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Comparing four styles of leadership: autocratic, democratic, laissez-faire and coaching

Leadership styles. We’ve all encountered them. Sometimes they felt like a warm bath or even better, being called to a great adventure with best mates. Other times they might have felt like painfully walking over a pebbly beach to go swimming on a hot summer’s day, slightly uncomfortable but you knew the goal was worth it. And then there were those times where a leader’s style felt like a cold bath (surprise!) or going barefoot through a thorny patch.

What made some leadership styles feel like they fit just right? And what made other styles rub you the wrong way or not connect at all? The leadership environments you’ve worked in impacted the way you felt and responded, impacted your relationships and productivity, and actually have been part of shaping how you lead others – whether it’s been with amazing leaders or even if it was an “I never want to lead like that!” experience. Likewise, your leadership style creates the atmosphere that will impact those you’re leading. So what’s yours going to be?

To start answering that, let’s take a look at what a leadership style is – most simply put it’s a leader’s pattern of behaviours. Often there’s an intersection between a leader’s focus and behaviours and team members’ expectations and experiences that creates either an amazing synergy or the perfect storm. Leadership research has been looking at the impact of various leadership styles for decades. One of the first ones to look into this was Kurt Lewin, a behavioural psychologist, who researched this in the 1930s and 1940s. He came up with three primary leadership styles: the autocratic leadership style, the democratic leadership style and the laissez-faire leadership style. Since then, there have been many more descriptions of leadership styles – one website listed 18 different ones that have been written about in various leadership books. There is plenty more to dive into if you’re interested in leadership styles! 

Typically, these first three types of leadership styles have to do with decision-making styles:

Autocratic leadership – is the leader who asserts their power, authority and control in making decisions. It’s one of the oldest leadership styles – even Jesus referred to it as “the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them.” (Mt 20:25 NLT) While it can serve in times of crisis or even in early stages of pioneering situations where the leader has the vision, it’s not what we want to model our leadership journey after. For more on the model we do want to follow, watch Belinda Chapman’s LDx Talk on The Leadership Style of Jesus.

Democratic leadership – as the name implies is when team members share leadership and decision-making responsibilities. Often also called participative leadership, it values collaborative efforts with peers in teams. It works especially well when engaging the community is important – so all the voices can be heard, input received and then decisions made accordingly.

Laissez-faire leadership – this is a hands-off approach from leaders that allows team members to make the decisions that affect them. This is best used when team members have higher degrees of experience, skills, motivation and initiative to start or continue things on their own. 


While those may be some of the “classic” leadership styles around how decisions are made, we’re going to look at leadership styles from a different angle: a leadership development point of view. This recognises that there is both a relational and a task side to leadership and both are important for the development of leaders. We’re also going to add a fourth crucial leadership style to our mix that’s missing from the above three: the coaching leadership style (also sometimes referred to as the transformational leadership style – Tom Bloomer describes much more about that in his LDx Talk). We’ll reframe each of these into a leadership development journey that looks like this:

Here we can see the overlap with some of the decision-making styles mentioned above, but now with a completely different purpose. It’s not about how best to make a decision to get a job done, how best to maintain power or authority, nor even how best to be inclusive of your team or community. While we look at both the task and relational aspects of leading, the spotlight of this journey is actually on developing leaders on the way!

In pioneering situations, the leader demonstrates and gives direction to the tasks that need to be done. But it’s not with the intention of keeping it just a one-way approach from the leader to the team member(s) but developing the person to grow further. It becomes an opportunity to take people along with you as a leader into a coaching relationship. As the relationship grows and the task is modelled, the journey shifts to making decisions together and empowering team members for the task while keeping the relational side strong encouraging and celebrating them as your team steps up. The goal remains developing others! 

This leads to being able to delegate tasks to others, so they can run with them. The relational aspect hasn’t vanished, but it’s clearly empowered others, so they can do it themselves and still have accountability without abdication. 

Essentially the process involves looking at what is going to be most appropriate for the team, the task and the individual(s) involved and then deciding what leadership style is going to be best to develop that individual or the team as a whole. Barbarra Conner’s article on Situational Leadership goes further on this, so take a read! For each quadrant above, here’s a short phrase to keep in mind: 

Directing:          I do it

Coaching:          I do it and you are with me

Supporting:       You do it and I am with you

Delegating:       You do it

Want to Know More?

If you’re interested in exploring more about leadership development and leadership styles for yourself or others – this is just one of many nuggets that gets unpacked in the online Leadership Development Encounter (LDE) and the in person B2B and LDC (Leadership Development Course) with testimonies from leaders and peers about what has and hasn’t worked in each of these areas. Check the https://europellc.eu for specific dates and times as they get posted, as well as all the other posts on Leadership Styles! 

Another great course is https://ywamfm.teachable.com/p/encourage-them-all … an online coaching course that focuses on how to walk alongside next-generation leaders in life-changing conversations. Initially developed for our Global South co-workers, the coaching and active listening skills that come through this course are applicable across cultures to help see people move forward toward their goals.

And with that in mind, what’s your next step in developing the leaders around you? What does your team need most for taking their next steps to reach their goals? What practice of behaviours can you develop that will best serve your team? 

Let that become your own leadership style! 

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