Defining Leadership: Top 10 Traits & 9 Popular Leadership Styles

You might have gone through several resources defining leadership. Leadership is a set of behaviors and actions of leading a group of people or an organization toward a goal or vision. We have gone through defining leadership, the top 10 traits of leadership, popular leadership styles, and famous leaders’ styles such as Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Steve Jobs with examples in this article.

📌 Hint: Do not skip this article, you will find FREE Leadership Training resources throughout the article.

💡 You might be interested in the 21 Leadership Skills Professionals Expect to See in the Workplace article.

Defining Leadership: What is Leadership?

The first step for defining leadership is looking at the dictionary. The dictionary defines leadership as

  • the action of leading a group of people or an organization.
  • the state or position of being a leader.
  • the leaders of an organization, country, etc.

Watch “Defining Leadership: What is Leadership?” YouTube Video

We have an eight-minute video defining leadership. You can watch below.

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However, the word “leadership” refers to a variety of other images in people’s minds. For example:

  • A political leader tries to accomplish a passionate, personal cause.
  • An explorer removes the roadblocks in a jungle for the followers to go through
  • An executive or emerging leader develops strategies to win the market.

Leaders’ mission is to ensure themselves and their followers do the right things. Leaders set goals, inspire their followers, and help them through the way to reach the goals. While leaders set goals, they have to be flexible and use their team leadership skills to guide the followers in the right direction.

Leaders should be agile and adaptive to follow the fast-paced business environment. Business conditions may change rapidly. So, leaders must be agile, and flexible and be able to adapt to changing conditions. Agility refers to the ability to think and understand quickly. Adaptability refers to the quality of being able to adjust to new conditions and flexibility refers to adapting to changing circumstances and expectations of the workplace.

There are several leadership styles. We will go through the following nine most popular leadership styles in this defining leadership article.

  • Transformational Leadership
  • Servant Leadership
  • Autocratic Leadership
  • Laissez-Faire Leadership
  • Transactional Leadership
  • Participative Leadership
  • Bureaucratic Leadership
  • Situational Leadership

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Defining Leadership vs Management

Clarifying the difference between leadership and management is one of the pillars of defining leadership. The misconception of leadership and management dates back decades. Although these terms are used interchangeably, they are not the same. Leaders inspire, motivate, and encourage people towards a vision. Leaders might not have technical skills or they should not know the day-to-day management of the work.

However, management ensures that the operational steps are executed in order and correctly to complete tasks and achieve the objectives. Typically, managers have expert power and strong technical skills. For instance, Elon Musk is not a rocket scientist, however, he leads SpaceX, a reputable company in the aerospace industry. However, a line manager at SpaceX must have technical skills to develop spacecraft.

When defining leadership, while there is a difference between management leadership, leaders can be good managers and good managers can be good leaders. However, this is not the case in every situation. Sometimes, technically capable people are promoted to leadership roles where they need to inspire their followers. If they lack leadership skills, it can cause drastic outcomes, low morale commitment, and failures.

You should have seen several comparisons of leader vs manager. Here is ours:

Leader Manager
Sets long-term visions, goals, and objectives. Ensures day-to-day tasks are completed successfully.
Creates a bond between the organization’s goals and individuals’ interests Assigns tasks to individuals, and hold them accountable.
Focuses on the big picture. Asks “What” and “Why”. Focuses on short-term tasks and processes. Asks “How” and “When”.
Can have any titles – mostly C-level. The positions and responsibilities may not be executive. Has well-defined job descriptions with fixed accountability and responsibilities.

Now, let’s go through the top 10 traits of leadership.

Defining Leadership: Top 10 Traits of Leadership

We cannot skip defining leadership without listing the traits of leadership. There are several traits that leadership should demonstrate. We’ve surveyed 6,992 professionals and asked them a single question: “What are the top three important leadership skills you would like to see in your leadership at your workplace?”.

We’ve shown the 21 different types of leadership skills and asked respondents to pick the top three leadership skills they would like to see in their leadership or management at their workplace. Below are the results.

Defining Leadership Skills Survey Results
Top Leadership Skills in Order

The results are inspiring. You can read the full article. We will go through the top 10 leadership skills in this article.

1 – Communication – Relationship

Communication, relationship, and interpersonal skills are one of the top traits of great leaders. Based on research, executives and managers spend 90% of their time on communication.

