Skip to main content

Throughout our careers, we’ve all experienced various models of leadership, some unquestionably more enjoyable than others.

Remember those early high school jobs where your manager seemed to take pride in making you do the worst jobs, despite the fact that they were only a few months older than you were? 

Those managers were usually awful to work with, sometimes for no better reason than because they could be. They took a perverse pride in running that fast food restaurant or video store like their own personal fiefdom. 

Now think back to the best leader you’ve ever had. Someone who taught you how to do the job better and made you want to perform better in return? 

They’ll likely have been the total opposite of that delicatessen despot—soft-spoken and mild-mannered, often with a kind word and a gentle touch. Deep down you wanted to please them, and it made you want to do a better job. 

Truth is, there are a fair few different models of leadership out there and no single definition of a ‘good leader.’ Rather, someone generally perceived to be a good leader is often someone who knows their own model of leadership well, and works on continuous leadership development to become the best leader that they can. 

In this article, we'll explore each model of leadership to help you recognize and develop your own leadership style.

What is a leadership model?

To quote William Shakespeare, “be not afraid of greatness. Some leaders are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” While this was true when Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night over 500 years ago, and is still true today, we know so much more about leadership models and leadership styles today.

A leadership model is really the structure to which a leadership style belongs. If your leadership style is one that innately pushes your team to always do better, and always sees more potential, you may be modeling a transformational leadership style without even realizing that it had a name. 

Your leadership style may be different, or have alternate traits, but it is highly likely that it closely aligns with one of the models that we’ll talk about.

11 Models of Leadership Explained

Servant leadership

A servant leadership model is one that puts employees first, above shareholders and even customers. Servant leaders believe that when employees are nurtured and taken care-of, they’ll in turn be happier, healthier, and ultimately more productive. 

servant leadership graphic

There were great examples of servant leadership throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as there have been throughout history. Think about CEOs that take pay freezes or pay cuts during difficult economic conditions so that their employees can stay on at full pay, and the company can avoid layoffs. 

Even on a smaller scale, think about leaders who are not above rolling up their sleeves and helping employees with even the most menial tasks during a busy time. A servant leader deflates their ego and is unlikely to say that something is “outside of their job description,” and truly believes that there is “no I in team.”

Servant leadership has been proven to create more successful, sustainable companies. Interested to know more?

Check out: Servant leadership examples and characteristics

Download our 2024 Workplace Trends Report to stay ahead in a transforming HR landscape. Get insights from leaders on trends that will define your strategies in AI, talent dynamics, and DEI.

Download our 2024 Workplace Trends Report to stay ahead in a transforming HR landscape. Get insights from leaders on trends that will define your strategies in AI, talent dynamics, and DEI.

  • By submitting this form, you agree to receive the requested content, our newsletter, and occasional emails related to People Managing People. You can unsubscribe at any time. For more details, please review our privacy policy. We're protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Transformational leadership

Think of transformational leadership as ‘inspirational leadership.’ Transformational leaders are the ones who inspire others to take action, and to work together towards a greater vision. 

Think of Harriet Tubman leading her people to freedom through the Underground Railroad, inspiring a network of helpers so much larger than her own efforts. To quote another transformational leader, Theodore Herzl, whose vision led to the modern State of Israel, “if you will it, it is no dream.” 

There are also frequently used examples from the tech world—Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos each building their tech empires out of a shoestring budget. 

Transformational leaders are known for their vision and integrity. They don’t accept the status quo lying down; they see the world for what it can be, and set out to make change happen. 

More importantly, though, transformational leaders do not act in a vacuum. What makes them so engaging is their ability to use their leadership to inspire others to work towards their vision. Transformational leaders bring the rest of the world onto their wavelength and succeed by inspiring others to follow their vision

We recently wrote about transformational leadership, and how it differs from transactional leadership: transformational leadership: how to inspire others to be better.

Transactional leadership

A transactional leadership theory is all about the give and take. I give you this assignment, you get it done, you earn a reward. If you get it done ahead of the deadline, or beyond what was expected, that reward becomes greater. 

Transactional leadership creates an incentivized work environment. Leaders will very clearly dictate what is expected, and workers will have a clear sense of what they will earn in return for the work. 

There are environments in which transactional leadership works well. In the medical industry for example, where the ultimate goal is better patient outcomes, instructions often come from chiefs and supervisors down to those carrying out the work, such as medical residents and nurses. They know exactly what is expected of them as team members in order to do the job well.

The challenge with transactional leadership, however, is that it’s not a great fit for thinking outside of the box. This leadership style is all about following the rules, and to creative thinkers the rules ‘are meant to be broken.’ 

The CRA model of leadership

How will you know when you’ve arrived at the destination when you don’t know what the destination is, or how to get there? How can you be expected to succeed if you don’t know what’s expected of you, period?

The CRA model of leadership stands for Clarity, Responsibility, and Accountability.

  • Clarity—Each team member is clear about the company’s mission and objectives, along with its vision and values.
  • Responsibility—Each team member knows their individual responsibilities for helping to reach those objectives, and provides clarity to individual roles.
  • Accountability—Everyone is clear on how success is measured and is held responsible for their part in achieving results.

The CRA model of leadership is an effective tool for any organization.

Read more: Clarity, responsibility, and accountability (cra) model of leadership.

