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The 12 leadership models explained

Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

April 17, 2024

They say people quit bosses, not companies. While the old adage isn’t strictly true, managerial prowess (or lack thereof) does have a huge impact on individuals, teams, and, ultimately, the company’s bottom line. 

But good management isn’t just about being personable and running the occasional feedback meeting. It’s about being flexible and adapting your approach to suit the situation. This is where knowing the various leadership models and how to apply them comes in handy. 

What is leadership in business?

Leadership in business is about guiding a group of people towards achieving specific goals. It’s not a power trip: it’s about how you use that power to influence outcomes and help your team flourish. 

A leader’s role encompasses: 

  • Setting clear objectives
  • Providing direction
  • Motivating the team
  • Encouraging collaboration
  • Fostering a positive work environment 
  • Making tough decisions that can affect the course of the organization.

Unsurprisingly, leadership is one of those things that directly impacts a company’s culture. It also affects employee engagement, and ultimately, the success or failure of the organization. 

There’s no universal playbook when it comes to getting it right. The dynamics within a business, its unique challenges, and the personality mix within all vary, which is why you need a variety of approaches. Enter the 12 leadership models. 

What are leadership models?

Leadership models are essentially frameworks that outline how a leader can motivate and guide their teams. 

They work best when they’re adapted to suit the situation. Think of them as tools in a toolbox. Just as you wouldn’t use a hammer to tighten a screw, you wouldn’t apply a single leadership model to every situation. 

Why do you need to know the different leadership models?

Do you want to be an effective leader? Then mastering the models is a good idea.

It’s about knowing your team, understanding the task at hand, and then selecting the right approach to guide everyone toward success.

It’s also about self-awareness — recognizing your strengths, weaknesses, your preferred managerial style, and how these fit within the broader spectrum of leadership models.

By exploring and applying different leadership models, leaders can:

  • Be more adaptable and responsive to the changing needs of their organization
  • Navigate a range of challenges better, from managing day-to-day tasks to steering through periods of change or crisis.

In the next section, we’ll dive into the 12 models, exploring what they are, how they manifest in the workplace, and their key features.

The 12 leadership models 

These models are not just academic theories or flash-in-the-pan fads; they’re practical strategies that have been honed through years of research and application in the real world. 

They take into account various aspects of leadership, including decision-making processes, the degree of control and freedom offered to team members, and the primary focus of the leader (whether it’s task completion, team development, innovation, and so on).

1. Transactional

You know the saying ‘the carrot or the stick’? This is essentially what the transactional leadership model is. 

It’s all about clear exchanges between the leader and their team members. Leaders set specific, measurable goals and offer rewards or consequences based on performance. It’s a straightforward approach that emphasizes structure, efficiency, and achieving short-term objectives.

What it looks like in the workplace

This model is particularly suited to environments where tasks are clear-cut and goals are short-term, like sales targets in a retail environment. Leaders closely monitor performance, give immediate feedback, and enforce a system of rewards and penalties to motivate their team.


  • Clear, structured expectations and rewards
  • Direct feedback based on performance
  • Emphasis on efficiency and task completion
  • Not so great in situations that require a higher level of creativity and flexibility.

Famous example

Bill Gates, in the early days of Microsoft, applied a transactional leadership style by setting clear goals for his team and rewarding those who met or exceeded these targets. His approach helped Microsoft achieve rapid growth by focusing on specific outcomes and rewarding the achievements of individual employees. 

2. Transformational

Transformational leadership focuses on inspiring and motivating employees beyond daily tasks toward long-term innovation. Leaders who use this model aim to build a culture of commitment and togetherness by emphasizing vision, passion, and growth.

What it looks like in the workplace

When innovation and creativity are key, transformational leaders shine. They work by setting an inspiring vision (aka defining the ‘why’ rather than the ‘how’), encouraging employees to challenge the status quo, while supporting their personal development. 

This approach is less about directing and more about inspiring. You often see it in small businesses (especially start-ups that want to shake things up). 


  • Inspires motivation and vision 
  • Encourages innovation and challenges existing processes
  • Focuses on team and individual development
  • Often used in conjunction with a bottom-up style of leadership
  • Can lead to burnout if the big vision isn’t aligned with resources and reality 
  • Depends heavily on the leader’s charisma

Famous example

Steve Jobs is often cited as a quintessential transformational leader. His tenure at Apple was marked by a strong focus on innovation, leading to the creation of revolutionary products like the iPhone and iPad.

3. Autocratic

Autocratic leadership is all about individual control with little-to-no input from team members. It’s best used in situations where decisions need to be made quickly and without debate. 

