Identifying and successfully implementing your leadership style

  • leadership style

As you grow as a leader, you’ll likely try many techniques until you find what works best for you. However, this post is designed to give you a jump start by helping you identify what kind of leader you are, and learn how to best implement your leadership style and when to consider other styles.

Your leadership style is not just something that affects you, but it also impacts your followers and the organization that you belong to. In fact, leadership is one of the most important predictors of:

Our research includes research from hundreds of scientific studies related to leadership styles. Regardless of your leadership style, we’ll provide you with some evidence-based tips to be an effective leader. Specifically, we’ll cover:

  • How to determine your leadership style–transactional, transformational, laissez-faire, or servant leader–and what your style of leadership means,
  • The pros and cons of each leadership style, and in which situations each style is more or less effective and
  • How to most effectively implement each leadership style.


What is your leadership style?

A leadership style is a general pattern of actions performed by the leader to reach shared goals. There are 4 leadership styles that we will discuss:

Take a moment to complete these two quick surveys–here and here–to determine the extent to which you mesh with each leadership style. As we’ll get into later, it is likely that you embody a combination of leadership styles–and that is a good thing. Research shows that leaders are more effective when they are able to adapt their style of leadership to match the needs of the situation.


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Transactional leadership style

Transactional leadership has been the traditional model of business leadership, focusing almost exclusively on the “bottom line.” To ensure the attainment of performance, transactional leaders establish specific parameters, guidelines, rules and performance standards, coupled with reward and punishment systems to enforce positive work behaviors and discourage negative ones. Thus, transactional leaders establish a well-defined chain of command and interactions with their followers reflect a quid pro quo relationship.


Pros and cons of the transactional leadership

Transactional leadership can be efficient and fair, but the rigid approach may harm long-term relationships and stifle innovation.


Implementing the transactional leadership

Step 1: Create clear expectations and rules for operation. Transactional leaders crave structure and leave little room for misinterpretation or ambiguity by creating clear expectations and rules. To ensure your standard rules for operation are clear.

  • Explicitly communicate the rules to your followers. For instance, all new employees could attend a standard training session communicating expectations, or tasks could be clearly outlined and delegated for every new work project, and providing realistic job previews, which details the good and bad parts of the job.
  • Have followers sign a statement indicating that they understand.

Step 2: Design an exchange system of external rewards and punishments.

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Transactional leaders rely on exchange relationship to get followers to obey the established rules. If followers are going to complete tasks for you, as a transactional leader, you must give them something in return. Therefore, it is necessary to design an exchange system based on external rewards and punishments. Here are two things to consider before creating your exchange system:

  1. Beware of rewarding only results and ignoring hard, smart work. For instance, a follower can make a good decision based on a lot of evidence and get bad results, whereas another follower can make awful decisions, and for whatever reason, get good results.
  2. Make sure that the reward or punishment matches the follower action.Your reward should match the follower’s contribution and your punishment should fit the follower’s transgression. For example, simply saying thank you for negotiating a large company merger, or severely punishing a follower for being late to a meeting would undermine the purpose of the exchange system.

To create an effective reward system, first determine the contributions and achievements that deserve recognition. Then come up with specific rewards.

  • Rewards: To recognize this work, offer followers positive incentives. The most common reward is probably monetary, but effective transactional leaders should also consider more creative rewards such as
    • time off, or flexible work schedules
    • other simple perks like taking a follower out to lunch, or event tickets for achieving specific goals, and
    • non-monetary rewards. For example, expressing gratitude can be incredibly effective. Gratitude can come in a variety of forms but here are some ways to express your appreciation:
      • saying “Thank you,”
      • writing a note that underscores the importance of the follower to the organization, and
      • complimenting specific behaviors, “You are outstanding at managing your time.”

Punishments: Traditional versus Non-punitive: The transactional leader embodies a “do it or else” mentality. Therefore, the exchange system also requires the need to correct followers for failing to meet objectives or deviating from acceptable behavior. Typically punishment comes in the form of “progressive discipline,” where punishment increases as violations increase.

