What kind of leader are you? Do you lead the same way all the time, or do you change your leadership style according to the people and problems involved?
Leadership comes in many forms. Classifying these into different types and styles of leadership can help us choose the right approach for the situation. In turn, this makes us more effective in guiding our teams.
Luckily, we don’t have to do this from scratch. Many experts have weighed in on the types of leadership styles that exist, as well as their benefits and drawbacks.
Goleman’s 6 types of leadership
Daniel Goleman, the author, psychologist, and science journalist best known for his 1995 book Emotional Intelligence, identifies six types of leadership.
There’s no one “best” way to lead a team or an organization. Rather, the most effective type of leadership depends on the context. However, it can be hard for a given leader to change their style. That’s why understanding these different modes of leadership can be a key to matching your approach to the situation at hand.
Let’s take a look at each of Goleman’s six leadership types and their pros and cons. Then, we can consider the relative strengths of each type for leading remote teams.
The Authoritarian type of leadership is probably familiar to all of us. In fact, it may be the most common approach to managing a team or organization—even though it can also be the least effective. This type of leadership style is characterized by decision-making concentrated at the top, a hard distinction between leader and follower, and direct supervision of subordinates.
Though authoritarian leadership is often held to be efficient and effective when confronting serious problems, it has some drawbacks. For one thing, authoritarian leadership is not particularly empowering for team members who are not the top leader. They may not be engaged, and so you could sacrifice their insights in favor of the leader’s, cutting you off from potentially valuable points of view.
As a result, many organizations are moving away from this style of leadership. Even the military, which might seem to be based on authoritarian leadership, has moved away from this approach to some extent.
In a TED talk called “Listen, Learn…then Lead,” four-star general Stanley McChrystal describes a inversion of expertise as the military evolved over the course of his career. “The things we grew up doing, the force wasn’t doing anymore,” he says. “[That] forced me to become a lot more transparent, a lot more willing to listen, a lot more willing to be reverse mentored from lower” in the chain of command.
Pros: Can be good in a crisis, when quick, decisive action is crucial.
Cons: Can create a counter-productive “culture of fear.”
A paternalistic leadership style is one that offers parental care for employees in exchange for loyalty and trust. Though authority may still be fairly centralized, as it is in an authoritarian arrangement, this type of leadership features more personal compassion for workers from their bosses. McChrystal notes that interpersonal connections are a key to a great team. “I probably learned the most about relationships,” he says of his experience leading soldiers, “I learned they are the sinew that holds the force together.”
When a paternalistic type of leadership style works well, it can lead to high employee retention and loyalty. The danger with this type of leadership is that the person in charge may (consciously or not) play favorites, gradually privileging the most loyal subordinates regardless of whether or not they are the most effective or have the best ideas.
Pros: High retention and trust
Cons: Potential for favoritism, which undermines the team
A democratic leader shares decision-making responsibility. This can create a kind of social equality in the organization. Research shows this style of leadership can be very effective because it generates high morale, as team members feel empowered and valued. The downside of this approach is that it can be slow, since involving more people in the strategic process almost inevitably takes more time.
Democratic leadership is most effective when team roles are clear and well understood. If people don’t understand their place, it can be difficult to make this type of leadership work.
Author and leadership consultant Charlene Li talks about the need for giving up control when leading teams in the digital era. “The people who have to make decisions and choices…reside at the edges and at the bottom of the organization,” she says. “Leaders today have to trust that those employees will use good judgement when they make decisions that in the past would have been sent up the ladder for somebody else to decide.”
Pros: Effective, yields high morale
Cons: Can be slow, hard if roles are unclear
In laissez-faire leadership, decision-making is delegated to the team (the term is from the French for “let them do”). This type of leadership can work well if the team is skilled, trustworthy, and experienced.
However, laissez-faire leadership doesn’t mean the absence of any role for the leader. If the leader doesn’t provide any feedback to the team, they can quickly lose sight of goals. Like the other styles of leadership, laissez-faire is better for some teams, and in some situations, than others.
Speaking about a conductor who took a somewhat laissez-faire approach to leading his musicians, Talgam reports the maestro said, “the worst damage I can do to my orchestra is to give a clear instruction. Because that would prevent the ensemble, the listening to each other that’s needed for an orchestra.”
Pros: Works well on a skilled, experienced team
Cons: Team can lose its way if feedback is absent
A transactional leader motivates his or her team with punishment and reward. This can take a couple of forms. In one case, the leader might offer rewards, such as bonuses, for exceptional performance. In another version, the leader might intervene primarily when a team member is not meeting expectations to provide some kind of corrective action.
Transactional leadership styles seem to be most effective for refining existing processes to help an organization become more efficient and mature. This type of leadership doesn’t always lend itself well to innovation and change, however, because of its focus on rules and systems.
Pros: Can increase process efficiency
Cons: Can focus on following existing rules over innovation
A transformational leader inspires his or her followers with a vision fueled by purpose. This type of leadership does not limit itself to thinking about things as they are, but looks to the future and asks, “what if?”
