Types of Leadership: Autocratic vs Democratic vs Laissez Faire

Leadership in the Moment

Autocratic, Democratic, Laissez Faire – Which Leadership Style is Best for Now?

Normality is starting to return. People worldwide are wondering what types of leadership are right for our times. So what are the options? In the 1930s Dr. Kurt Lewin identified three types of leadership. These are democratic, autocratic and laissez faire.

Modern business leaders are flexible, and they adopt leadership types to suit their circumstances. This is called situational leadership. It requires self-awareness. So, know your strengths. It also requires sensitivity to your business needs at the time.

We explore the different types of leadership and build your leadership knowledge. Looking through what’s been written since Dr. Lewin, we’ve found references to 17 other types! So, with Dr. Lewin’s threesome, that’s 20 in all!

Writers and bloggers have broken these leadership models into many permutations. One commentator lists a staggering 12 types. We ‘zoom’ through all this in our ‘break out room’ section. We end with a look at social leadership. This is about leaders harnessing social media to communicate. Also, its about wannabes developing their leadership skills.

Vote Democrat

Doctor Lewin did his original research with school children. However, people soon recognised that his leadership types also described business leaders’ behaviour.

Dr. Lewin’s findings demonstrated that democratic or participative leadership was superior to the extremes of authoritarian and laissez faire. And since then many successful businesses have been based on this democratic style.

What Are the Three Main Leadership Styles?

Autocratic vs Democratic vs Laissez Faire

Autocratic leadership involves leaders being authoritarian in decision-making. They take all the major decisions. Also, there’s little or no input from their people. They demand compliance, and inevitably team members often feel they don’t get consulted.

The other extreme is laissez faire leadership. Here, the leader focuses on the overall plan but lets their team work as they like.

The danger here is that there isn’t enough coaching, mentoring or encouragement for people to grow. So, new leaders aren’t nurtured and the business suffers.

Democratic leadership means the leader has the final decision, based on the team members’ input. Employees get the flexibility to work together to reach these goals, and they accept the resulting decisions more readily because they’ve contributed. This is the ‘democratic’ part: people know they can influence the business.

Why is this important? Especially now, successful business people need to be flexible about changing and improving how they run things. And the longer they lead businesses, the more likely they are to change styles. So this means exploring new ways and flexing as situations demand.

So What Type of Leader Are You?

Sociologists commonly distinguish two types of leader, instrumental and expressive. An instrumental leader’s focus is to achieve goals and establish group tasks. They maintain productivity and get the job done, but in the process can alienate group members.

An expressive leader focuses on building relationships between team members. People working for expressive leaders feel comfortable asking for guidance and support.


A longstanding stereotype says men are more instrumental leaders and women are more expressive. We’ll let you think about that…

Man and woman work on laptop project
Women are traditionally thought to be more expressive than men

Welcome to Our Breakout Room

Business is about people. So it isn’t clear cut. It’s like 50 Shades of Grey, but hopefully less punishing!

Dr. Lewin identified three types of leadership. But we’ve found references to a staggering 20 in all. Writers and bloggers have broken them into different combinations. Here’s how they roll, starting with Dr. Lewin’s three.

We explain what the other types are in a minute. First, we highlight the combinations you can find. This shows how things have developed. How many do you recognise?

3 types: Autocratic: Democratic: Laissez Faire

4 types: Autocratic: Democratic: Laissez Faire: Maternalistic or Paternalistic

5 types: Autocratic: Democratic: Laissez Faire: Transactional: Transformational

6 types: Affiliative: Authoritative: Coaching: Coercive: Democratic:  Pacesetting

7 types: Affiliative: Authoritative: Autocratic: Coaching: Democratic: Laissez Faire: Pacesetting

7 types (Version 2.0):  Autocratic: Charismatic: Democratic: Laissez Faire: Supportive: Transactional: Transformational

8 types:  Autocratic: Bureaucratic: Charismatic: Democratic:  Laissez Faire: Servant: Transactional: Transformational

9 types: Affiliative: Authoritative: Coaching: Commanding or Military: Democratic: Laissez Faire: Pacesetting: Transactional: Visionary