Professionals seek confident and easy communication with their leaders. They expect to see emotional intelligence and leaders who can see the issues from different perspectives. Have you seen leaders go to their room in the morning, go to meeting after meeting until the evening, and not set aside any time for their team? That’s an example of bad communication.

Leaders should wander around and be visible to the people in their team. So, people should feel comfortable when communicating with their leaders and the leaders should be easily accessible. That is why professionals pick communication as the top leadership skill.

2 – Integrity – Trust – Authenticity

Transformational leaders follow the rules, ethical standards, and moral principles. They are fair and at equal distance to all members of the group. Their actions are taken as a role model by others. Therefore, leaders must be trustworthy.

You should have seen examples where leaders or managers go along better, and have more personal relationships with some individuals compared to others. Humans are social, and this can be. However, your personal relationships must not affect your work and attitude toward the people in your team.

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3 – Encouragement – Motivating Others

Leaders inspire people, motivate their team, and encourage them to produce the best results. Professionals seek encouragement as a leadership skill in their leadership team.

There are several ways to encourage people. The most common ways are setting clear goals, giving incentives, appreciation verbally, and celebrating success.

If you see any mistake or misbehavior of your team members, avoid talking about this in the group. Try to set up a one-on-one meeting. Refrain from phone or online meetings.

4- Charisma – Persuasion & Influence

Charisma is described as a personal quality of presence or charm that others find compelling.

Scholars in sociology, political science, psychology, and management reserve the term for a type of leadership seen as extraordinary. In these fields, the term “charisma” is used to describe a particular type of leader who uses “values-based, symbolic, and emotion-laden leader signaling”.

Charismatic leaders combine charm, interpersonal connection, and persuasiveness to motivate others. Professionals seek charisma, persuasion, and influence leadership skills in their executives. These skills will help their business unit to overcome obstacles, communicate with other departments in the organization easily, and have a better performance in the end.

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Hear from Our Alumni Laura Smith, Head of Design. Laura attended the Executive Leadership Program at SFBS.

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5- Setting Goals for Everyone

Organizations have missions and visions. To reach those missions and visions, goals are set on an organizational level, and these goals are broken down to the department or business unit level. Then, goals are set on an individual level.

Professionals expect their leaders to set goals for everyone. This does not mean that everyone has similar goals. Depending on the experience, level, and skills of each individual, leaders must seek a fair goal distribution for everyone.

6- Strategic Thinking – Decision-Making

We are living in a fast-paced environment. This is similar to making business decisions as well. In some cases, leaders have to make a decision with limited data or under tough conditions.

Professionals expect their leaders to have strategic thinking and decision-making leadership skills. Strategic thinking refers to evaluating the several aspects of a move or decision. Strategic thinking is like playing chess, being able to see several steps ahead and decide based on the current situation.

7- Positivity

Leaders should be realistic and positive. Sometimes, there is a misconception between positivity and seeing things through rose spectacles.

The dictionary meaning of positivity is the practice of being or tendency to be positive or optimistic in attitude. Leaders should be calm, positive, and optimistic. Otherwise, the negative energy can affect their team and it can hamper the business productivity in the organization.

8- Perseverance – Commitment

Perseverance and commitment is another important leadership skill. Once the goals are set, leaders should be perseverant throughout the journey to reach the goals.

It can be a long journey, and there can be disasters, roadblocks, impediments, and issues affecting the team to reach its goals. Professionals seek perseverance and commitment leadership skills in their management to go over the issues with patience.

9- Conflict Management – Negotiation

Conflicts are unavoidable wherever there is a human interaction. You should not be afraid of the conflicts. However, leaders must have conflict management and negotiation leadership skills.

Leaders should use their leadership skills to overcome conflicts in the best way. Win-win may not be the ultimate outcome in some circumstances.

10- Agility and Adaptability – Flexibility

We are living in a fast-paced environment. Business conditions may change rapidly. So, leaders must be agile, and flexible and be able to adapt to changing conditions.

Professionals expect their leaders or managers to have agility, adaptability, and flexibility leadership skills. Agility refers to the ability to think and understand quickly. Adaptability refers to the quality of being able to adjust to new conditions and flexibility refers to adapting to changing circumstances and expectations of the workplace.

9 Popular Leadership Styles & Famous Leaders’ Styles

There are several types of leadership behaviors. We have listed the top 9 leadership styles and famous leaders using each style in this article.