A transformational approach to leadership can have a huge upside, as the organization or team is challenged to look beyond the conventional. For leaders who want to reach beyond the current activities of their organization and have a greater impact on the world at large, this style may be a great fit. This kind of leadership may not be for everyone, however, as it tends to require a special kind of personality to pull off.
Speaker, blogger, and marketer Seth Godin wrote a book about how we can leverage tribes of like-minded people to achieve our goals. “What we do for a living now,” he says, “is to find something worth changing, and then assemble tribes that spread the idea and it becomes something far bigger than ourselves. It becomes a movement.”
Pros: Willing to take risks, encourages innovation
Cons: May depend on a charismatic individual or create a cult of personality
How to decide what type of leadership style is best for you
There are many factors to look at when deciding which of the different types of leadership, or combination of types, to use. Here are three things to get you started.
Is there a hard deadline for what you’re trying to achieve? If so, a leadership style that leans towards the authoritarian or transactional may help. These styles can be more efficient, especially over a limited time frame.
Just remember that these approaches have their downsides as well. Authoritarian leadership can erode team morale, so it might be best to use this style sparingly. And transactional leadership can stifle innovation if used to the exclusion of other forms. On effective method might be to switch to one of these modes for a finite, clearly defined period, while using other leadership styles for your longer-term goals.
If your team is experienced, skilled and has proven themselves trustworthy, they might deliver more value to your organization with less direct supervision. Consider a style that leans towards democratic or even laissez-faire leadership. Of course, these looser, more delegative styles can take extra time or even go off track. So be prepared to step in with a dose of something more proactive if necessary.
Do you have high-level goals for your organization that involve a significant degree of change from where you are today? If so, you might need to cultivate an environment of paternalistic or transformational leadership.
Paternalistic leadership, if done right, can build the loyalty you’ll need to navigate the big changes ahead while keeping your team intact. And transformational leadership can be essential when you have a vision for the future and you need your team to come along with you to get there, even if they don’t fully understand it yet.
What type of leadership works for remote teams?
Much of the above applies equally to teams that work together in an office and remote teams that may be spread out around the world. But remote teams do have some special circumstances that should be considered when thinking about what type of leadership works best for them.
Heavy-handed authoritarian leadership probably doesn’t work very well on most remote teams. The nature of remote working demands a certain level of trust and independence. However, limited use of a more explicitly directive leadership style can help you avert disaster, so keep this option in your tool kit.
When successful, this leadership style can build team loyalty and cohesion, which can help when people are not spending a lot of time face to face. Just remember that one danger of paternalistic leadership is the tendency for the leader to play favorites. This can be disaster on a remote team, because people can fall through the cracks and become essentially invisible. Be on guard for that when using this approach to leadership.
In a remote work culture, communication can be a challenge. That doesn’t mean remote teams can’t have great communication. And it doesn’t mean that teams who work together in one office automatically have smooth communication all the time (far from it).
Taking the time to introduce some democratic leadership on your remote team can help everyone stay engaged and involved. When people know they have a say in decision making, they tend to stay motivated. That doesn’t mean your operation has to be run by voting on everything.
If your team is strong, a laissez-faire leadership style can work well remotely. You have to be able to trust remote workers to do their jobs even when you can’t see them. So creating a work culture where people are expected to demonstrate a lot of independence can be effective for a distributed team. Just keep in mind that, ultimately, you have to be able to measure progress somehow. Whether you’re in an office or working remotely, don’t rely only on trust. Make sure your “let them do” leadership style contains as much “do” as it does “let them.”
Though transactional leadership doesn’t always lead to the most innovative organizations, it can be efficient and effective. If you know what you want your team to do, and have strong measurement processes in place, transactional leadership can work well for a remote team. If you have a system that works, where you are just doesn’t matter as much.
Remote working is still outside the norm. And the people who gravitate to remote work are often willing to try doing things differently. This might make them more responsive, on average, to a transformational leadership style. The vision you offer as a leader, if coherent and well communicated, can sustain the team even when they aren’t physically close together. One potential pitfall of the remote team led by a transformational leader is that it may take extra effort to maintain each team member’s commitment to the vision. Be sure to keep reinforcing their understanding of the transformation you’re aiming for.
The leadership types and styles outlined here are just one way to think about a vast subject. Don’t limit yourself to this rubric, and certainly don’t limit yourself to one style of leadership. Again, effective leaders have to be able to adapt to the situation, changing the type of leadership they offer their team depending on the specific goals and challenges ahead.
Have you found a particular type of leadership, or combination of types, to be effective on your team (remote or not)? Let us know in the comments. Want to read more about leading a team effectively? Here are some of our favorite books on leadership.
- Many experts have weighed in on the types of leadership styles that exist, including their pros and cons.
- The most effective type of leadership depends on the context.
- Urgency, experience and vision are some factors you could consider to choose the right leadership for your business.
- Effective leaders have to be able to change the type of leadership they offer their team depending on the specific goals and challenges ahead.