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How to choose right leadership style for you

By: | February 27, 2024 21 min read

choosing leadership styles

Meeting room at Pixar studios: most powerful people stay quiet for the first 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, story artists, producers and writers shoot suggestions and offer criticism to directors to help them develop their films.

With power removed from the room, creativity flows freely.

It is only at the end of this meeting – referred to as ‘brain trust’ by the animations company – that the hierarchy restored.

That’s when the director takes charge and delivers the final word on the proposals.

According to Harvard Business Review, successful leaders understand when to lead and when to follow. Knowing when to take charge and when to step back is crucial for their success.

It is important for transformational leaders to recognize the right moments to assert their authority and when to delegate tasks. This balance is essential in effective leadership.

The authors suggest that teams should engage in divergent thinking to generate many ideas. They also recommend using convergent thinking to focus on a single goal. Leaders must know which mode is appropriate when.

An individual may prefer a certain leadership style based on their personality and preferences. Yet an organization may reinforce a style that suits its business priorities and culture.

Teams work best when individual leadership styles match those required for an organization to reach its goals. This can help leaders find purpose at work, reduce conflicts and foster teamwork.

Functions of Great Leaders

Individuals who show the transformational leadership style build systems of co-creators that innovate both within and beyond the organization. Such leaders harness the diverse strengths of individuals the sum of which constitutes the ‘collective genius’ of organizations.   

According to What Makes a Great Leader, such leaders help organizations innovate at scale and speed. And they enable this by performing the ABC functions of leadership: architect, bridger and catalyst.    

1. Architects: They build capabilities of talent within and outside the organization to cocreate.   

Leaders here use the levers of leadership style, talent, structure, operating model, and tools to nurture an ecosystem of cocreation.   

2. Bridgers: They build networks of talent both within and outside the organization.   

For this, the authors suggest leaders must access talent and tools “that cannot be found within the walls of a single department, division, or company.” For this they must establish trustworthy social connections.   

Typically, companies build incubator centers, labs, or accelerators to enable such partnerships.   

3. Catalysts: They enable and reinforce collaborations among different stakeholders.   

“They map those interdependencies and energize and activate key players, recognizing that to enable the organization to fulfill its purpose, they must empower other organizations to work differently,” the article said.   

Types of Leadership Styles: Where and How to Use Them  

A one-size-fits-all approach to leadership style is shortsighted at best. When leading teams, individuals must gauge the collective needs and show the appropriate leadership style based on the situation.   

This leadership style helps teams handle unexpected challenges, be inclusive, and work together towards a shared goal effectively.   

leadership style

The Wharton School has suggested six leadership styles and situations best suited for them:   

1. Authoritative leadership:   

Those with a high-level direction exhibit this style to overcome challenges and inspire others. They lead with a vision.   

They empower and guide others and allow them to lead. Such leaders also show high levels of emotional intelligence. They lead teams using traits like empathy, agility and confidence.   

Authoritative leadership style works best when:    

  • The leader is competent  
  • The leader doesn’t have to spell detailed instructions to reach the goal  
  • Employees have enough resources to perform tasks   

Caution: Authoritative leadership doesn’t work in case of incompetent or ‘pushy’ leaders.   

2. Servant leadership  

In a 2002 article, Sen Sendjaya and James C. Sarros from Monash University in Australia discussed servant leadership. They explained that this leadership style is centered on assisting others in achieving their maximum potential.   

In addition, Larry C. Spears in Journal Virtues and Leadership (1992) suggests 10 servant leadership traits:   

  • Conceptualization   
  • Foresight   
  • Awareness   
  • Healing   
  • Stewardship  
  • Commitment to the growth of people   
  • Building community   
  • Empathy   
  • Listening   
  • Persuasion   

A servant-leader is a servant first, suggests Greenleaf.  

“It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. The best test is: do those served grow as persons: do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”  

According to the Wharton School servant leadership works best when:  

  • A team is in desperate need of a great example to look up to and learn from.  
  • A team has conflict and needs mending.  
  • Large-scale projects require the full participation of all team members.  

3. Transactional leadership  

Such leaders are highly task-oriented and claim to be practical. They don’t go above and beyond their responsibilites to achieve objectives. Often, teams led by such leaders are not optimally innovative.    

The downside of the style is that employees don’t find fulfillment in work and hesitate to take ownership of it.    

Transactional leadership is based more on “exchanges” between the leader and follower, in which followers are rewarded for meeting specific goals or performance criteria (3740). Rewards and positive reinforcement are provided or mediated by the leader. 

– Leadership Dynamics: A Transactional Perspective.  

Transactional leadership style works best:   

  • With teams needing detailed guidance  
  • When sticking to the protocol or procedures can boost efficiency  
  • When enforcing individual accountability can benefit the team.   

