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  • Writer's pictureMichael Walter

6 Leadership Styles and Their Impact on Student Leadership Development

Updated: Feb 16

When developing a leadership program at your school, it’s important to encourage your student leaders to apply different leadership styles to the various contexts and situations they will find themselves in. Daniel Goleman, renowned psychologist and author, identifies six key leadership styles, each with its own strengths and applications. These were developed through a comprehensive study of leaders from across the world. Let's explore these styles and delve into how they can be harnessed to nurture student leadership within Australian high schools.


1. The Visionary or Authoritative Leader

Visionary leaders paint a compelling picture of the future and inspire others to share and work towards that vision. For students, this style can ignite passion and commitment. Encourage them to craft their vision for change within the school community, empowering them to rally peers behind a shared purpose, whether it's initiating sustainability practices or organising community outreach programs.


This style is very effective and is best when applied alongside the affiliative style and the coaching style. In the visionary style the leader sets a clear vision and allows the team to find their own way to achieve these visions. The leader acts as a motivator and supporter and is available when the team needs help, but sets a high trust culture (stepping in only when necessary.) This is not a laissez faire approach as the leader is highly accountable and ensures that the team is also held accountable for their actions.


2. The Coaching Leader

Coaching leaders prioritise personal development and growth. In a student context, this style involves guiding and supporting individuals to recognise their strengths and areas for improvement. This is a helpful approach for the teacher to take. When you are acting in this way you can also mentor your more senior student leaders to take this approach when working with younger members of their team. 


This is one of the most important styles but often least applied. Coaching is a longer term approach that values the team members development. Coaching requires the leader to listen and support their team to solve their own problems. This is best used alongside authoritative and affiliative. It requires the leader to be aware of when their team member requires a nudge to complete the task themselves, or to step in and support them to complete it. It also requires the leader to be able to provide constructive and helpful feedback to the members of their team.


3. The Affiliative Leader

Affiliative leaders prioritise building strong relationships and fostering a sense of belonging. Encourage student leaders to cultivate empathy, collaboration, and inclusivity within their leadership approach. Through initiatives like peer support programs, cultural exchange events, interschool activities and social justice initiatives they can create a supportive and unified school environment.


This style is especially important in the development of a great team culture. The affiliative leader style is high on praise and developing a positive culture. However if the individuals in the team don’t feel their leader is supporting them to grow or be held accountable for their actions, they will quickly lose motivation.


4. The Democratic Leader

Democratic leaders involve others in decision-making processes, valuing input and consensus-building. Student leaders can practice this style by establishing forums or councils where diverse voices are heard and decisions are made collectively. This inclusivity fosters a sense of ownership and responsibility within the school community.


The democratic leadership style is best employed when the leader has exhausted all other options when trying to solve a problem. The student leader can take the problem to a meeting and thrash it out with their team (creating a space where everyone can share their ideas). This doesn’t work if the leader employs this style of leadership for every decision. Very quickly the team will lose faith in their leader’s decision making ability and will feel frustrated with the lack of progress of the team. If you're noticing that your student leaders are often employing this approach and no progress is being made, it might be an indication that they are lacking in confidence in their ability or might require some coaching on how to be more assertive and effective in their approach to leadership.


5. The Pacesetting Leader

Pacesetting leaders set high standards and lead by example. While this can drive excellence, it's crucial to balance this style with support and guidance. Encourage students to challenge themselves and their peers to achieve their best while fostering a culture where mistakes are seen as learning opportunities.


This style works best when working with a high performing team where the leader is also the expert of the domain. This should also be used sparingly as you can quickly drain the team if they are constantly put under high pressure. However, it might be necessary if you are working towards a tight deadline and it is imperative that everything is delivered on schedule. An example of this in the realm of student leadership would be preparing for a student event or social justice activity.


6. The Commanding or Coercive Leader

Commanding leaders take charge in times of crisis or when immediate action is necessary. While this style is effective in urgent situations, encourage students to use it sparingly and balance it with other styles to ensure inclusivity and collaboration.


This style might become necessary in student leadership in situations where bullying or bad behaviour is present.


Bridging Leadership Styles with Student Initiatives

Each of these leadership styles offers a unique approach, and the key lies in teaching students to adapt and blend them based on the situation. Encourage them to reflect on their strengths and areas for growth, nudging them to experiment with different styles in various leadership roles or projects.


Encouraging students to lead by example, collaborate effectively, and cultivate empathy will not only prepare them for future leadership roles but also foster a positive school environment where everyone feels valued and heard.


Final Thoughts

As educators, our role in nurturing student leaders extends beyond the classroom. By understanding and guiding students through these leadership styles, we equip them with the skills and mindset needed to thrive as leaders in an ever-evolving world.

By embracing these diverse leadership styles, Australian high school students can pave the way for positive change, innovation, and inclusive leadership within their school communities.


We’d love to hear in the comments what are some ways you are preparing your student leaders. 


Also, while you’re here, are you looking for a comprehensive leadership development program in your school? Check out our curriculums on leadership development for high school leaders. These units are 12 weeks with 2 lessons a week. Unit 1 is focused on leadership and unit 2 is focused on applying design thinking to bring about social change. Curious to find out more? Check out our page about the curriculum. 



Looking for interactive workshops for your students? Find out more about our workshops:



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