Empathetic leadership

Even your best employees are human. They get busy, they miss things, and sometimes they make mistakes. We all have a life outside of work, and sometimes that life gets in the way of whatever else we’re trying to accomplish.

Empathetic leadership is about seeking first to understand, and then to be understood. Instead of rushing to judge or penalize employees, an empathetic leader takes a step back, asks questions, and tries to understand what caused the problem. It’s an approach that promotes health and happiness in the workplace.

Anyone can be an empathetic leader, but it takes practice to ask the right questions, and to avoid rushing to judgment.

Read more: Engaging employees through empathetic leadership: what I learned.

Autocratic leadership

Autocratic leadership turns leaders into military generals. Autocratic leaders are often “tough as nails”, and their leadership behaviour leave little margin for dissent. Think of the classic American WWII generals like George S. Patton (or the movie that portrayed his life) and you’ll get a sense of autocratic leaders.

An autocratic leader may be great in some organizations. They are often fearless, think quickly, and have little hesitancy trusting their gut to make decisions. 

If an organization needs to change course quickly, an autocratic leader may be the best solution. 

Yet, naturally, this hardheadedness can often be an employee’s worst nightmare. A sensitive employee, or a creative employee who likes to think outside the box, can easily butt heads with an autocratic leader, and it can make working life for those employees extremely unpleasant. 

Democratic leadership

Democratic leaders are the opposite of autocratic leaders. A democratic leader runs like exactly that—a democratically elected leader. They listen to input from team members and work to create a consensus in order to make decisions. 

Democratic leadership can be beneficial in a team setting when that team is open to innovation. Democratic leaders welcome new ideas, and come to the table with an open mind so long as the team is in agreement. They are also excellent at forging relationships and building bridges in order to create that kind of consensus.

The drawback to democratic leadership is that it’s often ineffective during crunch time. Consensus building takes time, which can often cost an organization money that they’re unwilling to spend. 

Authentic leadership

Authentic leadership is values-first leadership. Authentic leaders know exactly what they value most, and their core values and ethics drive how they make decisions, how they engage with an employee, how they provide feedback, etc.

Authentic leaders are effective leaders because they see through the BS. They have no time for gossip or petty politics if it does not align with their values.

An authentic leader can be an effective leader because they’re so values driven that it’s admirable among colleagues. Unfortunately, if an organization diverges from their values, they may be unlikely to stay.

Coaching leadership

Coaching leadership makes for great leaders on or off the field. Much like in sports, a coach can make for an effective leader because they’re goal oriented and don’t get lost in the details. 

Coaches are usually charismatic leaders that form special relationships with employees, and employees are inspired to perform better to please their coach. 

Not every employee will react well to coaching leadership. If a group member disagrees, or is difficult to coach, their personality clash can ultimately impact the flow of work. 

Supporting leadership

Supportive leadership is really about being that supportive and helpful leader for an employee. If you provide an employee with the knowledge and tools to succeed, and they’re clear on what they need to accomplish, then a supportive leader will stay out of their way and let them fly. 

The level of support each group member requires can vary, so supportive leaders may work with one team member more closely than another. 

Overall, though, supportive leaders are the ones who stay quiet in meetings, and who really let the team take charge. They are primarily there to oversee the process, check in frequently, and allow everyone the chance to succeed.

Delegating leadership

Delegating leaders are all about the big picture. They delegate tasks, and give the employees enough autonomy to get the job done well. Delegating leaders know not to ‘sweat the small stuff,’ and pass it on so that they themselves can focus on accomplishing the larger vision that they have set out. 

A good delegating leader needs to know how to avoid micromanagement. They cannot assign 10 out of 14 tasks to their team, complete the other 4 themselves, and then stand over 10 other pairs of shoulders as they dictate exactly how those assignments should be completed. 

Delegating leaders can be excellent at coaching and support, and may even fit into other models as well, but it’s nearly impossible for someone poorly-suited to letting go.  

Situational leadership

Situational leadership is the most flexible style on this list and is based on the premise that there is no single “best” style of leadership.

Instead, situational leadership theory suggests that leaders sometimes need to take a step back and assess the situation so that they can determine the appropriate leadership style to use at a given time.

It’s true that the most effective leaders make small adjustments to their leadership style regularly, such as treating new employees and senior employees differently. These leaders can often serve as a textbook example of agile leadership in the right situation.

If you're interested in diving a bit deeper into situational leadership, the video below is a good explainer.

What Kind Of Leader Are You?

Do any of these leadership styles speak to you? Are you more of a Michael Scott from the Office (he would probably tell you that he’s transformational), or a C. Montgomery Burns from the Simpsons (a textbook autocrat)? 

Do you know that you fit firmly into one category, or do you see yourself as a mix of a few different styles? Have you been handed control for long enough to really properly explore your leadership style?

Some more resources to help you become a better leader:

By Tim Reitsma

Tim has deep experience in HR, people & culture, leadership, business strategy and operations with a focus on building great teams who are excited about their craft and their organization. With over 15 years of leadership experience, Tim has always been guided by his core values: faith, family, curiosity, and fun. He is a coach, mentor, speaker, advisor, and an active volunteer in his community. Tim loves spending time outdoors with his wife and two kids as well as mountain biking in the north shore mountains.