Leadership Styles and Frameworks You Should Know

A leadership style refers to a leader's characteristic behaviors when directing, motivating, guiding, and managing groups of people. Great leaders can inspire political movements and social change. They can also motivate others to perform, create, and innovate.

As you start to consider some of the people who you think of as great leaders, you can immediately see that there are often vast differences in how each person leads. Fortunately, researchers have developed different theories and frameworks that allow us to better identify and understand these different leadership styles.

Lewin's Leadership Styles
Illustration by Joshua Seong, Verywell

Lewin's Leadership Styles

In 1939, a group of researchers led by psychologist Kurt Lewin set out to identify different styles of leadership. While further research has identified more distinct types of leadership, this early study was very influential and established three major leadership styles that have provided a springboard for more defined leadership theories.

In Lewin's study, schoolchildren were assigned to one of three groups with an authoritarian, democratic, or laissez-faire leader. The children were then led in an arts and crafts project while researchers observed the behavior of children in response to the different styles of leadership. The researchers found that democratic leadership tended to be the most effective at inspiring followers to perform well.

Authoritarian Leadership (Autocratic)

Authoritarian leaders, also known as autocratic leaders, provide clear expectations for what needs to be done, when it should be done, and how it should be done. This style of leadership is strongly focused on both command by the leader and control of the followers. There is also a clear division between the leader and the members. Authoritarian leaders make decisions independently, with little or no input from the rest of the group.

Researchers found that decision-making was less creative under authoritarian leadership. Lewin also concluded that it is harder to move from an authoritarian style to a democratic style than vice versa. Abuse of this method is usually viewed as controlling, bossy, and dictatorial.

Authoritarian leadership is best applied to situations where there is little time for group decision-making or where the leader is the most knowledgeable member of the group. The autocratic approach can be a good one when the situation calls for rapid decisions and decisive actions. However, it tends to create dysfunctional and even hostile environments, often pitting followers against the domineering leader.

Participative Leadership (Democratic)

Lewin’s study found that participative leadership, also known as democratic leadership, is typically the most effective leadership style. Democratic leaders offer guidance to group members, but they also participate in the group and allow input from other group members. In Lewin’s study, children in this group were less productive than the members of the authoritarian group, but their contributions were of a higher quality.

Participative leaders encourage group members to participate, but retain the final say in the decision-making process. Group members feel engaged in the process and are more motivated and creative. Democratic leaders tend to make followers feel like they are an important part of the team, which helps foster commitment to the goals of the group.

Delegative Leadership (Laissez-Faire)

Lewin found that children under delegative leadership, also known as laissez-faire leadership, were the least productive of all three groups. The children in this group also made more demands on the leader, showed little cooperation, and were unable to work independently.

Delegative leaders offer little or no guidance to group members and leave the decision-making up to group members. While this style can be useful in situations involving highly qualified experts, it often leads to poorly defined roles and a lack of motivation.

Lewin noted that laissez-faire leadership tended to result in groups that lacked direction and members who blamed each other for mistakes, refused to accept personal responsibility, made less progress, and produced less work.

Observations About Lewin's Leadership Styles

In their book, "The Bass Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications," Bass and Bass note that authoritarian leadership is often presented solely in negative, often disapproving, terms. Authoritarian leaders are often described as controlling and close-minded, yet this overlooks the potential positives of stressing rules, expecting obedience, and taking responsibility.

While authoritarian leadership certainly is not the best choice for every situation, it can be effective and beneficial in cases where followers need a great deal of direction and where rules and standards must be followed to the letter. Another often overlooked benefit of the authoritarian style is the ability to maintain a sense of order.

Bass and Bass note that democratic leadership tends to be centered on the followers and is an effective approach when trying to maintain relationships with others. People who work under such leaders tend to get along well, support one another, and consult other members of the group when making decisions.

Additional Leadership Styles and Models

In addition to the three styles identified by Lewin and his colleagues, researchers have described numerous other characteristic patterns of leadership. A few of the best-known include:

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership is often identified as the single most effective style. This style was first described during the late 1970s and later expanded upon by researcher Bernard M. Bass. Transformational leaders are able to motivate and inspire followers and to direct positive changes in groups.

These leaders tend to be emotionally intelligent, energetic, and passionate. They are not only committed to helping the organization achieve its goals, but also to helping group members fulfill their potential.

Research shows that this style of leadership results in higher performance and more improved group satisfaction than other leadership styles. One study also found that transformational leadership led to improved well-being among group members.

Transactional Leadership

The transactional leadership style views the leader-follower relationship as a transaction. By accepting a position as a member of the group, the individual has agreed to obey the leader. In most situations, this involves the employer-employee relationship, and the transaction focuses on the follower completing required tasks in exchange for monetary compensation.

One of the main advantages of this leadership style is that it creates clearly defined roles. People know what they are required to do and what they will be receiving in exchange. This style allows leaders to offer a great deal of supervision and direction, if needed.

Group members may also be motivated to perform well to receive rewards. One of the biggest downsides is that the transactional style tends to stifle creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

Situational Leadership

Situational theories of leadership stress the significant influence of the environment and the situation on leadership. Hersey and Blanchard's leadership styles is one of the best-known situational theories. First published in 1969, this model describes four primary styles of leadership, including:

  1. Telling: Telling people what to do
  2. Selling: Convincing followers to buy into their ideas and messages
  3. Participating: Allowing group members to take a more active role in the decision-making process
  4. Delegating: Taking a hands-off approach to leadership and allowing group members to make the majority of decisions

Later, Blanchard expanded upon the original Hersey and Blanchard model to emphasize how the developmental and skill level of learners influences the style that should be used by leaders. Blanchard's SLII leadership styles model also described four different leading styles:

  1. Directing: Giving orders and expecting obedience, but offering little guidance and assistance
  2. Coaching: Giving lots of orders, but also lots of support
  3. Supporting: Offering plenty of help, but very little direction
  4. Delegating: Offering little direction or support
Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Lewin K, Lippitt R, White K. Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created “social climates”. J Soc Psychol. 1939;10(2):271-301.

  2. Bass B, Bass R. The Bass Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, and Managerial Applications, 4th Ed. Free Press, 2008.

  3. Choi SL, Goh CF, Adam MB, Tan OK. Transformational leadership, empowerment, and job satisfaction: The mediating role of employee empowerment. Hum Resour Health. 2016;14(1):73. doi:10.1186/s12960-016-0171-2

  4. Hussain S, Abbas J, Lei S, Haider MJ, Akram T. Transactional leadership and organizational creativity: Examining the mediating role of knowledge sharing behavior. Cogent Bus Manag. 2017:4:1. doi:10.1080/23311975.2017.1361663

  5. Hersey P, Blanchard KH. Life cycle theory of leadership. Training and Development Journal. 1969;23(5).

  6. Blanchard K, Zigarmi P, Zigarmi D. Leadership and the One Minute Manager: Increasing Effectiveness Through Situational Leadership II. William Morrow, 2013.

Additional Reading