Is There a Best Leadership Style?

Apr 21 2021 | Insights
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Is there really a way to identify the 'best' leadership style for an organisation? We looked at common terminology, buzzwords and famous success stories to separate fact from fiction.

The term "leadership style” has become one of those concepts in the field of talent development that everyone uses but very few really understand. It has become an expression shrouded in vagueness where hardly anyone can explain what it really means.

Even leaders find it difficult to define style accurately. Searching the internet for quotes from famous leaders on what 'leadership style' means in a practical context is a fool's errand. You will be disappointed.

Take an inventory of all the quotes on leadership from the greatest leaders of the 20th and early 21st centuries and you will not find many that directly address the issue of style. 

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, one of the most quoted business leaders of all time, could talk to you about the importance of teams to a company's success, how to find inspiration to create new things and how to embark on new ideas without fear. 

But what did Jobs have to say about leadership style? Very little, in fact. But that has not stopped those who have followed his meteoric professional career from speaking out.  

Journalist and professor Walter Isaacson likely had more insight into the Jobs phenomenon than anyone else. His authorised biography of Jobs was published just weeks after the iconic business leader died of cancer. The following April, he published a lengthy article in the Harvard Business Review, which is perhaps the most comprehensive discussion of what Jobs accomplished, but also how he accomplished it.  

What was Jobs' leadership style? Isaacson acknowledges that at times he could be a bully, a brute and an irascible child, but he was also quick to share credit and success with the people around him. 

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“Jobs stayed hungry and foolish throughout his career by making sure that the business and engineering aspect of his personality was always complemented by a hippie nonconformist side from his days as an artistic, acid-dropping, enlightenment-seeking rebel,” Isaacson wrote in HBR. “In every aspect of his life—the women he dated, the way he dealt with his cancer diagnosis, the way he ran his business—his behaviour reflected the contradictions, confluence, and eventual synthesis of all these varying strands.”

At the time, dozens of news and industry publications were quick to publish unflattering reviews of Jobs' leadership style. Business Insider even published an article with the headline "16 Examples of Steve Jobs Being a Huge Jerk”. The list includes stories, some from Isaacson's book, in which Jobs yells, harasses, insults and verbally abuses his colleagues, investors, customers and suppliers.  

Jobs is perhaps one of the best examples of our inability to identify a specific leadership style associated with an iconic company. And inadvertently, this proves one of the constants of leadership style: there is no single leadership style that will work for you. 

The complex evolution of "style” 

Part of the problem with the concept of leadership style is, quite frankly, the word "style”. In many different contexts, 'style' is often used as the antithesis of "substance”. As in, "this leader was a triumph of style over substance”. 

Increasingly, however, the best thinking on effective leadership has turned the whole notion of 'leadership style' on its head. 

Today we understand that 'leadership style' goes far beyond behaviour and appearance. Definitions of leadership style vary to encompass a wide range of approaches and mindsets. 

Some define leadership style as the behaviours a leader adopts in the performance of their duties. Others focus more on the tone or extent to which a leader directs the people they lead or allows them to find their own way. 

The most effective leadership styles involve a combination of interpersonal and emotional skills, working together with important technical knowledge to get the best performance from the people you lead. 

In other words, it is not a question of substance OVER style; today it is the effective marriage of substance AND style.  

When did the term “leadership style” become a reality?

Many academics trace the origins of the modern concept of leadership style to German psychologist Kurk Lewin who, among a handful of other contemporary researchers, began to move beyond discussing the traits that good leaders were supposed to have, and into the more complex realm of how leaders think and react to various challenges they face. 

Lewin and colleagues Ronald Lippitt and Ralph White published a seminal article on leadership styles in a 1939 edition of the Journal of Social Psychology. The research involved observing several groups of 10-year-old boys in different activities, led and observed by an adult that adopted one of three styles of leadership: authoritarian (where leaders dictate tasks and solutions to the people they lead); democratic (where solutions are arrived at by consultative processes and guided by the leader); and laissez-faire (where work is performed without any guidance or participation of a leader). 

Although the purpose of the study was to determine which style of leadership was likely to prompt aggressive behaviour, the findings and definitions of leadership styles have influenced generations of scholars and leadership development gurus. 

This early work prompted generations of psychologists and human resource professionals to develop their own takes on the three core leadership styles. The result has been – to say the least – a bit overwhelming. 

Man in a meeting.

How many different leadership styles are there?  

Perusing the reams and reams of content on leadership style that is available today, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Amazon, for example, has literally thousands of books – yes thousands – that examine the issue of leadership and leadership styles. Some are written by the self-identified gurus of leadership development; some by actual leaders. Some are written by gurus interpreting the leadership styles of actual leaders. 

The point is that most of these books only serve to prove one inescapable truth and the leadership style industry: almost everyone has access to a thesaurus. Just consider all the variations on Lewin, Lippitt and White’s original trio of leadership style categories that we uncovered in a five-minute Google expedition:  

  • Affiliative 

  • Authentic 

  • Agile 

  • Appreciative 

  • Authoritarian 

  • Authoritative 

  • Bureaucratic 

  • Charismatic 

  • Coercive 

  • Coach-style 

  • Consultative 

  • Persuasive 

  • Servant 

  • Strategic 

  • Situational 

  • Transactional 

  • Transformative 

  • Laissez Faire 

Semantically, one might be able to divine slight variations in meanings of some of these terms. Practically, however, taking one of the three core styles identified by Lippitt and White – authoritarian, democratic and laissez-faire – and fracturing them into an endless series of sub-categories does more to confuse leaders than inform them on what style(s) to adopt. 

