What Kind of Leader Are You? Traits, Skills and Styles
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The basic definition of leadership is guiding a group of people toward a common goal. Defining your individual leadership style, however, may not be as easy. There are many distinct leadership styles that have evolved over the last 80 years of study, each embodying a different set of traits and skills. Yet for all of them, one fact holds true: An effective, successful leader is one who has the ability to inspire.

Leadership styles were first defined in 1939 by a group of researchers led by psychologist Kurt Lewin. His team studied youth leaders in activity groups. They grouped behaviors together and concluded there were three different and predominant leadership styles.

  • The autocratic style is one in which a single person takes control and makes decisions, directing others in his or her chosen course of action. Lewin’s team found that this was the most unsatisfactory leadership style with the youth groups.
  • In a democratic leadership style, one person takes control but is open to group input, often allowing the group to make decisions and collectively assign tasks. This leader guides rather than directs. This was the most popular leadership style in the youth groups and garnered the greatest positive response.
  • With the laissez-faire approach, the person in charge stepped back and did nothing. He or she provided no direction or guidance. The group was disorganized and unproductive.

Lewin's research introduced the idea that leadership and its associated skills could be taught and learned — that leaders were not just born but could be made. It also recognized the influence that the team members had on a person's leadership style as well, prompting further research over the years.

From the 1940s to the 1970s, leadership research focused on the traits of leaders, such as responsibility, intelligence, status, situation, achievement and capacity. Nearly every study came to a similar conclusion: Such a characterization was insufficient to isolate specific traits of leaders based solely on possession of the characteristic, but knowing what traits great leaders have in common has a strong influence as leaders try to learn new skills and become better supervisors and managers. 

In the 1970s and '80s, leadership experts Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard introduced the concept of situational leadership, meaning that a leader adapts his or her style to the situation. In short, suspenseful situations, an autocratic approach may be more effective, but in situations with time to plan and respond, group participation may yield the best results.

Leadership approaches can be influenced by personnel involved as well. A strong team member may need little or no guidance from the leader — the leader simply provides direction and allows the team member to determine his or her own methodology to obtain the objective. But another team member may require a more authoritative method to get the same job done.

Since the advancement of situational leadership, a number of other leadership styles have been identified. Peter Economy, also known as "The Leadership Guy," recently listed the qualities of today's best leadership in an Inc.com article. He encourages embodiment of these merits at all times to achieve phenomenal results. They are:

  • Decisiveness
  • Awareness
  • Focus
  • Accountability
  • Empathy
  • Confidence
  • Optimism
  • Honesty
  • Inspiration

In research published in the Harvard Business Review in 2000, author and psychologist Daniel Goleman uncovered six different leadership styles, which he argues spring from different components of emotional intelligence:

  • Commanding: Leaders demand immediate compliance.
  • Visionary: Leaders mobilize people toward a vision.
  • Affiliative: Leaders create emotional bonds and harmony.
  • Democratic: Leaders build consensus through participation.
  • Pacesetting: Leaders expect excellence and self-direction.
  • Coaching: Leaders develop people for the future.

According to Mind Tools, a number of other styles exist beyond those definitions, including:

  • Bureaucratic leadership, whose leaders focus on following every rule.
  • Charismatic leadership, in which leaders inspire enthusiasm in their teams and are energetic in motivating others to move forward.
  • Task-oriented leadership, whose leaders focus only on getting the job done.
  • People-oriented leadership, in which leaders are tuned into organizing, supporting and developing people on their teams.
  • Transformational leadership, whose leaders inspire by expecting the best from everyone and themselves.

Recognizing your dominant leadership style is a good place to start in understanding what kind of leader you are. Knowing about other leadership styles, and using them when necessary, is the next step in your leadership evolution. Current theology promotes the idea of using more than one leadership style in the workplace to develop your staff and draw out their very best efforts. In so doing, you will find they draw out the very best in you, too.

This article was originally published in 2012 and was updated July 21, 2015. Additional reporting by Business News Daily senior writer Chad Brooks.