Illustration representing 7 common leadership styles

Congratulations on investing a few minutes to understand your leadership style! Whether you’ve been leading teams for decades or consider yourself an aspiring leader, you’re about to do yourself a big favor. Knowing which style you embody is important because it lets you better understand your strengths and weaknesses as a leader.

So go on and take this seven-question quiz, then read up on each style below.

Well! That was fun (I hope). Now that you know which leadership style you gravitate toward naturally, let’s take a deeper look at each one. Not gonna lie, some work better than others. As you learn the pros and cons of each style, look for tactics or attitudes you could “borrow” from other styles to make yourself a more effective leader.

Authoritarian leadership

Also referred to as “autocratic,” this style of leadership is based on the idea that the boss is the boss, and that’s that. If you’re a leader, you make all the decisions, hold all the power, and have little desire or need to gather team input. Employees and teammates are just people who follow orders. It’s a dated approach to management that belongs more in a mobster movie than in the modern workplace.

For example:

photo of Darth Vader
Darth Vader rules with such an iron fist, he can choke you without even touching you. (Image courtesy of Lucasfilm.)

Where it falls short: In just about every respect. Authoritarian structures foster stressful work environments because of their rigidity. People working under an autocratic leader generally find themselves looking for new jobs before long. (Unless they’re a natural-born toady and/or complete and utter tool.)

What to do now: The best thing you can do for your team and your career is to ease the heck up. Yes, there’s a time and place for command-and-control leadership, but the modern workplace isn’t it. If you’ve adopted an authoritarian style because you figured it’s the only way to lead effectively, good news: it’s not! Today’s most effective leaders listen with open ears, give their team members as much autonomy as they can, and connect with their people as people (not just as direct reports). Sounds like a bunch of hand-wavy B.S.? It’s not. To start your leadership transformation journey, check out this article with five research-backed ways to become a more empathetic manager.

Bureaucratic leadership

As the cousin of the autocratic style, bureaucratic leadership runs on rules, policy, and maintaining the status quo. The standard procedure always wins out. Proponents of this style will listen to employees, and may even acknowledge their good ideas, but if those ideas don’t fit within the established system, they’ll never get the green light.

For example:

Though genuinely concerned about his students, Principal Skinner is seriously uptight and rarely does anything without the approval of his superiors. (Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox TV.)

Where it falls short: Because bureaucratic leadership is always beholden to business as usual, innovation is often stifled. This style of leadership is rarely effective in today’s workplace. Especially if you want to actually, y’know, stand out in a competitive marketplace.

What to do now: The controlled environment you work in feels warm and cozy, but you can do your team (and yourself) a favor by venturing outside your comfort zone juuuuuuuuuust a bit. And that means *eep!* relinquishing some of that control, while still providing guardrails for your team. You may not be ready to let them go wild on a skunk-works project, but can you delegate more of the every-day decisions? Lend your support to a killer idea that happens to challenge the status quo? Check out these seven leadership secrets that can help you take your game from “ok” to “oh, wow!”

Democratic leadership

The democratic approach to leadership relies on every team member providing input to help the team move towards the best decisions. The leader may still ultimately make the call, but it will likely be in sync with the conversations that have been happening across the team.

For example:

OK, so she unilaterally torched an entire city that one time. But! Before that, Daenerys Targaryen was the queen of surrounding herself with trusted advisors and listening to their counsel. (Image courtesy of HBO.)

Where it falls short: This approach is highly valued but requires members to be capable of participation. If leaders or employees aren’t active and engaged, it falls apart. Apathy is the enemy of democratic leadership. Another danger is that decisions can drag out for weeks (or months!) while you’re gathering input and building consensus.

What to do now:

If your team is made up entirely of self-starting go-getters, then your leadership style is probably creating an environment where they can thrive and just crush it every single day. Still, be mindful of decision-fatigue and consensus-fatigue. Check out one Atlassian team’s hack for making decisions as a group without getting bogged down.

If your team isn’t packed with self-starters, you may need to adjust your style to be a bit more directive. Or, better yet, try these five ways to nurture team morale and see if that results in higher engagement.

Coaching leadership

Coach-style leaders look at their team members and see oodles of potential that can be unleashed and tapped into to help the company grow. As such, coaching leadership relies on your ability to connect your team’s capabilities to the right strategic opportunities. Chances are, you enjoy working with a wide variety of people and often make a massive positive impact.

For example:

There’s always a method to Mr. Miyagi’s madness, even if it’s not obvious at first. This gentle genius isn’t afraid to let his pupil stumble and fall, but he’s quick to help pull Daniel back up, too. (Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.)