Two schools of thought exist on how punishment should occur. The non-punitive system may work better than the traditional approach because it is less confrontational and more focused on helping the follower improve (as opposed to simply indicating what the follower did wrong).

Keep in mind that before the reward and punishment system can be implemented it is imperative that followers understand it. In fact, it may be a good idea to include followers in the process to designing the system. After all, they are the reason the system exists. Once you have a system in place, you must stick to it–do not make exceptions. The reward-punishment system can only be effective if consistently implemented.

Step 3: Monitor your followers. Transactional leadership is often tied to active and passive management by exception.

  • Active management by exception is the academic term for micromanaging. This involves closely monitoring followers to ensure that they obey established procedures and providing prompt remedial measures to correct mistakes. Because leaders actively search for issues, this approach can be effective when followers’ safety is at stake or for sports coaching.
  • Passive management by exception fits the saying, “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” So a leader would only get involved when a problem arises. This approach, however, is also problematic because followers mainly receive attention from the leader when they do something wrong. 

Recently, however, researchers have identified a better way to monitor followers and it is called, active-constructive management. This entails monitoring follower actions, anticipating any problems, and when necessary, providing practical feedback to address a problem. Here are a few examples of active-constructive management:

  • Anticipating follower problems and providing followers with ways to address the issues
  • Reminding followers of the benefits of complying with established rules
  • Emphasizing morality by encouraging followers to “do the right thing”


Transformational leadership style

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Whereas transactional leaders rely on rewards and punishments to obtain results, transformational leaders rely on their charisma to help followers cultivate change through inspiration, intellectual stimulation, and individualized support.

Transformational leaders set high standards for behavior and establish themselves as role models by gaining the trust and confidence of their followers. By mentoring and empowering followers, transformational leaders encourage them to develop their skills, which allows them to make more substantial contributions to the organization.

Pros and cons of the transformational leadership

Transformational leaders challenge followers to think creatively to improve antiquated or dysfunctional parts of the organization. In addition, instead of waiting for external factors that will force organizational changes, transformational leaders frequently push for innovative improvement even when the organization is thriving. This type of foresight helps ensure the long-term success of the organization.


Implementing the transformational leadership

Becoming an effective transformational leader can be difficult. However, there are some steps you can follow to help become a better transformational leader. To help guide you through this process, let’s pretend that you’re the leader of a non-profit organization designed to fight child hunger.

Step 1: Build up a challenging and striking vision, mutually with the followers. An organizational vision is about “the big picture” and why this job matters. It helps followers create a vivid mental image of what you want to accomplish. As the non-profit leader, you might establish the motto,

  • A community in which all children have healthy food to eat.

Step 2: Attach the vision to a policy for its success. This is a set of rules or guidelines created assist the organization in reaching its long-term goals. For example,

  • A child will never be turned away for food in the community meal center. 

Step 3: Make sure the vision is aligned with specific procedures. Procedures are specific actions that are carried out in the daily operations of the organization. For example,

  • Followers are expected to keep track of all food items in the community meal center. 
  • If the community meal center runs out of food, followers should use the organizational card to obtain food for the child(ren).

Step 4: Express commitment and confidence about the vision and its execution. For example,

  • I promise that our organization is devoted to ending child hunger. We are convinced that the policies and procedures we’ve created, will provide a roadmap to make this vision become a reality.


Laissez-faire leadership style

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Laissez-faire means let (people) do (as they choose). This style is characterized by a hands-off approach in which there is limited interaction between the leader and followers. Laissez-faire leaders often delegate tasks and their followers have the freedom to decide what is right and wrong with little interference from the leader. The laissez-faire leadership style can cause uncertainty among followers and in the group as a whole because decisions are often delayed and feedback is minimal.


Implementing the laissez-faire leadership

Although the idea of complete freedom may seem appealing, research shows that the laissez-faire leadership style is detrimental to long-term organizational success. In fact, laissez-faire leaders appear to be a primary source of stress for followers and has been linked to role conflict, role ambiguity, conflicts with colleagues, and low productivity.