Defining Leadership: Style #1- Transformational Leadership

Transformational leadership term was first brought by the Leadership expert James MacGregor Burns in his book “Leadership” in 1978. Mac Gregor focused on defining leadership particularly transformational leadership in his book. Since then, this concept evolved and become one of the most phenomenal leadership styles adopted by leaders around the globe.

Transformational leaders are a model of integrity and fairness. They set clear goals for their teams and also they have high expectations. Transformational leadership encourages others and provides support and recognition. Transformational leaders get people to look beyond their self-interest.

You can read more in our transformational leadership article.

Defining Leadership: Style #2- Servant Leadership

First, Robert K. Greenleaf coined the phrase “servant leadership” in his 1970 essay, “The Servant as a Leader” which is defining leadership and servant leadership. However, it’s an approach that people have used for centuries.

As a servant leader, you’re a “servant first” – before thinking of yourself, you focus on the needs of others, especially team members. You are aware of other people’s self-interests, give them the assistance they need to meet their business and personal goals, include them in decisions where appropriate, and build a sense of community within your team. This results in higher engagement, more integrity, and better relationships with team members and other stakeholders. It can also lead to increased innovation.

Nelson Mandela, Jack Welch, and Ken Blanchard are famous servant leaders. You can read more in our Servant Leadership article.

Defining Leadership: Style #3- Autocratic Leadership

Autocratic leadership, also known as authoritarian leadership, is a leadership style where leaders or managers have full control and authority to make all decisions with limited input or participation from the team members or others. Autocratic leaders make decisions on their own using their intuition, experience, moral values, and insights. They take no input or limited input from the others.

Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Napoleon Bonaparte are famous autocratic leaders. You can read more in our Autocratic Leadership article.

Defining Leadership: Style #4- Laissez-Faire Leadership

The term “laissez-faire” is French for “leave it be” and it exactly fits with the style of leadership. The laissez-faire leadership style was first coined by Kurt Lewin in the 1930s. He developed a framework defining leadership based on a leader’s behavior.

Laissez-faire (Delegative) leaders do not step in; they create the environment for maximum participation, and let the people make many of the decisions. This leadership style works when there are competent resources in the team, people are motivated and require minimum supervision.

Delegative or laissez-faire leadership is a very hands-off management approach. When you use this style, you allow team members to set their own goals and deadlines, and you let them determine how to do their work.

Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet and John F. Kennedy are famous laissez-faire leaders. You can read more in our Laissez-Faire Leadership article.

Defining Leadership: Style #5- Transactional Leadership

The transactional leadership style is all about motivating people with rewards and punishment. This management theory defines leadership as people doing things only in exchange for material benefits. There are seven characteristics of this leadership style such as rewards and penalties, realizing short-term goals, resistance to change, favoring hierarchy, and micromanagement. Three examples where transactional leadership can be applied are sales teams, operational teams, and real estate brokerage teams.

The top benefits of transactional leadership are maintaining the status quo, supporting repetitive work, being cost-effective, realizing short-term goals, and fostering quick resolution under crises and problems. The top flaws of this leadership style are hindering creativity and innovation, limiting relationship building, blocking personal initiatives, creating high pressure and stress, and high staff turnover.

Bill Gates and Howard Shultz are two famous transactional leaders. You can read more in our Transactional Leadership article.

Defining Leadership: Style #6- Charismatic Leadership

Charismatic leadership affects people by persuasiveness, emotions, or charm that others find compelling. Charismatic leaders affect people with their leadership skills and encourage and motivate them toward reaching a goal. There are several traits of charismatic leadership. We have listed the top 11 traits in this article.

Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Winston Churchill are just a few to name from famous charismatic leaders. Charismatic leadership motivates people without material rewards, fosters teamwork, and can influence several people. However, there are flaws in this leadership style as well. Charismatic leadership focuses on the self-interests and ambitions of the leader rather than individuals and charismatic leaders are believers in their own ideas rather than accepting different ideas. Another disadvantage is, that charismatic leaders have a very strong personality that may suppress other leaders to grow in their periphery.

You can read more in our Charismatic Leadership article.

Defining Leadership: Style #7- Participative Leadership

The participative leadership style allows group discussion in decision-making processes, evaluating different ideas and perspectives, and looking for a consensus and team buy-in. This increases morale, motivation, and performance as the team members feel their ideas are important. Also, creative and innovative ideas emerge under participative leadership.

