Which Leadership Style is Most Effective?

A man's finger presses a button which says "leader"

This question is difficult to answer because it is similar to asking “which car is best?” Well, do you want better gas mileage? Higher performance? Comfort? Are you going to be hauling a lot of gear? Going off road? Is cost a primary concern? Depending on your goals, which car is best can vary wildly. The same is with leadership. Does the organization need a rapid transformation? Does the organization need to overhaul some toxic habits? To answer this question, we are going to assume the spirit of how this is being asked is outside the context of an extreme situation and will be answered in more general terms.

As a general rule, servant-leadership is the leadership style which will yield the best organizational results long-term, create a healthy work environment, build trust amongst peers, and foster long-term growth in a positive direction for an organization.

Let’s take a look at the most common leadership styles, how they compare and contrast, and for which situations they may excel in.

Autocratic Leadership

Autocratic leaders are known for their centralized decision-making and top-down approach. They make decisions without consulting their team, relying heavily on their own judgment. While this style can be effective in situations requiring quick decisions, it often stifles creativity and discourages open communication. Employees may feel disengaged and undervalued, leading to decreased morale.

Best when: Rapid and urgent action is needed
Pros: Decisions can be made quickly and cuts through lots of red tape. Can be transform an organization quickly.
Cons: Stifles creative input from coworkers, discourages open communication. Employees can feel undervalued if this leadership style is the status quo for a continued period of time rather than situational.

Democratic Leadership

Democratic leaders emphasize collaboration and involvement. They seek input from their team members before making decisions, fostering a sense of ownership and empowerment. This approach can boost morale and innovation, but it might also lead to longer decision-making processes. Moreover, in times of urgency, a democratic style may not be the most efficient.

Best when: Trying to create an environment where team members feel valued, there is ample time to make good decisions.
Pros: Gives team members a sense of ownership, pride, and value. Can foster a good working environment.
Cons: Can be a slow process, team members may value a course of action which is good for them, but detrimental to organizational success.

Laissez-Faire Leadership

Laissez-faire leaders adopt a hands-off approach, giving their team members considerable autonomy. While this can stimulate creativity and innovation, it might lead to a lack of direction and accountability. This style works best when team members are highly skilled and motivated.

Best when: Your team is filled with highly-skilled and motivated professionals
Pros: Can provide a lot of freedom for individuals to explore creative solutions and even innovate new things
Cons: Lack of oversight and accountability, teammates could slide into a lazy and unmotivated state over time.

Servant Leadership

Servant leaders prioritize the well-being and development of their team members. By putting their team’s needs first, they foster trust and loyalty. This style can create a positive work environment, but leaders must balance support with making tough decisions when necessary.

Best when: Wanting to create a lasting, positive culture and time is on your side.
Pros: Values employees as people, not producers. When executed correctly, creates amazing environments, low turnover, and high morale. This has an effect of retaining a lot of talent, institutional knowledge, and grows an organization where all employees care about the mission and success of the organization.
Cons: Can take a long time to create.

Servant Leadership is our choice for the overall best leadership style. Mainly because we believe success in anything takes time, nurturing, and is an ongoing process. Anything worth doing right is going to take a lot of time and energy. Building a successful and healthy environment is not an overnight process. The reason servant leadership is “slower” than the others is because building trust is one of its cornerstones. And building trust is a huge time investment which takes consistent and repeated demonstrations to show good faith.

But, once the roots of servant leadership take hold, it’s powerful and profound to an organizational culture.

Situational Leadership

Situational leaders adapt their style based on the situation and the maturity level of their team members. This flexibility can lead to optimal outcomes, but it requires leaders to accurately assess each situation and apply the appropriate approach.

Best when: There is a wide array of talent and skills on a team
Pros: Can lead to the best optimal performance
Cons: Time intensive, leaders can easily slip into a micromanagement mode, team members may feel that different treatment is unfair or preferential.

Transformational Leadership

Transformational leaders inspire and motivate their teams through a shared vision. They focus on personal development and growth, often leading to improved performance. This style, however, requires a high level of charisma and energy from the leader. Without proper follow-through, the initial enthusiasm may wane, and results might fall short of expectations.

Best when: An organizational culture needs to be improved
Pros: Raises the skill, enthusiasm, and value of everyone on the team
Cons: Relies on a charismatic and available leader to cheerlead success. Enthusiasm is temporary, at some point actual results will need to show in order to keep the team’s belief in the direction of the organization intact.

Transactional Leadership

Transactional leaders operate on a rewards-and-punishments basis. They set clear expectations and reward accomplishments while addressing shortcomings. This approach can be effective in achieving short-term goals, but it might not encourage intrinsic motivation or long-term commitment from team members.

Best when: Desired results can be gained with incentives
Pros: Can increase productivity, can identify high performers, can weed out low performers
Cons: Empathic employees will not feel welcome in this type of environment for long, leaders can also accidentally create unintended consequences if they incentivize the wrong thing.

An example of creating unintended consequences of incentivizing the wrong thing is when Elon Musk took over Twitter and incentivized developers by paying them on the amount of code they wrote. The problem with this is, it did not encourage efficient code writing, only bloat. Additionally, when writing code for security protocols, often code needs to be efficient and brief. This directive accidentally incentivized inefficient and poor code writing. It incentivized volume, not quality and the platform temporarily suffered as a result.


Although we deem servant leadership to be the “best” style, all that really means is that it’s the best because it’s the most flexible and appropriate in most situations. However, the truth is a good leader must be prepared to switch between styles when the landscape calls for it. If a company is facing a serious downturn because of a terrible sales quarter, then a temporary autocratic approach may be in order to save jobs and keep profits moving forward. If your team is lacking motivation, perhaps temporary incentivization is need.

The point is the best leaders keeps their eye on the situation and adjusts their leadership approach accordingly. They understand different needs call for different energy and strategies to move teams forward. This is, of course, tremendously difficult but then again, that’s what you signed up for. So go out there, and lead!

Erik Murrah

Author, nerd, chess player, artist, business owner, runner, mediocre philosopher, outdoorsman. Creator of the Arise Tribe.

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