One reason for this stress can be attributed to laissez-faire leaders not recognizing followers’ good work while also failing to punish bad behaviors. Given the plethora of issues that accompany a laissez-faire leadership style, it is generally not recommended to employ this form of leadership for any extended period of time.

Nevertheless, laissez-faire leadership may be a good idea to strategically employ when competent followers clearly understand their work roles and tasks.

Applying the laissez-faire leadership style will allow you to act like a fly on a wall, empowering your highly skilled followers to complete their work however they see fit. It is imperative that you have a strong foundation of trust with your followers before implementing this leadership style. Once that trust is established, strategic implementation of this approach may promote follower creativity.


Servant Leadership style

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The primary motivation for servant leaders is to serve others, and this desire to serve supersedes their own interests to benefit the greater whole. Servant leaders believe that in order for followers to reach their potential, they need to view themselves as equals while placing the needs and interests of their followers first. To do this, servant leaders often interact one-on-one with their followers to better understand their interests, skills, and goals.

With knowledge of each follower’s unique characteristics and interests, servant leaders then assist followers in achieving their potential. This encouragement is done through building self-confidence, serving as a role model, inspiring trust, and providing feedback, and resources. As you may notice, servant leadership differs from previous leadership approaches to leadership in that it emphasizes selflessness, forming strong long-term relationships with followers, and relinquishing power.


Implementing the servant leadership

Step 1: Look within yourself. First and foremost, to be a successful servant leader you must possess an authentic desire to serve others. Ask yourself,

  • “What are the main reasons why I want to lead?” and
  • “How do I want to lead people?”

If your answers to these questions have to do with gaining rank within an organization, getting paid more, or being in control of decisions, the servant leadership style is not for you. However, if your answers reflected a desire to help others no matter the cost to your own career interests, then servant leadership is for you.

Step 2: Ensure that your organization and followers approve of servant leadership. This is imperative because organizations and followers may not approve of servant leadership simply because servant leaders view themselves as equals thereby undermining the traditional power hierarchy.

To determine whether an organization is a good fit, consider whether the organization will allow you to:

  • View yourself as an equal to your followers?
  • Put the needs of your followers first?

If your answer is ”yes” to both of these questions, then servant leadership may be a good fit for the organization. However, it is also necessary to consider whether followers are comfortable with having a servant leader.

Servant leaders want to know their followers’ needs, which usually requires some in-depth, personal conversations. Followers who do not desire to share that kind of information with their leader will likely find servant leaders intrusive or off-putting.

Step 3: Build strong relationships with followers. To be an effective servant leader, you must possess outstanding interpersonal skills that will help you create strong relationships with your followers. This crucial because servant leadership influence followers through trust. Recognize that this will take time and it cannot be rushed. But, researchers have identified several characteristics of a successful servant leader, including,

Step 4: Maintain relationships with followers. Servant leaders attempt to form enduring relationships with their followers. They recognize that their followers cannot reach their full potential overnight. In addition, followers’ needs and interests may change over time. So, as a servant leader, you should keep in frequent contact with your followers to ensure that they reach their potential.


What leadership style is best?

So after reading this you may prefer one style over another, but leaders are most effective when a combination of leadership styles are used. For instance, transactional leaders can help establish agreements based on clear standards and expectations of performance. In doing so, transactional leaders can build a foundation of trust by consistently fulfilling established agreements. Transformational leaders may build on this trust by inspiring followers to adopt the organization’s values, mission, and vision.

It is also important for a leader to recognize that each follower is different and that they possess different abilities. When leaders recognize that they can influence their followers using a variety of leadership approaches, they will begin to create a strong organization.


Recap of identifying and successfully implementing your leadership style

To be an effective leader, you need to figure out which leadership style best suits you as well as the situation that you’re in. By better understanding the various leadership styles, you will be better equipped to confront the many challenges of leadership.

As you may have noticed, each leadership style requires a particular personality and skill-set. For instance, servant leaders must be compassionate and supportive, whereas these characteristics are not necessary for the laissez-faire leadership style.