Participative leadership can be applied when there is no high pressure when deadlines are not critical, and if the team is experienced. Some examples are universities, technology companies, and creative agencies. If there are tight deadlines, if there is an emergency, or if the tasks are operational, a participative leadership style is not appropriate.

Benefits of the participative leadership are employee retention, higher morale, and creativity. Flaws are a slower decision-making process, inapplicable in inexperienced teams, and leadership existence may be questioned.

Bill Gates and Jim Lents are famous participative leaders to name a few from several famous leaders believing in participative leadership. You can read more in our Participative Leadership article.

Defining Leadership: Style #8- Bureaucratic Leadership

Bureaucratic leadership is a management style that forces people to follow rules, standards, and policies. This leadership style is very similar to autocratic leadership where the leader makes a decision, and all members have to follow.

The top three benefits of this leadership style are stability and sustainability, clear roles and responsibilities, and smooth working through processes and regulations. The top three flaws are limited creativity and innovation, limited personal growth, and resistance to change.

McDonald’s management under Steve Easterbrook’s management, Japanese National Railroads management under Shinji Sogo, and International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) Corporation’s management under Harold Geneen are examples defining the leadership style of bureaucratic leadership. You can read more in our Bureaucratic Leadership article.

Defining Leadership: Style #9- Situational Leadership

Hersey and Blanchard developed the Situational Leadership theory in the 1970s. Since then, their theory defining leadership has been widely adopted by several leaders focusing on short-term goals.

The situational leadership theory focuses on four different types of behaviors, Directing (S1), Coaching (S2), Supporting (S3), and Delegating (S4). The model supports different styles for different maturity and performance levels as well.

Situational leadership best works when there are different levels of experience and motivation in the group. Steve Jobs, Eisenhower, and Collin Powell are known as famous situational leaders. They are also global leaders.

You can read more in our Situational Leadership article.

Defining Leadership: Emerging Leadership

Although it is not categorized as a leadership style of behavior, it is important to refer to emerging leadership when defining leadership as well. Educational institutions, professional communities, or councils aim to gather promising future leaders and create a diverse group of attendees. The main purpose of an emerging leaders program is to grow the team leadership skills of the participants and help them to better lead their resources in their organizations.

Typically, attendees of an emerging leaders program have five to ten years of professional experience. In some programs, certain years of professional experience is a strict requirement while some other programs recommend having a few years of professional experience.

You can read more in our Emerging Leaders Program article.

How to Develop Leadership Skills – 5 Ways

We have gone through several aspects of defining leadership. None of the skills are god-gifted. There are several ways to develop your team leadership skills. We will go over the top 5 ways to develop your leadership skills.

1- Leadership Skills Courses/Programs

We should distinguish the courses and programs. The leadership courses focus on particular skills development while the programs focus on the entire leadership skills development. For instance, San Francisco Business School offers an Executive Leadership Program.

Enrolling in courses or programs is the most popular and effective way to develop team leadership skills.

2- Coaching

In coaching, the coach guides the coachee through real-life scenarios. In some cases, the coach can help the trainee with the real cases the trainee faces at work. There are several coaching programs available on the web. However, make sure to choose the right coach for you. It is important to choose a coach from a similar or even the same industry, who has gone through your career path before and who can guide you transparently.

3- Practicing

As in any profession, the best method to sharpen your leadership skills is practicing. Whenever you see a chance to practice your skills, do not hesitate. For instance, if you see a conflict between your colleagues, you can seek a resolution. Or, help a team member to make a decision.

4- Reading

You can consider reading leadership books, articles, or business blogs. There are phenomenal leadership books defining leadership. You can make a reading list, and read those books to sharpen your leadership skills. You might be interested in our John Maxwell Leadership Books article.

5- Events

There are conferences, seminars, and webinars defining leadership. You can follow these activities and attend them if they fit your schedule.

Note that, there are other ways to develop leadership skills such as volunteering, giving back, or on-the-job training. We’ve listed the most popular 5 ways to improve leadership skills.


Defining leadership is not as easy as defining a tangible concept. There are several traits, behaviors, and models defining leadership and all of them are applicable depending on the situation.

We have listed the top 10 traits of leadership, 9 leadership styles, and how to develop leadership in this article. We referred to famous leaders, such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, and others, and their leadership styles as well.

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