This model emphasizes clear directives, snappy decision-making, and a high degree of control by one qualified leader. 

What it looks like in the workplace

You’ll spot it in high-stakes environments where there’s no room for error, like emergency services or certain manufacturing processes. 

An autocratic leader makes decisions unilaterally, often under the assumption that they know best, which can streamline processes and enhance efficiency in scenarios where time or precision is critical. 


  • Centralized decision-making authority
  • Quick decision processes, with little consultation
  • Direct and clear communication of expectations and directives
  • A top-down management style
  • Can lead to low morale and high turnover if staff don’t feel valued
  • Suppresses individual initiative and creativity, which could mean the organization misses out on ideas.

Famous example

Martha Stewart is often mentioned as an example of an autocratic leader. She built her business empire by making most of the creative and business decisions herself, maintaining a high level of control over the brand’s direction, which has played a big part in its cohesive image and success.

4. Democratic 

Democratic (also known as participative) is pretty much the polar opposite of autocratic. It’s all about involving team members in the decision-making process, on the premise that two heads (or more) are better than one — and that team involvement leads to higher satisfaction and commitment. 

It’s also about empowering team members by showing them their input is valued, while also building a sense of ownership over the work. 

What it looks like in the workplace

This model thrives in collaborative environments where innovation, creativity, and employee engagement are important. 

Leaders solicit ideas and feedback from the team, encourage open discussions, and often make decisions based on group consensus. It’s about creating a culture where every voice is heard and valued. 


  • Inclusive decision-making processes
  • A high degree of collaboration and communication
  • Empowerment and engagement of team members
  • Often used as part of a bottom-up management approach
  • Decision-making processes can drag on
  • There’s a risk of leaving some team members dissatisfied, potentially leading to conflict and resentment.

Famous example

Indra Nooyi, during her tenure as CEO of PepsiCo, exemplified democratic leadership. She was known for actively seeking out and valuing the opinions and ideas of her team members, and incorporating their insights into the company’s strategic decisions. This approach not only fostered innovation but also built a strong, committed team culture.

5. Servant

Servant leadership inverts the traditional model, placing the manager in a service-oriented role for the team. Servant leaders focus on developing employees to their fullest potential, both professionally and personally.

What it looks like in the workplace

Servant leaders are deeply involved in the personal and professional development of their team. They support them by removing obstacles, providing resources, and fostering a culture of care, respect, and empowerment. 

This leadership style is effective in creating a highly motivated, loyal team.


  • Prioritization of team members’ needs and development
  • Strong emphasis on community and team building
  • Leadership through example, support, and empowerment
  • Can be seen as too lenient, potentially undermining leadership authority.

Famous example

Herb Kelleher, the co-founder of Southwest Airlines, is often celebrated as a servant leader. He famously put employees first, arguing that happy employees would lead to happy customers. Kelleher’s approach involved treating employees like family, fostering a strong corporate culture, and leading by example, which played a big role in the company’s high levels of employee satisfaction and loyalty.

6. Bureaucratic

Bureaucratic leadership is based on following rules and procedures. Leaders make sure their team adheres to company guidelines and practices. It’s particularly effective in environments where safety or compliance with strict regulations is paramount.

What it looks like in the workplace:

There is a clear emphasis on hierarchy and established procedures. Leaders expect employees to follow procedures meticulously, and there is little room for creativity or deviation from the norm. This approach ensures high levels of consistency, reliability, and safety.


  • Strict adherence to rules and procedures
  • Emphasis on hierarchy and defined roles
  • Decision-making within the confines of established guidelines
  • A top-down style of leadership
  • Tends to be inflexible, which can pose issues in environments that demand flexibility 
  • Discourages innovation, since the emphasis is on rule following.

Famous example

Winston Churchill, during his time as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, especially during World War II, demonstrated bureaucratic leadership through his adherence to government protocols and procedures. His leadership was marked by a strong reliance on established rules, which was essential to navigating the complexities of war and diplomacy.

7. Laissez-faire

Laissez-faire leadership, also known as impoverished leadership, is a hands-off approach. Team members are allowed to make decisions and solve problems on their own. It’s built on trust in the team’s abilities and independence, offering minimal guidance from the leader. It’s best in teams of highly skilled, experienced, self-motivated individuals. 

What it looks like in the workplace

This approach encourages autonomy and innovation, since team members are free to explore new ideas and approaches without the boss looking over their shoulder. 

But, it does require a mature team that’s capable of self-regulation and discipline. It also benefits enormously from being used in conjunction with project management tools. This software allows for hands-off collaboration, where the manager can let the team self-govern as much or as little as they want, checking in only when necessary.


