Becoming a great leader: effective leadership styles and behaviors

Leadership has long been a focal point of societal structures. In ancient times, autocratic rulers led empires as figures of authority, wielding power often granted to them through noble lineage. In the early days, societies largely based their understanding of leadership on an individual’s ability to command and control.

Today’s leadership is more democratic. It transcends the earlier focus on authority. Today’s leaders emphasize influence, inspiration and the ability to bring people together to work on a common goal. Leadership is more dynamic, with leaders striving to empower their followers. This has allowed a more cooperative society to form, driven by accountability and innovation.

This new form of leadership requires emotional intelligence, ethical behavior and a collaborative approach that didn’t really exist under leaders in the past.

Read on to learn more about leadership, the different types and how to become an effective leader.

What is leadership?

In the past, leaders were in charge of countries or armies. While those leaders still exist today, leadership has expanded into many other areas, particularly in the business world.

In modern organizations, leaders are often responsible for guiding and managing teams of employees to achieve specific goals and objectives. This contemporary context allows us to explore two distinct aspects that broadly define leadership: operational and strategic leadership.

Operational leadership

When we talk about operational leadership, we’re referring to the day-to-day management of an organization.

This aspect of leadership requires a more hands-on approach. It focuses on efficiency and problem-solving while striving to make the most of available resources.

Operational leadership primarily addresses an organization’s short-term needs. It also strives to ensure the organization meets its immediate goals and benchmarks.

Let’s look at what operational leadership looks like in different contexts:

  • In the business world, operational leaders are responsible for overseeing the core activities that generate revenue. These include production, marketing and customer service.
  • In the military, operational leaders make the tactical decisions that directly impact a mission’s immediate outcome.
  • Non-profit leaders might guide the implementation of initiatives, build stakeholder engagement or work with community outreach efforts.

Strategic leadership

If operational leadership is about the short-term, strategic leadership is about the long-term. It’s this aspect of leadership that sets the vision for the organization.

Strategic leaders make high-level decisions. They try to position the organization for long-term success. This aspect of leadership requires:

  • visionary thinking,
  • a focus on innovation, and
  • the ability to align internal objectives with external realities.

Strategic leaders also create the roadmap for the organization’s future. For businesses, this could be the long-term strategy of which products they will produce and when expansions will occur.

This element of leadership is significant within any organization. It requires:

  • a clearly communicated strategic long-term vision, and
  • stakeholder buy-in.

Without these two things, no organization will remain successful for very long.

Why is leadership important?

We’ve already seen how leaders impact an organization’s short-term and long-term goals. Both play a pivotal role in a business’s success, impacting sustainability and driving growth. Effective leaders inspire and motivate those who work for them, driving them to become better versions of themselves. This keeps people motivated, engaged and focused on achieving the organization’s goals.

This becomes even more important during times of crisis, which strain the emotions and capabilities of everyone involved. A leader who demonstrates resilience sets the tone for those who work for and with them.

Crises test the leader’s ability to make decisions under pressure and communicate them clearly. Leaders who handle this pressure gracefully can stabilize the organization, maintain morale and keep operations running as smoothly as possible.

While leadership is exceptionally important during crises, leaders also shape organizational culture at other times. For example, they set the tone for the workplace, establishing its values and ethical standards. Leaders who inspire a positive culture have happier, more productive and more loyal staff.

7 functions of leadership

The concept of operational versus strategic leadership is helpful in understanding the broad strokes of what a leader does. A leader’s role is multi-faceted and dynamic. However, they will need to fulfill several functions for their organization to thrive.

Let’s break down seven of the most common and important functions of leadership.

1. Providing direction

Whether for the short or long term, a primary function of leadership is providing direction. The leader, quite literally, guides the people who work under them. They chart the direction by establishing clear goals and expectations for team members and the organization as a whole.

To ensure everyone works toward a common purpose, leaders must effectively communicate the organization’s vision and direction. All team members need to understand and align with the established goals.

2. Influencing people

Influencing people is a critical function of leadership. It ensures that stakeholders agree on a chosen course of action and that team members are motivated to pursue goals and perform at their best.

Effective leaders use their emotional intelligence and collaborative skills to build consensus, inspire others and navigate complex interpersonal dynamics. They also understand the importance of managing public perception and maintaining a positive image of the organization among external stakeholders.

3. Fostering innovation

Competition is fierce, and today’s markets move fast. Leaders must foster an environment of creativity and innovation to keep their organization ahead of the curve.

