Explore what it takes to be a leader and discover which leadership styles are best suited to you.

Leadership is sexy. Leaders are glorified and lionized, emulated and beloved. They often chart the course of human progress, dominate the pages of history, and enrich themselves in the currency of public affection. Leadership is the common thread that’s shared among the most influential figures of human history.

And yet, there is another kind of leadership that remains possible for each of us. It’s the more modest variety practiced by regular people who, through minor but purposeful actions, help make the world a better place. Perhaps it’s the teacher who inspires her pupils to broaden their horizons. Or maybe it’s a community organizer who helps collect food for the hungry. Leadership changes the world, no matter the scale.

Because leadership is both so important and so possible, it is crucial to understand it better. In this blink, we’ll discuss a set of theories of where leadership comes from. We’ll also explore a host of leadership styles, explaining what makes them unique, and how you can implement them to become the leader you’d like to be.


There are various theories of leadership that explain what makes a proper leader.

Before delving into leadership types, it’s worth considering what leadership is, and where it comes from. As you might guess, there are many ways to define leadership. But the common thread is this: leadership is the act of a person influencing a group for a common purpose. So, what makes someone a leader? Let’s consider a few common theories about successful leadership.

The trait approach to leadership posits that leaders possess a set of qualities that separates them from followers. According to this theory, leaders are born, not built. Some of the traits commonly associated with leadership are intelligence and extraversion, as well as inborn qualities like height and charisma.

Another theory is the skills approach. According to this view, leadership isn’t innate, it’s earned. The skills approach emphasizes that leaders learn and develop attributes that allow them to influence others. These attributes include human skills (like the ability to work well with people) technical skills (like knowledge in a specific field), and conceptual skills (like the ability to understand and articulate abstract ideas).

The behavioral approach suggests leaders use two kinds of behavior to influence others: task behaviors and relationship behaviors. Like their names suggest, task behaviors are about accomplishing specific goals, while relationship behaviors are about helping followers feel comfortable, relate to one another, and perform their best.

The situational approach to leadership emphasizes that circumstances dictate a leader’s style. To be effective, leaders must adapt to the situation they encounter.

The Path-Goal Theory of leadership designates a set of four behaviors leaders can use to help their followers attain their goals. Leaders must define the goal, clarify the path to achieve it, remove obstacles in the way, and provide support to followers.

Leader-Mentor Exchange Theory, on the other hand, focuses on the interaction between leaders and followers. Rather than view leadership from the perspective of one or the other, this theory of leadership suggests a reciprocal relationship between leaders and followers is paramount to success.

So, what kind of leader are you? Next, we’ll consider a handful of leadership styles, explaining how they work and offering examples of successful leadership in action.


Transformational leadership is about changing people for the better, not just meeting goals.

Simply put, transformative leaders change people. They don’t just achieve goals through their own knowledge, talent, or competence. They change the world by motivating their followers to be better people.

Most leadership styles are transactional: the leader asks something of the follower, and the follower gets something in return. For example, a CEO asks his employees to meet a sales benchmark, and they get a bonus if they do. Transformational leadership is different. It’s about elevating people’s morals in order to achieve goals.

There are four factors to this kind of leadership. Factor one is charisma. Transformational leaders exude charisma — a special mix of confidence, dominance, and moral grounding that makes people want to follow.

Factor two is inspiration. Transformational leaders use their talent as communicators to inspire their followers to be better.

The third factor is intellectual stimulation. This means spurring creativity and innovation to achieve a common goal.

The fourth factor is individualized consideration. This means seeing followers as people with their own personal needs and motivations, and treating them accordingly.

As an example of transformative leadership, consider Nelson Mandela, the South African political prisoner-turned president. Through his transformational leadership, Mandela helped topple the apartheid regime and secure equal rights for all South Africans. Mandela possessed all four factors. He was a charismatic speaker who people naturally gravitated toward, inspiring others to achieve a goal many believed to be out of reach. He devised innovative methods of peaceful protest to advance the cause of equality, and he listened closely to the unique perspectives of his followers.