4. Democratic leadership  

A research paper in Frontiers in Psychology describes attributes of democracy in democratic leadership:   

  • Democratic leaders are team-oriented  
  • They are open to the advice of subordinates   
  • They supply information necessary to complete a task to subordinates   
  • They mentor their subordinates   

Democratic leaders embrace the participative leadership style and embrace group meetings and surveys. They value transparency in decision-making. They want their team to feel as involved in work processes as they are. 

The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania 

Democratic leadership style is works best when:    

  • A project needs brainstorming   
  • Fresh ideas are needed to tackle a new problem   
  • Tight knit, highly collaborative teams are in the formation stage, like those at startups or new small businesses.  

Democratic leaders encourage debate and discussions, but deliver the final decision based on the input of different members.  Democratic leaders also show participative leadership style and they delegate tasks to other based on their potential and capabilities.  

5. Empathetic Leadership  

Empathy is one of the components of emotional intelligence, considered essential by psychologist Daniel Goleman to cultivate leadership.  

Empathetic leaders embrace a people-first approach.

Empathetic leaders aren’t micromanagers. They empower team members to do their work, and offer themselves up as a resource whenever their team members need them. They’re quick to dole out praise and offer support when needed. 

The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania 

Empathetic leadership works best when:    

  • The team is competent enough to know the needs of a job and the way to perform it effectively  
  • Not much direction is needed from the leader   
  • Team members perform better when given space and independence.   

Situational Leadership: Pick style based on Context  

Situational leadership is the term used for responding to the situation’s needs with the appropriate leadership style.   

The Center for Leadership Studies has devised the situational leadership model consisting of four leadership styles.   

The center suggests that the situations are “a function of the task that needs to be performed, in conjunction with the task-related ability and willingness of the follower identified to perform it.”  

These styles are operationalized by Task/Directive Behavior and Relationship/Supportive Behaviors:   

1. Telling, directing or guiding

Here the flow of communication is from the leaders to the follower. This style requires close supervision by the leader. The style is suitable for followers having limited skills or experience or being unmotivated. It is intended to create movement.   

2. Selling, coaching or explaining

This style is high on both directive and relationship behaviors. It is intended to create buy-in and understanding.   

3. Participating, facilitating or collaborating   

The model is “follower-driven” and its goal is to create alignment. 

4. Delegating, empowering or monitoring   

 This style is intended to create “task mastery and autonomy”. This style is also dependent on followers having enough intrinsic motivation to drive them towards goals. The communication flow here is from the follower to the leader.   

How to Retain Your Authentic Leadership Style 

The mark of authentic leadership is that they achieve business results over a sustained period of time, believe Bill George, a professor at Harvard Business School, and others in an article.   

Authentic leaders demonstrate a passion for their purpose, practice their values consistently, and lead with their hearts as well as their heads. They establish long-term, meaningful relationships and have the self-discipline to get results. They know who they are. 

Authentic Leadership: Rediscovering the Secrets to Creating Lasting Value 

The authors suggest that individuals don’t have to be born with certain traits to emerge as leaders. Further, the individuals don’t have to be performing formal managerial roles.   

Here’s how individuals can become authentic leaders:   

authentic leadership style


1. Leverage your unique life stories   

Individuals are the sum of their life stories. And the journey towards becoming authentic leader includes reflecting on your unique life experiences and contexts and drawing inspiration from them. This is true especially in the case of transformative life experiences and events.   

2. Build awareness of yourself   

This includes exploration and taking feedback from others, especially ‘loving critics’ who mostly have your best interests at heart.    

The authors suggest that self-exploration “requires the courage and honesty to open up and examine their experiences.”  

Further, denial can block the journey to self-awareness. This can mean not being open to feedbacks, especially biting ones, that may stoke insecurities.   

You can tackle the denial by viewing feedback objectively and doing a ‘gut-check’ over it to ensure it’s in your best interest.    

3. Practice your values   

The authors argue that just having a base of values isn’t enough.   

Leadership principles are values translated into action, they said.   

And testing your values under pressure can help you discover and develop your principles   

Besides, leaders must balance their extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, and build a support team.

Pick One Major Leadership Style, Minor in others 

An effective doesn’t stick to one leadership style in all situations. They rely on a style appropriate for a team’s needs and contexts.   

Yet, individuals major in one style and minor in others. The major style is what comes ‘naturally’ to them, while the minor is what they’ve cultivated over time through conscious effort.   

Hope Horner, founder of Lemon light, says there are three types of leadership styles that people can have. They may major in one minor in others:   

1. Process orientation – Such leaders value organizational processes and adherence to them to achieve organizational objectives. They believe that organizations can function efficiently when they define organizational structure and spell out job expectations.   