To do this, they create a company culture that values curiosity, diversity and openness. When employees feel leadership values their ideas and encourages them to take risks, they feel empowered to speak up and share their thoughts. The quality of brainstorming that arises from such a culture is a major factor in a business staying ahead of the market.

4. Ensuring execution

While vision and strategy are important, they are meaningless without proper execution.

Meeting organizational goals requires careful planning, organization and oversight of the implementation. Good leaders monitor progress, making adjustments in real time when results drift off course. In doing so, leaders can ensure that their strategy plays out in reality.

Leaders must also hold team members accountable for their contributions to the execution process, providing guidance and support to ensure everyone works effectively toward the desired outcomes.

5. Mentoring and developing others

Effective leaders recognize that they cannot achieve success alone. This is why mentoring and developing others is a crucial aspect of good leadership.

By providing guidance, feedback and opportunities for growth, leaders prepare those working under them for success. When the people working for a leader succeed, so does the organization as a whole.

6. Building and sustaining a team

Mentoring individuals is only one part of building a successful organization. At some point, those individuals must work together as a team. This requires leaders to be effective at managing group dynamics.

Good leaders encourage collaboration and quickly resolve any conflicts. They do this by cultivating a sense of belonging and loyalty among team members.

7. Managing resources

There are very few areas of leadership where it isn’t beneficial to be able to do more with less. Budgets, time and human resources are limited. Without proper leadership managing these limitations effectively, an organization can become hamstrung, unable to achieve its goals with its available resources.

Effective leaders must be skilled at optimizing resource allocation. They should find innovative ways to maximize efficiency and make tough decisions when necessary to ensure the organization can achieve its goals within the given constraints.

Leadership vs. management

Leadership and management are distinct concepts, but they often overlap in practice.

However, not all managers excel at all aspects of leadership. This isn’t a problem in all organizations. If there’s sufficient leadership setting direction and ensuring everyone works toward shared goals, managers can focus on handling the more mundane tasks and day-to-day operations of running a business.

Managers typically excel with the logistical aspects of operations. These include overseeing employees, managing resources and keeping projects on track and on budget. These responsibilities are vital to running any organization. However, without effective leadership skills, managers may find it difficult to inspire or motivate their teams to perform at their best.

On the flip side, true leaders rise above administrative duties. They ignite passion in the workforce and instill a drive within their teams to perform at their best.

Leaders possess the foresight that allows them to see potential obstacles and create plans to work around them proactively. They excel at both the operational and strategic aspects of leadership. This is key, as it ensures organizations don’t just function but are well-positioned for future success.

Ultimately, the most successful organizations are those that foster a balance between strong leadership and effective management.

What are the different styles of leadership?

The ways in which leaders manage a team and create their long-term visions can vary dramatically. We call these leadership styles.

Leadership styles are sets of behaviors that drive a leader’s philosophy and approach to guiding and motivating their team. These behaviors influence how leaders manage their teams and create long-term visions.

Ideally, a leadership style must be compatible with the leader’s personality. However, effective and respected leaders understand that they must develop behaviors that positively impact their employees, their organization as a whole and the bottom line.

Unsurprisingly, there are many leadership styles out there. Each has its own set of behaviors and philosophies on how to lead.

Let’s review a few of the most recognizable leadership styles. Consider which style will help you build a strong, positive and engaged leadership practice.

Autocratic leadership

Autocrats are like the ancient leaders we discussed earlier. Here are some characteristics of autocratic leadership:

  • Leaders assume power rather than building it through respect and influence.
  • Leaders generally make decisions unilaterally.
  • Teams have little to no input.
  • Leaders assume strong control over all major decisions.
  • Leaders tend to micromanage employees.

Although autocratic leadership is less common today than it once was, it can be effective in areas where quick decision-making is vital to a project’s success. Autocratic leaders often have a clear vision and are decisive in their actions, which can be beneficial in high-pressure situations or when time is of the essence.

However, this style often leads to decreased morale and creativity. The organization might experience high turnover among team members who feel their opinions and contributions are not valued.

Democratic/participative leadership

This is essentially the opposite of autocratic leadership. Democratic leaders actively encourage team members to speak up and contribute to the decision-making process. In doing so, they benefit from their team’s diverse knowledge and experiences. As they foster a more collaborative environment, they also benefit from stronger engagement and morale among team members.

