Leadership is an indispensable skill that can drive career advancement. According to a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, leadership is one of the top attributes sought by hiring managers on a job seeker’s resume.

Effective leadership can lead to organizational success, too. A recent report by global consulting firm DDI found that companies committed to developing employees with high leadership potential are four times more likely to financially outperform those that don’t.

To take charge of your professional development and boost performance at your organization, it’s vital to establish a personal leadership style that informs how you handle demanding situations and motivate colleagues.

Before diving into some of the ways you can identify and develop your leadership approach, it’s important to understand what the term “leadership style” means.

What Is a Leadership Style?

A leadership style entails the patterns of behavior that are consistent across how you make decisions, interact with others, and use your time. It’s also characterized by how your colleagues would describe their working relationship with you.

In the online course Leadership Principles, Harvard Business School Professors Anthony Mayo and Joshua Margolis explain that your leadership style can be examined through three frameworks:

  • Imprint: The way you’re experienced by those you work with and lead
  • Functions: The practices you employ to mobilize colleagues and get things done
  • Motivations: The desire, stimulus, or incentive that drives you to take a certain course of action

Using these frameworks, you can hone your personal style and become more effective in your role. But first, here’s a look at three common leadership styles that can inform how you determine the approach that works best for you.

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3 Common Leadership Styles

Leadership imprint, one of the key tenets of leadership style, can be mapped along seven dimensions and consolidated into three primary groups. Those groups are:

1. Approachability


Approachability is comprised of authenticity and warmth—attributes that help you forge deeper connections with teammates. Being an approachable leader means conveying openness and showing empathy in your interactions.

This leadership style requires a high degree of emotional intelligence, or the ability to understand and manage your emotions, as well as those of others. According to EQ provider TalentSmart, emotional intelligence is the highest predictor of workplace performance, underscoring how important it is for you to hone this highly valued skill.

2. Credibility


Credibility encompasses competence, humility, and resolve. This leadership style imparts knowledge and authority. A credible leader can set a plan and guide others in the right direction.

This leadership style involves a great deal of trust between you and your employees, and requires strong decision-making skills, even when faced with difficult choices. Sharpening your ability to make tough calls can not only enable you to become a more effective leader, but help your team build resilience.

3. Aspiration


Aspiration is a combination of two leadership imprints: Elevation and faith. Elevation refers to the ability to set high expectations others feel motivated to pursue, while faith is the capacity to create a sense of belief and confidence in what can be achieved.

An aspirational leader brings out the best in both themselves and others. Through empowering employees and nurturing their growth, you can cultivate a high-performing team that’s driven to achieve organizational goals.

Related: 6 Characteristics of an Effective Leader

How to Identify Your Leadership Style

Understanding common leadership styles and the imprints they’re comprised of is just one part of developing your personal approach. Here are three ways you can expand on that knowledge and identify your own.

1. Build Self-Awareness


Being an effective leader starts with knowing yourself. Through honest reflection and self-assessment—using tools like the Myers-Briggs test or similar resources—you can gain a deeper understanding of your strengths and weaknesses and build greater self-awareness.

Research shows that leaders with high degrees of self-awareness are more effective in their roles, have better work relationships, and report lower levels of stress.

Look to your colleagues for feedback. Be open to their perspectives on your leadership tendencies so you can identify areas for improvement and growth.

2. Consider Your Core Functions as a Leader


Examining your leadership functions is the second of the three frameworks for developing your personal style. In Leadership Principles, two sets of practices are explored:

  • Structure and direction: The behaviors you employ to mobilize others and clearly communicate tasks that need to be done
  • Support and direction: The behaviors you exhibit to rally others and provide instructional guidance

It’s important to use self-assessment to determine where you tend to fall on the spectrum between these two sets of practices. This knowledge can enable you to adapt your leadership approach to different business challenges, and figure out which function you should bolster to be more effective in your role.

3. Understand Your Motivations


Motivating your team members and equipping them with the resources to succeed is one of your key functions as a leader. But it’s important to also understand what inspires you to do your best work.

In examining your motivations as a leader, consider what external rewards stimulate you, such as salary and perks. Take stock of intangible forms of motivation as well, such as a sense of belonging at your organization or the opportunity to work on new and exciting projects.

With an innate sense of what drives you to perform at your best, you can, in turn, unleash that potential in others, enabling them to develop and deliver in the face of organizational challenges.

Related: 4 Tips for Developing Your Personal Leadership Style

Leadership Principles: Unlock your leadership potential. Learn more.

Developing Your Leadership Style

Identifying and refining your personal leadership style is a process. By understanding common approaches to leadership, practicing self-assessment, and garnering feedback from colleagues, you can heighten your self-awareness and build a foundation upon which you can continue to learn and grow.

Do you want to enhance your leadership skills? Download our free leadership e-book and explore our online course Leadership Principles to discover how you can become a more effective leader and unleash the potential in yourself and others.

Matt Gavin

About the Author

Matt Gavin is a member of the marketing team at Harvard Business School Online. Prior to returning to his home state of Massachusetts and joining HBS Online, he lived in North Carolina, where he held roles in news and content marketing. He has a background in video production and previously worked on several documentary films for Boston’s PBS station, WGBH. In his spare time, he enjoys running, exploring New England, and spending time with his family.