2. Performance orientation – Such leaders value ‘results at all cost’. Thus, they value the end more than the means deployed to achieve it. They are decisive and base their decisions on data.   

3. Peopleorientation – Such leaders create a safe space where employees feel supported and comfortable asking for help and addressing challenges. They are good at recognizing strengths of followers and putting them to the best use.   

Change Leadership Style as Your Team Grows   

Leadership style must evolve with growing teams and organizations. This can help organizations boost employee engagement, control attrition and develop high performing teams

Julie Zhou, Meta’s vice president of design, has pointed to contrasts in leadership apporoaches to managing small and larger teams:  

shift leadership style

1. Direct to indirect management  

This means delegating responsibilities to managers under you. Empowering followers to take decisions on their own. Leaders of bigger teams must know when to step out of the way of self-sufficient teams and when to step in and take charge.   

2. People look at your differently   

Zhou mentions that when you’re in authority and the team grows, you become further removed from the feet on the ground. When followers don’t know you well, they’re “less likely to tell you the ugly truth and challenge you when they think you’re wrong”.   

He advises leaders to clarify that they welcome candid feedback and suggestions. Leaders must also admit to their own weaknesses and follies. This can help boost trust and credibility in them through the operation of ‘pratfall effect’.   

 3. Frequent context switching   

When you begin leading bigger teams and projects, your contexts of discussions shift rapidly throughout the day. Earlier, you may have only met designers and content writers during the day. Now, you might also be working with developers, performance marketers, and event managers.   

Shifting gears is essential here while keeping the bigger picture, that binds different projects together, in mind.     

4. Choose your battles   

Leaders should prioritize important tasks and avoid feeling overwhelmed by the numerous responsibilities they have. By focusing on what matters most, leaders can better manage their workload and responsibilities. This will help them stay organized and maintain a clear sense of direction in their leadership roles.   

“Perfectionism is not an option,” said Zhou. “But at the end of the day, you are only one individual with a limited amount of time. You can’t do everything, so you must prioritize.”  

5. Focus on people-centric skills  

Leaders set goals, hire good people, build strong teams, and communicate effectively to achieve success. It’s about getting the best out of people.   

Leaders must recognize the unique strengths of individuals and utilize them where they are most needed.   

How to be a Leader in Digital Age 

Leaders of digital teams must adapt their leadership style to situations to drive successful initiatives and transformations effectively.   

Gartner has suggested five leadership styles information officers can adopt based on the goal of a digital project and the makeup of the team:   

1. Commanders  

Such leaders guide experienced digital professionals accustomed to ‘self-direction’. They provide the initial thrust to the project while leaving the day-to-day operation to the team.   

2. Coaches   

This style works for midcareer professionals on “converting designs into deployable products.’ The leader regularly monitors the team progress and sets both individual and team performance goals.   

3. Collaborators   

This style is suitable for inexperienced professionals who need the leader to work with them in the trenches. They model practices and behaviors required for the team to succeed in a project.   

4. Catalysts  

Leaders here support innovation and creative risk-taking. This works best for teams tasked with formulating breakthrough innovations and taking unconventional approaches to problem-solving.   

5. Consultants   

They offer “guidance, advice and contexts” at different stages of project execution. This approach works best for midcareer professionals with strong technical expertise tasked with enhancing existing projects.   

Gartner advises leaders to first assess the styles above to see which one comes naturally to them and then validate it with their team members.   

Tech Aid for Transformational Leadership  

Effective leadership requires switching styles to meet the demands of a situation. It starts with identifying styles that come “naturally” to you and assessing the style needed for an organization to achieve its goal.    

You can shift to an agile and transformative leadership style by using Keka:   

  1. Seek feedback on the platform from your peers, seniors and subordinates. This can help you decide the right leadership style to lead your teams.    
  2.  Set goals at organization, department, team and individual levels and make them visible to stakeholders involved. This can help you align performance towards common objectives.   
  3. Identify the pulse of your team you’re leading by conducting anonymous surveys.   
  4. Hire right people for your team by mapping competencies to different roles.  
  5. Draw up competencies required to be a transformational leader. Identify leadership potential in employees showing those competencies.  

Try Keka for free here  

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    Meet the author

    Keka Editorial Team

    A bunch of inspired, creative and ambitious youngsters- that’s Keka’s editorial team for you. We have a thirst to learn new subjects and curate diverse pieces for our readers. Our deep understanding and knowledge of Human Resources has enabled us to answer almost every question pertaining to this department. If not seen finding ways to simplify the HR world, they can be found striking conversations with anyone and everyone , petting dogs, obsessing over gadgets, or baking cakes.


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