So, what tips can you take away if you’d like to be a transformative leader? For one, be a role model. Exhibiting the moral standards you expect from others is crucial to transformative leadership. Next, tolerate opposing viewpoints. This shows followers you aren’t picking sides, but value input and perspective from everyone. Next, be a visionary. Offering a vision helps followers see where they fit in to achieving the collective goal. Fourth, be a social architect. This means articulating the values of the group and setting the culture.

Although not everyone can be a leader on the level of Nelson Mandela, the simple tips just described can help you lead a transformation of your own.


Authentic leadership derives from the transparency of the leader.

For authentic leadership, transparency is crucial. Followers have to trust the leader is genuine in their intentions. This sense of authenticity can come from three places: within the person, from their interactions with others, or from a major event that affords authenticity to a leader.

The intrapersonal approach suggests a leader is authentic because of who they are: their knowledge, convictions, and life experiences.

For example, a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician may be an authentic leader on the basis of their extraordinary intellect, while a civil rights icon may be authentic because of their commitment to justice.

Even a transformational experience can lead to authentic leadership, as in the case of Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. As a child, Schultz witnessed his uninsured father sustain a serious injury on the job. The experience had such a lasting impact on Schultz that he provides comprehensive health coverage to his employees.

A different perspective on authentic leadership, called the the interpersonal approach, states that interacting with followers is what cultivates authenticity. Leaders who gain the respect of their followers are viewed as authentic.

The developmental approach describes how authenticity can be cultivated through the leader’s awareness, morals, balance, and transparency. These factors combine to lend authenticity to a leader.

So, how can you become an authentic leader? Here are five characteristics that authentic leaders exemplify. Be purposeful in your actions. Be value-centered, meaning identify what’s important and stick to it. Also, build solid relationships with your followers, practice self-discipline, and cultivate compassion.


Servant leadership prioritizes the best interests of the followers.

Servant leadership flips the typical leadership model on its head. It’s about putting the interests of the followers above those of the leader. According to this view, the best way to lead is to help followers reach their potential.

In addition to this follower-first approach, servant leaders accept social responsibility. They care about marginalized people and do their best to combat injustice.

A real-world example of servant leadership is “Father John”, a hospice priest from the South Side of Chicago. When dealing with patients, Father John takes a somewhat unorthodox approach. Rather than speaking to the patients to try to comfort them, he just listens. Father John calls this the art of standing by.

Father John is a servant leader because his first priority is the patient, and he subverts his own interests in the service of others.

Want to give servant leadership a try? Here’s a few tips. Listen first. Empathize with your followers. Prioritize healing — that is, care about the welfare of your followers, and be aware of the unique environment you’re in as a leader.

Valuing persuasion over coercion is also key, as is providing clear goals and directions to the group. Servant leaders exercise foresight, too. They also take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, are committed to the personal growth of their servants (and not just what the servants have to offer the group). What’s more, servant leaders also build community — a place where followers feel safe, secure, and connected to one another.


Adaptive leadership is about helping followers respond to changing environments.

Now, let’s consider adaptive leadership, which is about focusing on adjusting people’s actions in response to new environments. In other words, adaptive leaders help followers deal with change.

Adaptive leadership differs from other leadership types because the focus isn’t on the leader or even the followers, it’s on the right way to respond to shifting circumstances. Practicing adaptive leadership requires addressing a trio of situational challenges.

The first are technical challenges. These are problems that require some kind of expertise in order to fix. If a company’s website has a glitch, for example, this is a technical challenge. A leader can identify the problem and find the best person inside or outside the company to fix it.

Adaptive challenges are more complicated. Unlike technical challenges, they aren’t straightforward issues with simple fixes. Adaptive challenges require leaders who can change the beliefs, priorities, and roles of their followers. For instance, a basement-dwelling football team hires a new coach. She can’t simply say “Okay fellas, go out their and win more games!” She has to be prepared to develop a new team culture, rearrange the lineups, and institute a new playbook. In other words, she has to adapt.