10 types: Autocratic: Bureaucratic: Charismatic: Coaching: Democratic:  Laissez Faire: Pacesetter: Servant: Transformational: Visionary 

12 types: Autocratic: Authoritative: Bureaucratic: Charismatic: Coaching: Commanding or Military Democratic: Emergent: Maternalistic or Paternalistic: Situational: Transactional:  Transformational

Black figure in the centre surrounded by other figures
There are 16 types of leadership alongside autocratic, democratic and laissez faire

Phew! Now let’s go through these different types of leadership and see how they fit together:

Leadership Styles 1-5

  1. Affiliative: You put other people first and have lots of empathy. Motivating your team comes naturally in tough times. You heal rifts, but could have problems improving poor performance. Maybe you need to be more transactional?
  2. Authoritative: You’re a visionary, charismatic, creative and eccentric. That’s great when it’s all going smoothly. However, on a bad day, it’s easy to see you becoming autocratic. Perhaps you should try doing some coaching. Make things feel a bit more democratic.
  3. Bureaucratic: You listen to people, unlike an autocratic leader. But you do everything by the book. You follow the road map, and you won’t do anything new. Work on your charisma to be fully appreciated.
  4. Charismatic: Your leadership transforms your employees’ attitudes and beliefs. You have the power to influence and inspire, and the organisation’s goals reflect your vision. The problem is, people become overly dependent on you. Another risk, as time passes, you ignore employees’ needs and ideas. You become unwilling or unable to learn from mistakes. So, maybe you need to think about being more democratic.
  5. Coaching: Your style of leadership is highly effective. You know the results you want and how to lead your team towards the goal. Somewhere between affiliative and authoritative, you’re helping the business move towards being more democratic.

Leadership Styles 6-10

6. Coercive: You’re the boss, no argument. Immediate compliance is what you want. You react well during a crisis: you kick start change and confront problematic employees. When things calm down you need to listen more and become more democratic.

7. Commanding, or military: Like our coercive colleague, you’re great in a crisis when you need a dramatic turnaround. But you tend to isolate people and dampen flexibility and innovation. Again, try working on being more democratic.

8. Emergent Leadership: Groups of people don’t automatically accept a new boss as the leader. When heading up a new group, you need to develop, maintain and repair relationships. Work on this while establishing your authority.

9. Pacesetting: Things are difficult and you don’t feel your people are doing enough. You’re keen to see results. So hustle your team. Fine. But be careful in case you slip into intimidating, pressuring, and micromanaging. To your people, this feels coercive.

10. Maternalistic and Paternalistic: As the word suggests, this is where the leader sees their function as parental. Mama or Papa knows best! The parental leader guides and protects their subordinates as members of their family. They provide them with good working conditions and fringe benefits. It’s fine in some cultures. But often, mature adult employees don’t like being looked after by a godmother or godfather. Playing the godfather’s fine in mobster movies, but not legit businesses!

Leadership Styles 11-16

11. Servant: Rather than inspiring others to follow your lead, you prioritise other people’s needs over yours. However, you won’t get through your to-do list this way. But your personal impact is great, with everyone coming to you for guidance.

12. Strategic: This is based on what’s needed now and keeping things stable. It’s about getting people to make decisions with the company in mind. They want to contribute. But remember to do some visioning about going forward.

13. Supportive: You delegate, but also give employees the skills they need to grow. Mentoring is one of your gifts, but you’re less hands-on than a coach. You’re compassionate, but may not be transactional enough to achieve what’s needed.

14. Transactional: Your leadership is based on rewarding people for reaching set goals, like meeting sales targets. It can be very effective, and it’s often fine for the moment. However, it sets up problems medium term. Yes, people smash their targets, but there’s no motivation to go above and beyond or develop. When you want to inspire your team, you need to switch to being a transformational leader.

15. Transformational leadership means inspiring people, pushing them outside their comfort zones, changing them into somebody else! This is often effective but can create a personality cult around the leader. Getting your approval can distract people from doing their jobs and supporting each other.

16. Visionary: Visionary leaders create a vision of where the team is going, but don’t set out how they’ll get there. On the plus side, this frees employees to experiment and take risks. Visionary leadership is great when you need a new direction, but can be hard on your followers. It’s especially hard if you’re expecting them to take risks and make sacrifices.

