airports—each one guaranteeing fast deliveries. The new strategy, under Joe’s command, has an immediate and positive impact on sales.

I was supposed to be authoritative, but at the same time had to be likeable, a quality that is a bonus, not a requirement, for men in the same position.     Dee Dee Myers

Innovative: This leadership style can overlap considerably with authoritative leaders such as Joe, who create ideas or set standards and inspire employees to work toward a collective goal. But arguably, one difference between the two leadership styles is that innovative leaders are not necessarily those who come up with creative ideas that lead to innovation. Quite often, innovative leaders will take someone else’s ideas—say, a subordinate’s—and then envision a path that turns that idea into a reality.

Besides being a charismatic leader, Apple CEO Steve Jobs was tremendously talented at innovative leadership. He had the uncanny ability to form a vision around an idea or set of ideas that inspired a host of people ranging from Apple employees to the company’s suppliers and business partners.

Innovative leaders such as Jobs tend to have powerful imaginations and exceptional communication skills. Like authoritarian leaders, they are also excellent motivators who inspire the necessary confidence and enthusiasm in their team members to work together to achieve a common dream.

Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.    Steve Jobs

Business has only two functions – marketing and innovation.   Milan Kundera

Laissez-Faire: This is a French word that literally translates to : “allow to do”.  This is a policy or attitude of letting things take their own course, without interfering. Also known as the delegative style of leadership, Laissex-faire leadership is characteristic of leaders who follow a hands-off approach with employees, allowing them to make their own decisions about professional matters. Although this style of leadership is least associated with high productivity, it can be surprisingly effective in situations in which the people involved are highly skilled, independent minded and motivated. Because the people who work under a laissez-faire leader are experts in their respective fields and have the necessary know-how to work independently, they are able to meet goals with little or no guidance.

An outstanding example of a laissez-faire leader is Donna Karan, founder of DKNY. She started out as a designer whose fashionwear appealed to both men and women. But Karan has managed to build a global empire based on that appeal even though she devoted relatively a lot less time creating her own designs over the past dozen years or so. The reason for her success: Her vision continually inspires other designers who work for her. “I still get a thrill out of seeing my name on a store or on a billboard—but not because it’s mine,” Karan told the Wall Street Journal in a 2012 interview. “The name represents so much more than me. It’s the ‘we,’ all the hardworking people of our company, that I see in it.”

Surround yourself with the best people you can find, delegate authority, and don’t interfere as long as the policy you’ve decided upon is being carried out.   Ronald Reagan

The inability to delegate is one of the biggest problems I see with managers at all levels.  Eli Broad

You can delegate authority, but you cannot delegate responsibility.  Byron Dorgan

Situational: This leadership theory was developed by Paul Hersey, professor and author of the book Situational Leader, and Ken Blanchard, leadership guru and author of the now famous book The One Minute Manager.

This style of leadership revolves around the idea that a leader’s best course of action depends on a wide range of factors within a particular situation. Typically, a situational leader’s behavior is determined by the level of motivation and the capabilities of his followers. A key aspect of situational leaders is that the behavior of their followers determines the most appropriate form of leadership. For example, if an employee or team member happens to be a self-starter capable of accomplishing a task on his own, a situational leader would allow that person to work independently. By contrast, if an employee shows signs of timidity or uncertainty about how to accomplish a given task, the situational leader would provide the necessary instructions or training.

Develop an attitude of gratitude, and give thanks for everything that happens to you, knowing that every step forward is a step toward achieving something bigger and better than your current situation.   Brian Tracy

When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.   Viktor E. Frankl

I believe that God has put gifts and talents and ability on the inside of every one of us. When you develop that and you believe in yourself and you believe that you’re a person of influence and a person of purpose, I believe you can rise up out of any situation.   Joel Osteen

Pacesetter: This type of leader sets the pace—high performance standards, for example—for all team members, including, often, the leader himself. And although a leader who walks the talk sounds like he gets a lot of results, the evidence appears to suggest otherwise. According to Dana Ackley, founder and CEO of EQ Leader, Inc., a leadership coaching consultancy, pacesetters tend not to be successful in the goals they set out for their followers to achieve because they often can’t trust their followers. “Their self esteem rests on being smarter, faster and more thorough than everyone else,” observes Ackley, adding that, as a result, pace-setting leaders “unintentionally undermine the efforts and morale of those around them.”

But then again, to borrow a cue from situational leaders, pacesetters can dramatically boost their success rates by determining their followers’ motivation and technical skill levels: Team members who are highly motivated and skilled would have little or no trouble living up to their pace-setting leader’s expectations.