Technical and adaptive challenges are those that combine the straightforward kind of problems mentioned earlier with the more complex ones.

If you’re wondering the best way to practice adaptive leadership, here are six strategies.

First, get on the balcony. This simply means stepping away from the fray to see the big picture.

Second, identify the adaptive challenge. Adaptive leaders have a knack for recognizing when a shift in views or priorities is necessary

Third, regulate distress. Change is hard, and is often followed by anxiety. When this occurs, adaptive leaders provide their followers direction, protection, and conflict management. They also help orient people to their new roles and establish productive norms.

The fourth strategy you should employ is to maintain disciplined attention. When followers are reluctant to change, the leader can help focus their attention on the task at hand by providing a safe place to confront new challenges.

Fifth, give the work back to the people. Leaders are not supposed to be dictators. It’s vital to provide direction, but also make sure followers know they are an integral part of achieving group goals.

And finally, the sixth strategy is to protect leadership voices from below. It’s important to listen to followers’ opinions even when they are unpopular or nonconforming. While it may seem easier to brush these views under the rug, it’s actually more productive to hear out low-status voices.


Inclusive leadership prioritizes the belonging and uniqueness of followers.

In recent years, there has been an emerging body of scholarship devoted to the benefits of inclusion in an array of settings. But what, exactly, does it mean to be “inclusive?” Well, it turns out inclusion is all about satisfying two needs: belongingness and uniqueness.

Belongingness refers to the desire to be included, while uniqueness refers to the desire to keep one’s own identity. Balancing these two priorities is the delicate notion of inclusion.

Inclusive leaders value followers for their unique views, values, and background. This enables them to feel like they belong, while also maintaining their own unique identity as individuals.

Inclusive behaviors consist of promoting diversity of viewpoints, making input accessible to everyone, and incorporating followers’ unique talents into the group’s work.

So, what are the effects of this kind of inclusion? Research suggests that members feel more valued and supported in such environments. Inclusion has also been shown to improve work engagement, creativity, and innovation.


Ethical principles separate good leaders from bad ones.

As we’ve previously discussed, leadership is about exerting influence over a group of people for a specific goal. The goal in question, however, can be positive or negative. Because history is rife with examples of leaders leveraging their influence to harm others, it’s vital to be able to recognize when it happens.

This kind of malign influence is called psuedo-transformational leadership. So, what makes this kind of leader? Look out for the toxic triangle, as it’s called: the behavior of these destructive leaders, the kinds of followers they attract, and the environments in which they arise.

What makes a destructive leader? Lack of integrity, unchecked ambition, arrogance, and a disregard for their actions are hallmarks. These faux leaders are also charismatic, narcissistic, and hateful.

They gain followers by enticing two kinds of people: conformers and colluders. Conformers are those with low self-esteem who are looking for belonging and guidance. Colluders, on the other hand, are those who share the bad values of the leader, and are similarly ambitious.

These destructive leaders thrive in moments of instability when people feel threatened, and take advantage of systems where checks and balances are missing.

Northouse argues what separates destructive leaders from productive leaders is ethics — the morals and values they practice and promote. If you want to be an ethical leader, here are five principles to adopt: respect, service, justice, honesty, and community.

Respect in leadership means treating others as people, and not like instruments to achieve your personal objectives. It also entails empathy, understanding, and tolerance.

Service in leadership means practicing beneficence — the duty to help others achieve their goals.

Practicing justice as a leader means treating others fairly and not exhibiting favoritism.

Honesty in leadership means telling the truth. It also means being transparent, meeting your obligations, and being accountable for your actions.

Building community in leadership means taking account of the unique needs of everyone in the group, and caring for the common good writ large.


Final Summary

There are a host of theories about what leadership is, where it comes from, and how to exercise it effectively. We’ve also delineated five types of leadership styles, exploring how they are distinct, highlighting examples of their use, and providing tips for how you can adopt them. Finally, we discussed how to identify a destructive leader, and touched on the ways ethics promotes quality leadership.