Hang on a Minute, You’ve Left One Out…

Yes, you’re right. We’ve left out an important type of leadership. Don’t worry, we meant to!

  1. Situational leadership: The three types of leadership Doctor Lewin came up with, autocratic, democratic and laissez faire all have their merits. As we’ve seen, the other models people have defined since then have their moments too. But as we said before, leaders need to be self-aware and confident to vary their style when needed. This is situational leadership.

Dr. Kurt Lewin had first-hand knowledge of the need for flexibility and preparedness to change. He was a leading psychologist in Weimar Germany, and we know what happened there. When the Nazis seized power the good doctor fled to America and carried on his researches stateside.

Black and white image of Dr Kurt Lewin who came up with autocratic, democratic and laissez faire leadership
Dr. Kurt Lewin’s theory concerned autocratic, democratic, and laissez faire leadership

In those days academics saw management as an intellectual discipline based on evidence and theory, but the doctor’s US research challenged that.

He found learning in organisations was most likely to happen when there was conflict between experience and analysis. In other words, people learn through analysis when there’s no previous experience to judge what’s happening. Some people reckon that’s where we are now, as things start to return to normal after the pandemic.

I’m a Social Leader. Count My Followers

In times like these, as we’ve established, there’s no single best leadership style. Instead, listen to people and pivot around the situation. Doctor Lewin would be proud of you. In this environment, you need to assert your authority. But do it with extra empathy which involves social leadership.

Understanding social media and using it effectively is essential to build relationships with customers. But it’s also a powerful tool to communicate the nature of your leadership and explain your decisions. The skills you use to reach out to customers on social are also skills you can harness to communicate better with your workforce.

Participating on social media platforms can help hone communication, collaboration, motivation, agility, and community-building.

There are plenty of people who can teach you how to build your personal brand. This will help you increase your sphere of influence. Although, one thing you need to master, is being succinct!

Think about being as effective at getting your point across in person as you are online. That way you’ll have more success communicating and leading people.

Every time you reach out to friends or followers on social media, you have an opportunity to reinforce or change how they see you. So be sure to keep your posts “on brand.”  Social media is an extension of a leader’s personal impact. Remember, people are watching now, more than ever.

Mentoring from Millennials

Understanding how to send your leadership message on social media is especially useful in helping leaders communicate effectively. It’s especially so for communicating with Millennials and Generation Z-ers, because these people have grown up with social media. Millennials can teach leaders and wannabes a thing or two about effectively communicating at speed. Maybe they could coach you?

The biggest leadership skill social media can teach us how to listen. Listening is crucial in social media. It’s also critical in leadership.

Put Your Knowledge to Good Use 

So What is the Best Style of Leadership?

Your leadership style is bound to morph as your career progresses and your business develops. A wise leader is empathetic and flexible. Practice deep listening when you’re with your team. Learn to judge which style of leadership feels right at any time.

Medal for best leadership - autocratic, democratic or laissez faire
What’s the best type of leadership – autocratic, democratic, or laissez faire?

As a leader think of yourself as all these things:

  • Individualist
  • Strategist
  • Alchemist
  • Opportunist
  • Diplomat 

Know yourself:  Ask your colleagues what they think your leadership strengths are. Or take a leadership style assessment. There are plenty to choose from online.

Understand the different styles: Work out which of the leadership styles on our list would help your situation. Look at how other people have fitted them together in our Breakout Room section. What kind of leadership do you need to apply in your business?

Practice makes perfect: Work on your empathy and be authentic and genuine in your leadership. Work on the different approaches so you feel comfortable. And people will feel comfortable with you.

Develop your leadership agility: Traditional leadership skills remain relevant, but post-pandemic they may need to be combined with new approaches. Think about your soft skills.  Read our other posts on MBM.

And Finally…

Situational leadership is your best option in this uncharted new environment. Even more than before, the different business leadership styles need to be flexible.  So think of the different options as colours on a pallet, made bright and sharp by social leadership.

Take time out to talk to your team about how to make the best of your opportunities. Open up, but stay flexible. Showing your empathy will win their support and carry them with you. And you’ll be in business together to win!

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