The pace of technological change in recent years has been both impressive and positive for consumers.  Mike Ferguson

Servant: Great leaders are servants, first and foremost, argues this style of leadership, which is at least a couple of millennia old if not probably as old as mankind itself. If you think about human relationships even a bit deeply it’s not hard to see that at some point in their careers leaders must have had a desire or willingness to serve others—and only after being successful in that endeavor did they go on to lead. Despite its humble name, the idea of servant leadership has nothing to do with servility. On the contrary, it’s about helping others—as captured in the true spirit of the term “government servant” or “civil servant.” To put it in more technical terms, a servant leader does nothing more or less than identify and meet the needs of his subordinates, colleagues, customers, clients or community members.

The term “servant-leader” was first coined in 1970 by Robert K. Greenleaf, an Indiana native who was director of management development at AT&T before retiring in 1964 and turning his attention to writing, consulting and teaching. In a seminal essay titled “The Servant as Leader,” Greenleaf wrote that the key qualities of a servant-leader were listening, persuasion, access to intuition and foresight, use of language, and pragmatic measurements of outcomes. And the best test of servant-leadership, he proposed, was to see if those served grew as persons. “Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely to become servants?” he asked, admitting that although he was informed by the Judeo-Christian ethic, his theory was applicable to anyone, religious, secular or atheistic.

The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between, the leader is a servant.
Max de Pree

Leadership is about being a servant first.
Allen West

Transformational: This approach to leadership is marked by changes within individuals and social systems, with the ideal and end-goal of transforming followers into leaders. Transformational leaders are known to improve the morale, motivation and performance of followers by, among other mechanisms, merging their individual identities into that of the larger organization; acting as a role model for followers and challenging them to achieve higher goals; using the strengths and weaknesses of followers to optimize their performance.

Transformational leadership can be contrasted with “transactional leadership,” which emphasizes a quid-pro-quo relationship between leaders and followers. While transactional leaders have no higher goal than working within the given culture of an organization, transformational leaders strive to elevate the very culture of an organization. The effectiveness of transformational leadership can be gauged by a leader’s influence on followers, as measured by the feelings of trust, admiration, loyalty and respect for the leader among followers. The willingness of workers to work harder than originally expected is yet another measure of this style of leadership.

Over the millennia, the long list of transformational leaders includes the Buddha, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Mother Teresa, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt and Teddy Roosevelt.

First comes thought; then organization of that thought, into ideas and plans; then transformation of those plans into reality. The beginning, as you will observe, is in your imagination.     Napoleon Hill

Transformation is a process, and as life happens there are tons of ups and downs. It’s a journey of discovery – there are moments on mountaintops and moments in deep valleys of despair.   Rick Warren

Life is a moving, breathing thing. We have to be willing to constantly evolve. Perfection is constant transformation.
Nia Peeples

Visionary: In the early 1990s in South Africa, a joke had it that in light of then apartheid-era nation’s many problems, people had a choice between a practical solution and a miraculous one. The practical option entailed praying for angels to descend from heaven and fix things. The miraculous option was for South Africans, including the chronically fractious leaders of the majority blacks, to discuss issues until they found a suitable solution to the nation’s social and political ills. Incredibly, in his first speech after being elected South Africa’s president in 1990, F.W. de Klerk called for an end to apartheid and suggested that negotiations were the only way to realize a nonracist nation. As it happened, that speech set in motion a series of sweeping changes that included the release of Nelson Mandela from long imprisonment and the eventual freedom of black South Africans.

Those events in South Africa offer one of the most powerful examples of visionary leadership—both on the part of Mandela and, inadvertently, de Klerk. Visionary leadership typically occurs when everyone appears to be dramatically empowered because they own for themselves the vision of their leader, who has already planted the seeds of the organizational vision in their hearts and minds.

You have to have a big vision and take very small steps to get there. You have to be humble as you execute but visionary and gigantic in terms of your aspiration. In the Internet industry, it’s not about grand innovation, it’s about a lot of little innovations: every day, every week, every month, making something a little bit better.  Jason Calacanis

The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world.  Malcolm Gladwell

Visionary people face the same problems everyone else faces; but rather than get paralyzed by their problems, visionaries immediately commit themselves to finding a solution.   Bill Hybels

You don’t have to be a genius or a visionary or even a college graduate to be successful. You just need a framework and a dream.    Michael Dell

Coaching: The coaching style of leadership is focused almost entirely on the personal development of team members, resulting not only in better job performance but also better job satisfaction and decreased turnover of employees. The key to the one-on-one coaching approach is the relationships between leader and follower. We all know that the best coaches in sports have the ability to get inside the heads of those they’re trying to help. These are trained experts who know how to offer effective feedback. They know exactly when to push for better performance and when not to. They are masters of motivation and empathy. Coaching works best with those who show initiative and desire to grow professionally. And for that reason, it’s not for everybody: There’s no dearth of people liable to misconstrue coaching for micromanaging, thereby delivering a self-inflicted blow to their self-confidence.