However, the democratic approach can sometimes lead to slower decision-making processes. It may be unsuitable in some situations. Here are two examples:

  • The situation requires swift, decisive action.
  • Team members lack the necessary expertise to contribute effectively to decision-making.

Laissez-faire leadership

Laissez-faire leaders take a hands-off approach. Team members have a high degree of autonomy and minimal direct supervision. These leaders prefer to delegate decision-making responsibilities to their subordinates and trust them to complete tasks without much guidance.

This style can be effective when leading highly skilled, self-motivated individuals who thrive on independence and creativity. However, it’s unsuitable for most teams that usually require some degree of structure, guidance and coordination.

Here are some of the drawbacks of laissez-faire leadership:

  • lack of direction
  • decreased productivity
  • potential confusion about roles and responsibilities within the team

Teams sometimes view laissez-faire leaders as “checked out” or ineffectual. As you’ll see, other styles are more suitable for high team empowerment.

Transformational leadership

Transformational leaders inspire and motivate their team members to achieve extraordinary results. They do so by appealing to their values, emotions and sense of purpose.

They create a compelling vision for the future and encourage their followers to work toward that vision with enthusiasm and commitment. They focus on nurturing each team member’s individual strengths and potential, helping them grow both personally and professionally.

This leadership style is particularly effective in driving innovation, navigating change and fostering a culture of continuous improvement. However, transformational leadership may not be suitable for all situations. It relies heavily on the leader’s charisma and ability to inspire others and may not provide the level of structure and direction some teams need.

Servant leadership

Servant leaders prioritize their team members’ needs, well-being and development above their own interests or the organization’s bottom line. They focus on empowering and nurturing their team, helping each individual reach their full potential.

Servant leaders build strong, engaged teams that consistently perform at a high level. They do this by creating a supportive environment that cultivates growth and collaboration.

Here are some of the advantages of servant leadership:

  • increased employee morale
  • employee loyalty
  • job satisfaction

Bear in mind that servant leadership may not be ideal when:

  • quick, top-down decision-making is critical, or
  • the leader needs to prioritize the organization’s needs over individual team members’ preferences.

Situational leadership

Situational leaders adapt their leadership style based on their team members’ unique needs and specific challenges. They assess the development level of each individual and the demands of the situation. They then adjust their approach accordingly.

For example, they may provide more hands-on guidance and support to inexperienced team members and give more autonomy and responsibility to those with greater skills and expertise.

Situational leaders are flexible and responsive, recognizing that no single leadership style is optimal for every person or circumstance. This adaptability allows them to maximize their team’s performance and foster growth at all levels.

Leadership in different contexts

Leadership is vital in any area where people work or coexist together. Different sectors demand unique leadership strengths.

We’ll close this article by looking at a few specific sectors and the skills leaders need to excel in them.

Leadership in politics

Getting elected isn’t the be-all and end-all of being an effective political leader. Politicians who spend all their time preaching to the choir might get elected easily but fail to make positive changes.

Actual leadership in politics requires diplomacy, persuasive public speaking skills and a commitment to public service. Legislative environments can be complex and require dedication to navigate. The ability to forge alliances and effectively communicate a vision can shape national or even global landscapes.

Leadership in education

Educational leaders, such as principals and deans, have a chance to shape young minds. To do this, they need to effectively lead two groups of people: teachers and students.

They must inspire teachers to be passionate about teaching while creating an environment that’s conducive to student learning. The principal or dean’s vision in creating educational policies directly impacts educational outcomes.

Leadership in healthcare

In healthcare, leadership skills can make the difference between life and death. Hospitals and other healthcare facilities must be highly efficient.

This is especially important during emergencies when resources may be strained. Effective leaders must manage resources strategically and inspire and guide their teams to provide the best possible care under challenging and constantly evolving circumstances.

Here are some of the complex challenges healthcare leaders may face:

  • coordinating large teams of healthcare professionals,
  • adapting to changing regulatory requirements, and
  • making critical decisions that directly impact patient outcomes.

Leadership in technology

In this industry, more than any other, a visionary mind is important for driving the products of the future.

Tech leaders must also be able to inspire others, anticipate future trends, identify opportunities for innovation and rally their teams to turn bold ideas into reality. They uphold a culture of creativity, experimentation and continuous learning, enabling their organizations to stay at the forefront of technological advancement.

Why is it important to understand your leadership style?

