7 CEO leadership styles and how to discover your own
Vistage Chairs John Baines and Francine Lasky spent years honing their leadership styles as Vistage members before becoming executive coaches to help others cultivate their own management approaches. They remind CEOs that styles have to be both authentic to the leader and also useful to the teams they’re leading.
“People in organizations deserve clarity, and leadership styles can provide that,” Lasky said. “Try on different styles and find the ones that speak to you.”
Baines, who spent 14 years as president of an automation manufacturer, and Lasky, who served as president of her family’s medical device business and also held roles in sales, quality, operations and marketing, share their takes on the leadership styles they have seen in action.
What type of leadership style fits you?
Whether you’re a first-time CEO or a seasoned chief executive, take a look at the different leadership styles below and see which one seems to reflect your current approach. Is it clear-cut that you are one over another, or do you blend styles? What attribute from these styles would you like to begin to practice? Explore the seven main leadership styles.
1. Servant leadership
Purpose-driven and customer-focused, the servant leader is often deeply involved in their communities and enjoy healthy personal and professional relationships.
“One of my Vistage members was more analytical,” Baines said. “He engaged in a community leadership program and has come to embrace servant leadership qualities. He’s still the same person, but the parts of him that shine are really motivating and inspiring.”
A servant leadership style might suit you if you:
- Value people and are committed to employee development
- Are an excellent listener
- Approach everything you do with authenticity
2. Coaching leadership
A coaching leader thrives on developing talent. This is someone who can size up a person’s potential and help guide them — and the company — towards success.
“As a Vistage coach, I’ve developed a coaching leadership style,” Baines said. “My goal is not to tell them where the water is. My goal is more to help them see that they’re thirsty.”
A coaching leadership style might suit you if you:
- Know how to guide your teams to “get it themselves” rather than lay out demands
- Value setting up your teams to grow
- Recognize people’s strengths and weaknesses without judgment
3. Democratic leadership
By show of hands, how many of you are democratic leaders? A consensus builder who considers teams’ input before making decisions, the democratic leader makes everyone feel heard.
“One member joined our Vistage group from a family business, where all he ever saw was one type of leadership style, an autocratic style. By being exposed to different leadership styles over the years, he’s developed into this beautiful consensus-building, but still decisive, leader,” Lasky said.
A democratic leadership style might suit you if you:
- Surround yourself with people you trust
- Enjoy bringing your teams into the decision-making process
- Foster a collaborative company culture
4. Autocratic leadership
Imagine a military commander. Now imagine that commander initiating a company-wide yoga afternoon. If the disconnect just short circuited your brain that’s because the autocratic leader values results and efficiency over all else — and usually with good reason. The autocratic leader finds a welcome home in highly regulated industries that rely on precision and compliance.
“As a manufacturing CEO, I was an autocratic leader,” Baines said. “I hired people who wanted clear direction and targets. That’s not who I am, but that served me well.”
An autocratic leadership style might suit you if you:
- Are confident in your vision, mission and goals
- Communicate clearly and consistently
- Value structured environments, results and efficiency
5. Transactional leadership
With a “carrot or stick” approach to leadership, the transactional leader rewards success and might discipline failure. This can result in highly motivated teams sharply focused on short-term goals.
“The type of industry can dictate the leadership style,” said Baines. “I found servant leadership difficult in the manufacturing world, for instance. What is our higher purpose? To make parts. In those types of industries, you might find transactional leaders.”
A transactional leadership style might fit you if you:
- Are goal oriented
- Enjoy working with self-motivated people
- Foster highly supervised, structured work environments
6. Transformational leadership
If your organization used the word “pivot” a lot during the pandemic, you might be a transformational leader. These leaders are focused on motivating and inspiring teams to innovate and achieve a shared vision.
“Several years into my experience as a Vistage member, I realized I was creative in helping other people solve their problems,” Baines said. “I found myself growing from an autocratic to a transformational leader.”
A transformational leadership style might suit you if you:
- Are a big-picture thinker
- Work with trusted teams that don’t require constant supervision
- Know how to provide encouragement and inspire others to achieve shared goals
7. Laissez-faire leadership
Don’t confuse a laissez-faire leader with an absentee one. Helming strong, creative teams, this leader tends to delegate and trust more.
“This style might work in some instances, such as with startups,” Lasky said. “But you have to make sure that it doesn’t turn into the Wild West.”
A laissez-faire leadership style might suit you if you:
- Effectively delegate work
- Place a high level of trust in your team
- Work with creative and innovative people
- Prefer to focus on the big picture instead of the day-to-day
How to develop your own leadership style
According to Baines and Lasky, the key to developing your own leadership style is to amplify what is already there. Find the pieces of you that need to grow and nourish them. They recommend taking self-assessments, such as the DISC or the Myers-Brigg personality tests, and asking yourself probing questions, such as:
- Whose biographies do you read, and what kind of a leader is that person?
- What feeds you — interpersonal relationships, stability or spreadsheets and data?
- Do you focus more on big-picture or long-term goals?
- What is more important to the company’s success: innovation and creativity or precision and regulatory compliance?
- What defines a healthy team?
Strategies for leadership growth
A simple way to begin to transform your leadership is to apply the three tips below.
Seek feedback from your team and from your executive peers.
Seeking feedback from people within your company as well as from executive peers in a peer advisory group like Vistage can be invaluable.
As a CEO, Lasky listened to feedback from her CFO about including an oppositional team member in a key strategic committee — and was pleasantly surprised to find the employee to be the most valuable member of the committee.
Observe what works (and doesn’t) for others.
Whether it’s through leadership books, peer groups or even subordinates in your own company, observing the effects of other’s styles can help inform your own.
“A big reason that Vistage is so powerful is all the vicarious learning that happens,” Baines said. “When you’re in a group of diverse peers from diverse industries, you get the opportunity to play in someone else’s sandbox without having skin in the game.”
Partner with a coach to maximize your own performance.
“There is a saying at Vistage that it’s not about answering your questions, but questioning your answers,” Lasky said. “Sometimes the voice inside your head is like the anti-TED talk. Instead of being inspiring, it’s defeatist and judgmental. The benefit of executive coaching is that sometimes you just need a voice outside the one in your head, one that knows enough about business to ask the right questions and moves you to do better.”
Interested to learn more about leadership styles? Read what it means to be a change leader.