  • High degree of autonomy for team members
  • Minimal direct supervision and interference
  • Emphasis on personal responsibility and initiative
  • Minimal leadership can lead to disorganized teams
  • Can lead to uneven team development if some members are less capable or self-motivated.

Famous example

Warren Buffett is often cited as the archetypal laissez-faire leader. He is known for his hands-off approach, trusting in the abilities of his managers to run their operations effectively. By all accounts, it has worked well for him and the companies within Berkshire Hathaway’s portfolio. 

8. Ethical

Ethical leadership is rooted in respect, fairness, and transparency. Leaders who embrace this model are committed to high moral standards, promoting a culture of integrity and superior ethics. Naturally, their biggest influencing factor is walking the walk: they lead by example, encouraging their teams to uphold these values in their daily work.

What it looks like in the workplace:

Ethical leaders are transparent and honest. They promote accountability, and prioritize ethical practices over short-term gains. 

This approach builds trust among staff, stakeholders and customers alike, fostering a positive workplace culture and enhancing the organization’s reputation.


  • Strong commitment to fairness, honesty, and integrity
  • Transparent decision-making processes
  • Promotion of accountability and ethical behavior
  • Ethical decisions can be complex, leading to slower business performance
  • Might fail in cutthroat industries where ethical choices often clash with cutthroat decisions.

Famous example

Mahatma Gandhi is a great example of an ethical leader. He fought for the freedom of Indian people with peaceful, nonviolent demonstrations. He set a shining example with his patience and kindness, which inspired many to support his cause. 

9. Charismatic

Charismatic leadership is driven by the leader’s personal charm and appeal. Leaders who embody this style inspire and motivate their teams through their magnetic personality, a well-articulated vision, and the strength of their convictions. 

They are often able to invoke enthusiasm and commitment among their followers through sheer force of personality.

What it looks like in the workplace

In environments where charismatic leaders operate, you’ll find a strong emphasis on the leader’s vision and values. These leaders are good at communicating their ideas in compelling ways, rallying their teams around common goals, and instilling a sense of purpose and excitement. 

While this can lead to high levels of motivation, it may foster too much dependence on the leader for direction and inspiration. Or turn into a cult. 


  • Strong personal appeal and ability to inspire
  • Ability to communicate vision and values compellingly
  • High levels of team motivation and engagement
  • Can result in overdependence, leading to vulnerability 
  • Potentially leads to a ‘cult of personality’ where people are committed to the leader, rather than organizational needs. 

Famous example

Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin Group, is often cited as a charismatic leader. His adventurous spirit, creative ideas, and personal charm have built a global brand and inspired loyalty among employees.

10. Pace-setting

This approach is all about setting high-performance standards and leading by example to get things done. Leaders who use this model are typically high achievers themselves and expect the same level of performance from their team members. 

This approach works best with a highly competent and motivated team that requires little guidance.

What it looks like in the workplace

The leader pushes for excellence and quick results, often setting the pace through personal demonstration. It can lead to high productivity and goal-hitting, but there’s a risk of burning out team members if the pace is too intense or if there’s too much emphasis on results over processes.


  • High standards for performance and quality
  • Leader sets the example by acting as the top performer
  • Focus on quick results and efficiency
  • Can lead to high stress and burnout if pushed too hard
  • May neglect the development needs of the team in favor of short-term results.

Famous example

Jeff Bezos of Amazon has been known to employ pace-setting leadership, often unethically so. His high expectations and relentless drive for excellence have helped propel Amazon to become a leader in retail and technology. However, this approach has also been critiqued for violating workers’ rights.

11. Coaching

This approach is geared towards the long-term professional development of team members. Leaders who adopt this style are mentors, offering guidance and feedback to help individuals improve their skills and achieve their career goals. 

This approach is highly personalized, considering each team member’s strengths, weaknesses, hopes, and dreams.

What it looks like in the workplace

In a coaching-led environment, leaders invest time in understanding their team members’ career objectives and work closely with them to develop skills and competencies. 

This usually includes regular one-on-one meetings, personalized development plans, and constructive feedback. The aim is to build a strong, capable team that’s equipped to take on future challenges.


  • Personalized mentorship and guidance
  • Focus on individual development and career progression
  • Encouragement of learning and experimentation
  • Often calls for higher time and resource investment, which can delay results 
  • Effectiveness depends on the proactivity of employees, which isn’t guaranteed.

Famous example

Known for her ability to nurture and develop talent, Oprah has mentored countless people, helping them to reach their full potential both personally and professionally. Her approach emphasizes personal growth, learning, and empowerment.