People are remarkably bad at remembering long lists of goals. I learned this at a professional level when trying to get my high-performance coaching clients to stay on track; the longer their lists of to-dos and goals, the more overwhelmed and off-track they got. Clarity comes with simplicity.    Brendon Burchard

Selecting the right person for the right job is the largest part of coaching.   Phil Crosby

Failure is good. It’s fertilizer. Everything I’ve learned about coaching, I’ve learned from making mistakes.
Rick Pitino

In the end, it’s about the teaching, and what I always loved about coaching was the practices. Not the games, not the tournaments, not the alumni stuff. But teaching the players during practice was what coaching was all about to me. John Wooden

To be successful in coaching you have to treat your team like a family. The leader needs backing from everyone.
Morgan Wootten

Transactional: First described by the French sociologist Max Weber in 1947, this approach is more of a management tool than an esteemed style of leadership. It typically involves the management process of controlling, organizing, and short-term planning. Both Senator Joseph McCarthy and French President Charles de Gaulle were known to use transactional techniques.

The approach entails motivating and directing followers primarily through appealing to their own self-interest. The power of transactional leaders derives from their formal authority and organizational responsibility. A follower is expected largely to do nothing less or more than obey the leader’s instructions. And the leader usually motivates followers through a system of rewards and punishments.

Part of the transaction between writer and reader is the pleasure of building a community and encouraging people to play along.   John Hodgman

No transaction happens unless it is voluntary. It only happens if both of you think you win. John Stossel 

Level-5: One of the most remarkable business stories of the 20th century revolves around an ordinary man named Darwin E. Smith, who was named chief executive of Kimberly-Clark, a dreary paper company noted only for its steadily falling stock over the previous 20 years. In fact, the state of affairs at the company was so sad that when Smith was appointed CEO, he wondered if the board of directors had made the right choice, given that he was the firm’s in-house lawyer and clearly lacked the qualifications for the top position.

But Smith went on to head Kimberly-Clark for 20 years, presiding over a stunning transformation that made the company the leader in consumer products not just in the United States but the world over. Under Smith, Kimberly-Clark beat Proctor & Gamble as well as another rival, Scott Paper. What’s more, Kimberly-Clark earned 4.1 times more stock than the general market, outperforming respected companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Coca-Cola and General Electric.

Smith was a classic example of what management experts call a Level-5 leader—someone who combines tremendous personal humility with great professional will. According to a five-year study conducted by Jim Collins, who operates a management research laboratory in Boulder, Colorado, Level-5 leaders who possess both humility and an iron will—unusually paradoxical traits indeed—are “catalysts for the statistically rare event of transforming a good company into a great one.”

In fact, Collins goes on to say that Level-5 is the highest level of executive capabilities he identified during his research. “Leaders at the other four levels in the hierarchy can produce high degrees of success but not enough to elevate companies from mediocrity to sustained excellence.”

Level-4 leaders are those who can rise no higher than “effective” grade. That is, they are catalysts in what Collins refers to the “vigorous pursuit of a clear and compelling vision,” capable of stimulating higher performance standards in a group.

Level-3 leaders are “competent” managers—those capable of organizing employees and resources toward the effective and efficient pursuit of predetermined goals.

Level-2 leaders are “contributing” team members—those who further a group’s objectives and work effectively with others in a group setting.

Level-1 leaders are “highly capable” people who contribute productively to an organization through their talent, knowledge, skills and good work habits.

So besides the paradoxical qualities of deep personal humility and intense professional will, what makes a Level-5 leader? These—pay good attention, dear reader—are the “good-to-great” attributes of these outstanding leaders, according to Collins:

  • Level-5 leaders attend to people first, strategy second: “Get the right people on the bus and the wrong people off—then figure out where to drive it.”
  • Level-5 leaders “deal with the brutal facts of current reality—while maintaining absolute faith that [they’ll] prevail.”
  • Level-5 leaders keep pushing their organizational “flywheel, with consistent effort, momentum increases until—bang!—the wheel hits the breakthrough point.”
  • Level-5 leaders conceive of their companies as three intersecting circles: “what it can be best at, how its economies work best, and what ignites its people’s passions. Eliminate everything else.”

Level 5 leaders are fanatically driven, infected with an incurable need to produce sustained results. They are resolved to do whatever it takes to make the company great, no matter how big or hard the decisions.    Jim Collins

Level 5 leaders channel their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company. It’s not that Level 5 leaders have no ego or self-interest. Indeed, they are incredibly ambitious–but their ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves.    Jim Collins


  • The Wall Street Journal Guide to Management” by Alan Murray, Harper Business.
  • Wall Street Journal.
  • EQ Leader, Inc.
  • The Servant as Leader, by Robert K. Greenleaf.
  • Burns, J.M, (1978), Leadership, N.Y, Harper and Row.
  • Bass, B. M,(1985), Leadership and Performance, N.Y. Free Press.
  • Level-5 Leadership: On Leadership, Harvard Business Review, Jan. 2001.
  • Inc Magazine

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