4 Leadership Styles at General Contractors

4 Leadership Styles at General Contractors

Good leadership at a GC sometimes means making hard decisions. But it always means having good communication skills.

October 7, 2022

9 min read


Caleb Taylor

Caleb Taylor

Founder at Buildr

At general contractors, leaders help control the flow of projects and work to bring everyone together to complete each stage. Since there are so many departments that make up so many moving pieces of construction, predictably, there are usually a horde of leaders at any given general contractor.

Yet simply holding a managerial title doesn't make someone a true leader. It's the quality of the way they work and support their teams—including clearing the path for and bringing up future leaders—that defines the success of a leader. 

A symptom of sub-par leadership is frequent employee turnover, a sign of the leader's inability to foster enthusiastic buy-in from subordinates. We've covered how The Great Resignation affects construction and lackluster leadership across all industries is in part responsible for it.

With good habits and a clear goal on your leadership style, not only can you ensure lasting success but you can create an environment that current and future employees will actually enjoy being a part of.

Why good leadership matters in construction 

It's more important than ever for executives and managers at general contractors to be successful leaders. The construction industry continues to be plagued by high understaffing, where people are often forced to wear lots of hats and work well beyond their comfort level to make up for those shortages. Timelines seem shorter, and even when they're not, the lack of highly trained, skilled workers can make it harder for leaders to, for lack of a better word, lead.

This is the key to why good leadership is so important. It's a two-pronged approach to true execution on a project. Leaders today need to work to keep projects on time but also—and sometimes more importantly when it comes to lasting success—better manage the needs of their employees.

It may mean having more flexibility and a positive, motivating leadership style that helps to meet employee needs. Not only does this help to reduce turnover and keep existing employees longer, but it also leads to a better employer brand. That may help you, as a construction manager, supervisor, or other leader, to attract new talent to your operation on a consistent basis. With a labor shortage and so many other general contractors in your market, why should an incoming hire choose to work for you?

Good leaders help to encourage and train employees, pushing them to make goals and continue to work towards their own personal career growth. In that way, qualified leaders are working to develop the next generation, which helps support general contractors as business continues to grow.

4 types of leadership at general contractors

Is there one way that is the best way to lead? That really depends on the project, the people, and your company’s goals. It's important to understand the type of leader you are so you can work to improve your skills. You or your manager are already one of the following. But it's never to late to change.

1: Autocratic

Sometimes known as the authoritarian style of leadership, the Autocratic is the type of leader that expects to be able to tell someone what to do and for it to be done with no questions asked. This type of leader sets the rules, develops the strategy for the company, and they decide procedures and standards of practice. They know what's truth and direct everyone else to follow their lead. These leaders are less team-focused and do not generally appreciate feedback from anyone else.

There are many autocratic leadership successes. For example, Bill Belichick is an excellent known autocratic leader for his no-nonsense style (though admittedly benefitted from a certain subordinate autocratic leader of his own who is no longer with the organization). Mark Zuckerberg is another. These types of leaders are not hard to find in construction, especially when it comes to following OSHA rules or managing company expectations. Sometimes with the high stakes, tight profit pool nature of construction, there isn’t a lot of room to parse.

Autocratic leaders are often good project managers, but only if their employees respect their style of leadership. Those who are unapproachable or lack any employee support could find themselves unable to maintain their team. If there is frequent employee turnover, it's safe to assume Autocratic leadership is in play. The job gets done but expect constantly new people to be doing said job.

2: Democratic

The participative leader, also known as a democratic leader, gathers information from numerous subordinates before making decisions. This type of leader typically does well when there are projects that require input from various professionals or specialists because, though they are gathering information from numerous people, these leaders still make the final decisions.

These types of leaders encourage employees to bring their insight into the decisions being made. In the construction industry, this style of leadership works best when people are contributing valuable information to flexible decisions. When it comes to cutting corners or making decisions outside of the scope of a project, this cannot work.

Examples of democratic leaders include Bill Gates and Walt Disney, both of whom were known for overseeing and making decisions for their companies based on the insight, expertise, and wisdom of others. These types of leaders typically are supportive of employees but often must be able to see when advice or guidance provided to them is valuable to the project's success and clients' needs.


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3: Laissez-Faire

The Laissez-Faire is more of a hands-off leader, allowing subordinate leaders to make more of the decisions on the job sites. You can imagine that in construction this type can only work at the highest levels of leadership, as the closer you get to the project the more someone needs to take charge. They are more likely to allow employees to accomplish tasks needed however the employee desires, knowing the ends and not worrying about the means. These types of leaders don't ask a lot of questions or micromanage.

Warren Buffet and Ronald Reagan are two examples of this type of leadership, often noted for their ability to empower others to manage projects in their own way. In these types of leadership styles, the leader often offers their input when asked to do so or when necessary, but otherwise remains more hands-off throughout the process.

Some leaders at general contractors may operate like this, especially if they have numerous subordinate leaders that they have a significant amount of experience with and trust. This type of leadership may seem like it brings a lot of employees into the company, but that is only the case if employees are working fairly and respectfully with good oversight and reliable results occur on projects. It's a calculated risk.

4: Transformational

Transformational leaders are very different than the previous three. They have a big picture view of what they want from their company and teams. They work to support employees, often rallying around them, to achieve the best outcome. In this leadership style, the members of the team want to transform, grow, and evolve either on the professional front or overall, and these leaders help to support and motivate their employees to reach this goal.

In this style of leadership, of which one of the best examples is Steve Jobs, employers work to align employees around a central goal, and they are willing to commit their time, energy, and skill toward the end result. This can work well in some construction businesses in which there is a lot of loyalty among members. Often found in smaller companies looking to grow and develop but needing to turn inexperienced and novice workers into skilled tradesmen, this type of leadership takes a significant amount of hard work.

In the construction industry, this type of leadership works best when employees are productive and aligned with the company's goals. There must be highly effective lines of communication and a good working relationship between all members. 

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The learning process of creating leaders

Which type of leader are you? Do you find that your team doesn't have the skills needed to facilitate a high level of success within your organization? It may be time to work on improving leadership skills, as even those who have worked in construction for a decade do not always have innate leadership abilities. While nepotism is higher in construction than many industries, poor leaders subsisting can also be traced to leaders who got their power a long time ago when there was less employee autonomy.

In each type of leadership, there are ways it can work for general contractors. Today, more than ever, employers, including general contractors, have to work to understand the needs of each individual on their team and, instead of being just one leader, work to provide the leadership style needed for each individual. Doing so can help to comprehensively support and guide employees to help the company to achieve its goals.

Determine which leadership style you need to apply to your business. Evaluate what’s working within your organization and, when possible, work to ensure each of your team members is getting the support they need. To be a good leader, you have to be a people person. Empathizing and adapting to various personalities will get you very far, especially in an industry like construction where loyalty is at a premium.

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