12. Affiliative

Affiliative leadership is about prioritizing creating harmony among team members. Leaders who employ this style believe that strong relationships lead to a happy and cohesive team, which, in turn, boosts productivity and morale. It’s especially effective during stressful times or when team cohesion is at risk.

What it looks like in the workplace

An affiliative leader focuses on people’s feelings and relationships, often acting as a mediator to resolve conflicts and foster a supportive team environment. They emphasize positive feedback, team activities, and open communication to help the team bond


  • Strong emphasis on emotional support and building relationships
  • Use of positive reinforcement to motivate team members
  • Focus on resolving conflicts and enhancing team harmony
  • May overlook poor performance in favor of good vibes, potentially compromising accountability 
  • Risk of complacency, with too much focus on emotional wellbeing over innovation and feedback.

Famous example

Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, prioritizes inclusivity and teamwork. Her efforts to transform GM’s corporate culture have focused on building a collaborative environment where every team member feels valued and heard.

How to choose the right leadership model

Effective project management is about more than just strong technical know-how — it’s about leading people, motivating them to do their best work, and being adaptable to changes. 

Being able to choose and flex your leadership style to suit the situation is the difference between a good project manager and a great one. Think of the below recommendations as a quick reference guide as opposed to something set in stone. 

  • When you have clear goals: Transactional leadership. It’s straightforward and works well when tasks need consistency and adherence to processes. By offering rewards for achieving milestones, project managers can keep the team focused and on schedule.
  • When you need big innovation-fuelled change: Transformational leadership. Leaders can inspire their teams with a compelling vision, encouraging creativity for high-impact results.
  • When there’s a crisis or it’s mission-critical: Autocratic leadership is best for when you need fast, efficient decisions. 
  • When you need multiple perspectives and creativity: Democratic leadership. It’s collaborative, which can lead to creativity since decisions are made collectively. It also fosters a sense of ownership. 
  • When you need a strong team: Servant leadership. By prioritizing the team’s growth and well-being, leaders can create a supportive environment that boosts collaboration and performance.
  • When you want highly experienced staff: Coaching leadership. It’s all about the long-term development of team members. Personalized guidance helps team members grow and master their skills.
  • When it’s a high-stress environment: Affiliative leadership. It focuses on emotional support and building strong relationships, helping the team navigate tough times, whether that’s low morale or a monster project. 

How to find your leadership approach 

We’ve spoken a lot about being flexible, but there’s still an element of individuality involved. Naturally, people are drawn to one style over the others, and while that doesn’t mean the rest should be ignored, it’s worthwhile knowing where your strengths lie.

Finding the right leadership model for yourself involves a mix of self-reflection, understanding your team’s needs, and considering the specific context in which you’re operating. Here are steps to help you work out which model aligns best.

1. Assess your personal strengths and weaknesses

Start by taking stock of your own skills and tendencies. Are you a natural communicator? Do you excel at motivating others, or are you more of a strategic thinker? Understanding your strengths and areas for improvement can help you lean into leadership styles that amplify your best qualities. 

2. Consider your team’s dynamics and needs

When deciding on an effective leadership style, consider your team’s setup and preferences. A younger, more dynamic team may thrive under a transformative or democratic leader, but a highly competent and independent team may profit more from a laissez-faire strategy.

3. Reflect on the organizational culture and goals

Your leadership style should be influenced by the larger context of your organization’s culture and objectives. A startup striving for quick expansion may require a different strategy than an established firm focused on retaining its market position.

4. Experiment with different styles

Leadership isn’t static. The strongest leaders are those who can change their approach to different situations. Test out different tactics in different scenarios to find what works best. Take note of the outcomes and how your team reacts to various styles.

5. Seek feedback

One of the best ways to understand your impact as a leader is to get feedback from your team and peers. This can give you direct insight into how well your approach is working.

6. Focus on continuous learning

The journey to finding your leadership model is ongoing. Attend leadership workshops, read extensively, seek feedback, and consider mentoring or coaching to refine your leadership skills further.

Great leaders use great tech 

The best leaders are those who adapt, flexing their style to suit their team’s needs and the challenges of the moment. And that includes the tech they use as much as their approach. 

While it’s tempting to blame our tools when things go awry, not having the right ones can genuinely slow us down. With project management software, you can offer support in a structured yet flexible way. Laissez-faire leaders can stay hands-off with the occasional check-in, while more autocratic leaders can closely track progress without falling into the micromanaging trap. 

With the right software, you can give your team’s productivity a real boost and smooth out those communication bumps along the way. Ready to give Backlog a try? It was designed with project leaders in mind. 



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