Becoming a great leader requires you to understand which philosophy you want to present to your team through your words and actions. But you don’t have to read all the theories to know this. Rather, you have to know what values you are expressing as a leader.

For example, are you an open, communicative leader who welcomes diverse opinions? Or are you a strategic leader who encourages collaboration to get things done?

Starting with this self-awareness enhances your effectiveness. Once you reflect on your various leader behaviors, see how they fit with the different styles we mentioned above. Try Googling the style and its behaviors to further define how they align with your current leadership practices.

Recognizing your leadership style gives you a better idea of how your behavior impacts others and can allow for stronger team dynamics. It also allows you to notice when you might need to adapt your style to fit different organizational needs.

You can use tools and assessments to identify your leadership style. Here are some suggestions:

  • The Leadership Grid
  • 360-degree feedback assessments

What are the qualities of a good leader?

Regardless of leadership style, all leaders must have a specific set of qualities. These are universally recognized values that help leaders inspire and guide others. Leaders who have these traits foster respect and loyalty among team members and make it much easier for leaders to achieve the goals they set for the organization.

Integrity and ethics

Strong ethical principles are a cornerstone of effective leadership. A leader who is unwavering in their integrity builds trust with their team. Without trust, team members are unlikely to follow the leader enthusiastically, limiting morale and reducing productivity.

Communication skills

A good leader must be able to clearly articulate the goals they have set and the broader vision they have for their company. The ability to make complex ideas understandable ensures that misunderstandings don’t sidetrack alignment with company goals.

Similarly, the ability to communicate criticism clearly and in a constructive and empathetic way increases the chance that team members improve where necessary.

Emotional intelligence

A strong leader has high emotional intelligence (EQ). High EQ enables them to understand and manage their own emotions and those of others.

A leader with high EQ is:

  • self-aware,
  • empathetic,
  • able to regulate their emotional responses (particularly during high-stress situations),
  • composed
  • able to make sound decisions, and
  • able to build strong relationships by addressing their team members’ emotional needs.

Emotionally intelligent leaders create a supportive environment that fosters trust, open communication and collaboration. In today’s complex work environments, leaders with strong EQ are better equipped to navigate challenges, inspire their teams and drive success.

Resilience and adaptability

Circumstances can change rapidly. When they do, the leader must remain resilient and adapt to the changes quickly.

Leaders set the tone for those who work under them. Crumbling under the pressure of setbacks and unexpected developments will bring down the whole team’s morale, which can hamper the organization’s ability to recover in a timely manner.

Visionary thinking

For the organization’s long-term health, a leader must be capable of visionary thinking. They need to have a clear sense of the direction they want to take and be able to inspire the type of innovation that will make it happen.

Visionary leaders look beyond the day-to-day, identifying and capitalizing on new opportunities that guide the organization toward success.

Leadership training and development

Not everyone is born with great leadership skills. While some individuals may possess natural leadership qualities, they can develop and refine their skills through learning and practice.

Effective leadership training programs help leaders enhance their ability to inspire people and effect change. They hone a leader’s existing skill set and introduce them to new skills that will help them improve. However, the learning journey doesn’t end there.

Leadership is like any other skill. The skills you need to be an effective leader change along with the times. Changing industry standards, technological advancements and evolving economic conditions are all examples of these changes.

A leader who is serious about staying on top of their game will find great value in continuously learning.

Leadership development programs

Leadership development programs exist in nearly every format imaginable. They include books, workshops, seminars, hands-on projects and more.

These programs often focus on developing a specific skill, like strategic thinking, team building, conflict resolution, decision-making and much more.

In addition to more formal training, current leadership may give an employee they think has high potential the opportunity to work under their mentorship.

Less formal tools, such as Pip Decks, are also available. Pip Decks is a set of card decks. Each deck focuses on a particular area of professional development, such as presenting, inspiring innovation, working with teams and much more. These step-by-step recipe cards help current and future leaders develop skills and get inspiration.

Evaluating the effectiveness of leadership training

Finding an effective leadership training program can be tricky. Outside of the workplace, you often have to rely on reviews from other participants or awards the program may have received. Tracking progress becomes more manageable when you develop an in-house leadership training program.

You can employ a combination of qualitative and quantitative measures to assess engagement, effectiveness and other crucial data. As with external programs, participant feedback can be very helpful in determining an in-house program’s effectiveness. However, a more tangible measure of the program’s impact comes from assessing leadership skills before and after the program.


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