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What is leadership? Definition, traits, and styles

Last updated

23 November 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Warren Jonas ACC

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How business is today and the landscape in which you operate is entirely different from just a few short years ago. And that means leading and creating a great employee experience must also evolve.  

Still, plenty of online debate about leadership best practices and methods makes it hard to know which approach will be the most effective. 

Today, we'll dive into the essence of contemporary leadership: its core traits, styles, and practical implementation. 

Let’s help you find the clarity you need to embrace the methods and leadership styles uniquely suited to you, your teams, and your organization.

What is leadership?

Leadership is the act of inspiring, influencing, and motivating others toward one common purpose or goal. 

Leaders are around us in all areas of life, not just business. For instance, leadership roles are within politics, education, sports, and among social groups, including families. 

Individual actions and decisions based on unique perceptions and experiences shape outstanding leadership. Essentially, anyone can emerge as a great leader.

However, in many organizations, being a leader is synonymous with seniority or a specific job title.

Leadership vs. management: What's the difference?

Managers can be leaders, but not all leaders are managers. 

For instance, managers are responsible for controlling a group's activities and achieving predetermined objectives. Managers often follow rules and guidelines, enforcing behaviors that conform to organizational procedures.

In contrast, leadership involves motivating, influencing, and enabling a group to achieve long-term goals and success cooperatively. 

Leaders can establish a vision for the future, whereas managers focus on organizing and coordinating resources to achieve short-term goals and tasks.

What do leaders do?

Influential leaders almost always do the following:

  • Create long-term visions that others are inspired to follow

  • Find paths that lead to achieving goals (as opposed to just establishing goals)

  • Influence change by example or through actions

  • Focus on the people instead of tasks and revenue

  • Continuously educate and improve themselves

  • Inspire others to be the most productive versions of themselves

  • Genuinely welcome feedback and take action based on that feedback

Why is leadership important?

Strong and effective leadership is vital in any workplace setting. Without it, the collective group idles with daily tasks, losing traction and engagement because they feel disconnected from the brand or the company's overall success. 

Strong leaders who execute effective leadership strategies are essential for many situations, including research and development, marketing and sales, industry innovation, and operational productivity. 

Knowing how to improve your leadership methods will directly impact the growth and improvement of your teams and their output. 

Below are a few other reasons why leadership is mission-critical to business success and growth:

  • Outstanding leadership creates a more dynamic work culture

  • Leadership inspires improved productivity

  • Influential leaders facilitate open communication within an organization

  • Strong leadership translates to fewer mistakes and increased operational efficiency

  • Leaders inspire and motivate without needing a reward-punishment system

  • Great leaders set an example and pace for their team

  • Leaders establish company direction and growth

What are the different types of leadership?

In their Full Range Leadership Model, researchers Bruce Avolio and Bernard Brass assert there are three primary leadership styles (Transformational, Transactional, and Laissez-Faire).

However, plenty of experts describe other distinct styles included below. 

Note that these frameworks are all theoretical—in practice, many leaders may use a hybrid of styles:

Transformational leadership:

Considered by many to be the most desirable leadership style, transformational leadership involves motivating people intrinsically encouraging internal growth and development within team members (as opposed to using a system of rewards and punishment). Such leaders generally create a positive environment, establish a shared vision, and analyze what type of mentoring and guidance will benefit their team the most.

Transactional leadership:

Transactional leadership is a common approach to people management revolving around supervising, organizing, and achieving compliance. The name of this style speaks to a tendency to use rewards and punishment (transactions) to get things done instead of creating a culture in which teams are self-motivated. You may have also heard this management style described as a "carrot-and-stick" approach.

Laissez-faire leadership:

Translating loosely to "let it be," laissez-faire leadership trusts team members to do as they wish with minimal oversight. These leaders won't micromanage but may offer training, resources, and occasional guidance. This style can be conducive to a more creative, relaxed atmosphere since minimal interference exists. However, being too hands-off can lead to confusion, a lack of accountability, or be unsuitable for team members who aren't as self-motivated or expert as their peers.

Visionary leadership:

Goal setting and creating a vision for the organization's future are vital aspects of this highly sought-after leadership style. Visionaries think and operate with the big picture in mind. They inspire a sense of purpose and motivate those around them. Visionary leaders always look to empower their teams. With a tendency toward future thinking, some visionary leaders need significant help operationalizing their ideas.

Charismatic leadership:

These leaders succeed through interpersonal connections and engagement with their teams, colleagues, and business partners. These leaders may exhibit visionary and transformational traits,  persuading, inspiring, and guiding others. They are master communicators with personalities that resonate with nearly everyone.

Autocratic leadership:

Bureaucratic leadership emphasizes preserving order and maintaining the status quo. These leaders are less likely to take risks or seek innovative solutions to problem-solving, preferring proven methods and processes and rarely straying from established norms. Under this leadership style, duties and responsibilities are very fixed and specific.

Democratic leadership:

Democratic leadership relies heavily on team participation, group input, and collective feedback. (The term democracy means "run by the people.") It's a leadership style that is more popular and successful in today's workplace because it fosters an engaged company culture. Under this leadership, big ideas and innovation can come from anyone in the organization, not just the upper echelon.

Servant leadership:

This leadership style is the opposite of autocratic leadership. It's like being a good caretaker—putting your team's needs first. To use this style, you need to be good at understanding others and listening carefully. Supporters say that genuinely caring about your employees is great for building loyalty. However, there's a risk that it might be too much like overparenting. Just as being too controlling as a parent can hurt a child's confidence and independence, being too much of a servant leader might make some team members struggle to solve problems independently.

What is the best leadership style?