Where it falls short: While typically effective, the Achilles heel of coaching leadership is that it’s really tough to scale. Leaders simply don’t have unlimited bandwidth when it comes to developing their people and, at some point, the quality of your mentorship starts to go downhill. Additionally, the best decisions for your organization won’t always be the best decisions for individual people’s development, which adds some tension to the equation.

What to do now: Figure out how to coach your team members into taking a more proactive role in their own career development so you don’t have to hold their hands so tightly. As a natural mentor, you already know what each person’s strengths and goals are. What initiatives are happening in adjacent departments or teams that they should stay on the pulse of? Who else around the company should they be talking to? You may also want to pass along this article that breaks down three essential skills for managing your own career development. Keep up the good work, Coach!

Visionary leadership

Also known as “transformational leadership,” this is the style most often revered in organizations that prioritize growth. Because you’re constantly challenging employees to not just meet, but exceed their goals, this leadership style requires dynamic communication skills to win people over to your vision of what’s possible – both for themselves and for the company.

For example:

Morpheus lived inside the Matrix until he was freed. His mission is to help others see the same truths that were revealed to him. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Where it falls short: Because visionary leaders are always tinkering and reworking the structures of the company, employees can suffer innovation fatigue. Also, employee development can fall by the wayside because the leader is always thinking about the Next Big Thing™. Not to mention that even the grandest ideas are meaningless if they’re not paired with action.

What to do now: While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a visionary leadership style (and a lot right with it), it’s not a perfect fit for every team or company. Sit back and have a good, hard, brutally honest think about whether it’s right for your environment. If you feel you’re on the right track, make sure you’re taking the concrete steps necessary to bring your vision to life, and that you’re empowering your team members to do the same. (May we suggest the OKRs framework for working toward long-term goals?)

Otherwise, slow down for a bit and take stock. Are there foundational issues like technical debt, a backlog-gone-feral, or sagging morale that could use some attention? Taking some time to get back to basics gives everyone a chance to catch their breath and sets you up to put the pedal to the metal when the next irresistible idea comes along. Try the Team Health Monitor technique, developed right here at Atlassian through years of research and iteration. It’s a chance for your team to reflect on and discuss how you’re working together and identify weak areas before they become full-on liabilities.

How to be a great leader in a world of control freaks

Servant leadership

The founding principles of servant leadership include nine behaviors: 

  1. Serve first
  2. Add value to others
  3. Build trust
  4. Listen to understand
  5. Think about your thinking
  6. Increase your influence
  7. Demonstrate courage
  8. Live your values
  9. Live your transformation

In other words, you’re the type of leader who is focused on elevating their team members first, knowing that their success reflects well on you and that your own reward will follow. And, chances are, morale on your team is consistently high.

For example:

As the revered headmistress of Hogwart’s, Professor McGonagall went the extra kilometer to make sure muggle-born students could thrive amidst their peers who come from magical families. (Image courtesy of Warner Bros.)

Where it falls short: Servant leadership can become a logistical drag. When quick, decisive action is called for, there probably won’t be time to listen deeply and build consensus across your team. It can also be difficult to find the right balance of developing your people and staying focused on your organization’s primary goals.

What to do now: Caring for your team members the way you do (namely, putting your own needs second) can be downright exhausting. Make sure you’re taking care of you, too. Check out this article to learn about the warning signs of burnout and get tips for preventing it.

Laissez-faire leadership

This ultra-hands-off style of leadership essentially transfers all authority to employees. You’re always there to hook them up with whatever resources they need, but then you let them run with it while you attend to other matters. This means your team members can take more ownership of their roles in creative ways, which can be sooooooo empowering.

For example:

Preoccupied with his escapade du jour, Captain Jack Sparrow doesn’t do much captaining, per se. But we (and his crew) adore him nonetheless. (Image courtesy of Disney Studios.)

Where it falls short: Lacking clear direction, team members are left wondering what their collective goals are and what’s expected of them as individuals. This will leave some people feeling like they’ve been cast adrift, and disillusioned because they don’t have what they need to succeed.

What to do now: We need leaders to help us grow, answer questions, and provide at least a little bit of oversight. That doesn’t mean you have to go full-on control freak, though! (Seriously: don’t do that. Not that you would, but just sayin’.) The happy medium is to agree on guardrails with your team so they can keep making decisions autonomously yet still be confident that they won’t go down the wrong path. With a specific project in mind, try this trade-offs exercise. It’ll get everyone on the same page regarding what to optimize for, how rigid to be about it, and what concessions might be involved.

Discover your natural leadership style with this quiz