Fortunately, some of the opinion-leading voices in this space can help us sort out the noise. 

Making sense out of all the ‘leadership style’ nonsense 

To really clarify the whole issue of leadership styles, there are a couple of sources that everyone should reference. The first stop on any leader’s journey to find the secret of effective leadership styles has to be an examination of “emotional intelligence.” 

A term that was first coined by psychologists in the 1950s, emotional intelligence has taken its rightful place on the forefront of any discussion on effective leadership style. Kicked around in academic circles for 40 years, the term gained prominence in the business world in 1995, with the publication of psychologist Daniel Goleman’s best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ.  In it, he performed some of his own research and analysed the data produced by other experts to identify four essential emotion-based skills that all leaders should have: self-awareness; self-regulation, motivation, empathy and social skill. 

Goleman followed up his book with a series of influential articles in the Harvard Business Review: What Makes a Leader (published first in 1998) and Leadership that Gets Results (2000). In the pursuit of a practical definition of leadership style, it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that there are thousands of references to Goleman’s work in general, and these two articles in particular. 

So, what does Goleman think is the best leadership style? Careful, it’s a trick question because, as Goleman so eloquently states in HBR, the correct answer is all of the above but only at the right time and in the right measure. 

Most importantly, the research indicates that leaders with the best results do not rely on only one leadership style; “they use most of them in a given week – seamlessly and in different measure – depending on the business situation,” he wrote in 2000. “Imagine the styles, then, as the array of clubs in a golf pro’s bag. Over the course of a game, the pro picks and chooses clubs based on the demands of the shot. Sometimes he has to ponder his selection, but usually it is automatic. The pro senses the challenge ahead, swiftly pulls out the right tool, and elegantly puts it to work. That’s how high-impact leaders operate, too.” 

Goleman identified six fundamental leadership styles, some positive in orientation and others negative. However, he noted that from his own research only the four positive leadership styles produce results: authoritative; democratic, affiliative and coaching. Goleman defined those four styles as such: 

Authoritative Leaders can mobilise the people they are leading toward a common vision. They demonstrate high degrees of self-confidence and empathy. This “come with me” style of leadership is best applied when change is afoot and new visions or directions are needed. 

Democratic Leaders forge consensus through participation. They emphasise collaboration and effective communication. This “what do you think?” style is perfectly suited to situations where you need to build consensus or broad support from employees. 

Affiliative Leaders are focused on creating harmony and strong emotional bonds between employees. This “people come first” approach features healthy doses of empathy and compassion. It is an excellent approach when you need to heal a rift in a team or motivate people in the face of a crisis. 

Coaching Leaders always keep an eye on developing talent for the now and for the future. This “try this” style requires self-confidence, empathy and the willingness to take on the role of a change catalyst. It is best applied when an organisation is going through significant change. 

Goleman said that a wide variety of research shows that leaders who master these four styles generate the best overall business results. “Such leaders don’t mechanically match their style to fit a checklist of situations – they are far more fluid,” wrote in HBR. “They are exquisitely sensitive to the impact they are having on others and seamlessly adjust their style to get the best results.” 

One style to rule them all?  

Notwithstanding the practical logics of an “all of the above” approach to leadership styles, other experts in this field – some of whom did earlier studies that informed Goleman’s work – do believe that one of the styles he identified could be the secret to unlocking organisational potential: coaching. 

David McClelland, an early adopter of emotional intelligence theories who was named by the American Psychological Association as one of the most-influential psychologists of the 20th century, found through his own research that CEOs, many of whom led the world’s most successive companies, almost always demonstrated a coaching mindset. 

Research conducted by McClelland and others informed by his thinking have found that “the very best CEOs used the ‘coaching and involving’ style significantly more than their counterparts.” 

Goleman wrote extensively about the coaching style of leadership, noting that while it is associated with better-than-average performance, research shows that it is used least often. “Many leaders told us they don’t have the time in this high-pressure economy for the slow and tedious work of teaching people and helping them grow.” 

Goleman noted, however, that leaders “who ignore this style are passing up a powerful tool: it’s impact on climate and performance are markedly positive.” 


There is clearly no one style of leadership that is applicable to all situations. Just as professional athletes need to demonstrate multiple “tools” of the game they are trying to master, leaders need to be able to demonstrate that they can apply different styles in the face of different challenges. And that in general, more positive leadership styles that involve positive approaches rather than negative approaches are likely to get better outcomes. 

And, finally, it seems safe to say that adopting a coaching mindset is an integral part of the suite of approaches that all leaders must be able to deploy when the situation calls for it. 

Help your leaders and teams make sense of their styles of work alongside Ezra’s world-class employee coaching.  We've redesigned leadership coaching for the modern age to help transform people through affordable, scalable and high-impact solutions, with equitable access through our world-class coaching app. Find out how digital coaching could make a big difference to your organisation today. 

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