There’s no one “right way” to lead. Your most effective leadership style will align with your unique experiences and personality. However, most leaders today will tell you they're succeeding with a democratic or transformational leadership method (or a combination of both). 

Both leadership styles involve collaboration and team engagement, which fosters an environment of inclusion and promotes a sense of individual ownership in the work. 

Ultimately, the best leaders can blend the aspects and characteristics of multiple leadership styles to suit day-to-day dynamics and their teams. 

The key is to be flexible and responsive, always learning and adapting your leadership style as you and your team grow.

What are the qualities of a great leader?

Every leader excels in different areas and has a unique approach to communicating and inspiring others. 

However, the greatest leaders tend to have a few qualities and characteristics in common, including authenticity, empathy, and adaptability. 

According to a McKinsey study surveying 200,000 people across more than 80 organizations, four traits emerge in 89% of influential leaders:

  1. Being supportive

  2. Operating with strong results orientation

  3. Seeking different perspectives

  4. Solving problems effectively

Additional notable leadership commonalities included:

  • Championing change

  • Clarifying objectives, rewards, and consequences

  • Communicating prolifically and enthusiastically

  • Developing others

  • Developing and sharing a collective mission

  • Differentiating among followers

  • Facilitating group collaboration

  • Fostering mutual respect

  • Giving praise

  • Keeping the group organized and on task

  • Making quality decisions

  • Motivating and bringing out the best in others

  • Offering critical perspectives

  • Recovering positively from failures

  • Remaining calm and composed in times of uncertainty

  • Modeling organizational values

Leadership in hybrid and remote environments

Today's leaders have to adapt to emerging hybrid and remote environments

That may mean embracing some laissez-faire leadership traits, allowing remote workers to manage their schedules and tasks independently while staying on track with company objectives. 

But remote leaders also need to build connections with hybrid and remote teams, which might call for democratic and charismatic leadership efforts, too. 

Ideally, when managing remote and hybrid teams, you'll create an environment of trust. You'll allow team members to call their shots and make their own decisions while continuously providing resources and feedback to support them. 

The best remote leaders develop their interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence, and empathy, all of which can present in a combination of leadership styles.

How is leadership evolving today?

Leadership today is much different than it was five years ago. Instead of bosses giving orders, leaders must work closely with their teams. Things are changing fast, with new technology and more uncertainty.

Leaders have to be flexible and encourage their teams to keep learning. Remote work is more common, and fairness and inclusion are more important than ever. 

Today's leaders must make smart decisions and understand and connect with people from different backgrounds. 

It's not just about managing—leaders must adapt, understand emotions, and create a positive work environment.

So, being a leader today means having a mix of skills, not just the traditional ones, to guide the team through these changes.

What are some of the limits of conventional management styles?

Today's dynamic and ever-evolving workplace and economy require constant innovation and creativity. Conventional management styles that resist new ideas or refuse to stray from the playbook can get stifling. Yesterday's solutions and leadership rules won't solve today's challenges. And operating within the confines of a more traditional management style will only hinder your growth and learning.

What is the new and emerging approach to leadership?

Emerging leadership trends show the growing success and popularity of transformational leadership styles. Leaders who encourage group collaboration and empower teams tend to be more successful. The company aims to invest in its employees, deliver value to its customers, and ethically engage suppliers and communities. This reimagined business mission is producing more people-centric leadership styles. It’s crucial for attracting and retaining top talent. Staffing is the most substantial cost for any organization. Improving your leadership style can contribute to a healthy company culture that attracts and retains employees who seek to grow and succeed.

With a clear understanding of leadership, the various leadership styles, and the traits of strong leaders, you can begin exploring your path to successful leadership. Prepare for an ongoing effort, too. 

The roles of today's leaders are constantly evolving and can never neatly fit into one box or clear-cut definition. Start reflecting inward to realize your unique strengths and weaknesses

Get feedback from your teams about their ideas. And begin taking action to better yourself and your leadership journey. Expect a more cohesive team dynamic and boosted bottom-line company results with each step forward.


What is leadership quality, and how do you develop it?

Create a you'd like to improve, like decision-making, conflict resolution, communication, or goal-setting. Then, focus on improving those skills through the lens of the leadership style that best suits you. Observe other successful leaders and seek advice from mentors and business coaches who can offer long-term value in evolving your self-awareness and professional development. And always encourage feedback from your teams to identify areas of improvement. 

How can you know and develop your leadership style?

Take time to self-reflect, seeking an understanding of your perceptions and experiences. Recognize how those biases might affect your leadership style and explore making improvements accordingly. Find leadership mentors and coaches, explore furthering your education, and become a student of great leadership examples. 

Consider following these steps as you develop the best-fit leadership style for you, your teams, and your organization: 

  1. Identify your unique personality traits (using tests like the MBTI free tests)

  2. Recognize your values and personality type

  3. Perfect your strengths

  4. Spot and improve your weaknesses

  5. Ask for feedback to support your ongoing development

  6. Challenge yourself to do new things and think differently

  7. Start understanding your teams' values and personalities

How can you become a great leader?

To become a great leader, hone the necessary traits and skills: build better relationships, develop people, lead change, think critically, and operate with accountability. But more importantly, be flexible and adaptable, never rigid in your leadership style.

Where can you find a leadership mentor or coach?

Ask your network of colleagues about who they follow as a mentor or leadership coach. Join professional networks that put you in great leadership circles. Attend events to get in the room with inspirational and proven leaders. You can also look for industry-specific figures with experience, credentials, and reputation.

How can you build your basic leadership skills?

Improving your leadership abilities can start with developing your basic . Take small steps to create significant change, often starting with

  • Improving your communication skills

  • Practicing better discipline

  • Inspiring those around you

  • Continued learning

  • Developing your self-awareness

  • Resolving conflicts more effectively

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