Which Leadership Style Best Fits Your Team?
The late Jim Rohn once wrote:
"The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly."
That’s a lot to ask for in a leader, and it’s a testament to the importance of good leadership.
So how do you strike the right balance? It starts with understanding your team.
Any given team has a wide mixture of people who run the gamut of personalities and work styles—and certain leadership styles work best with certain types of teams.
In 2000, author and psychologist Daniel Goleman published “Leadership That Gets Results” in the Harvard Business Review. In this study, he identified 6 prominent leadership styles common across all work teams.
These 6 leadership styles have provided a useful north star for leaders who are struggling to manage their teams successfully. Let’s break them down so you can identify your own personal style and find alternatives to lean into when the situation calls for a different approach.
1. The coercive leader
You’ve probably encountered coercive leadership at some point in your life.
According to Goleman, this leadership style could be summarized in a single command: Do what I say.
Common characteristics of coercive leaders
Coercive leaders tend to put themselves at the center of the decision-making process, thus discouraging new ideas, innovation, and forward progress.
Think of a narcissistic leader who makes decisions without listening to anyone. They boss everyone around and strike fear into everyone who passes by. People quit. Morale and productivity drop.
Those are just a few of the negative effects of long-term coercive leadership. In fact, Goleman openly admits that the coercive style can destroy motivation, promote selfishness, and harm team members’ feelings.
When and how to use the coercive leadership style
That begs an obvious question: Why would anyone ever want to use coercive leadership?
While coercive leadership isn’t optimal, it’s important to be aware of because it’s a common approach in business settings. And researchers admit there may be some situations when it’s useful—rare though they may be.
As such, Goleman has very strict recommendations for coercive leadership:
"The coercive style should be used only with extreme caution and in the few situations when it is absolutely imperative, such as during a turnaround or when a hostile takeover is looming. In those cases, the coercive style can break failed business habits and shock people into new ways of working.”
In other words, it’s a last resort. In fact, it’s a last resort to your last resort. If literally nothing else is working, coercive leadership might do the trick.
Just keep in mind that it should only be used for a short term with a specific end and the well-being of the company and team in mind. Otherwise, coercive leadership can degenerate into dictatorship, driving resentment and fostering outright rebellion.
2. The authoritative leader
In stark contrast to the coercive style, the authoritative style is positive and highly versatile. In fact, of all the leadership styles, Goleman says, “The authoritative one is most effective, driving up every aspect of climate.”
Goleman shares the story of a marketing VP who gave a passionate speech during a meeting. In doing so, he “filled a leadership vacuum” with “his vibrant enthusiasm and clear vision.”
Common characteristics of authoritative leaders
Authoritative leaders know where they’re going and what it will take to get there. They’re able to instill their passion and motivation in others to create an overwhelmingly positive response. Think Martin Luther King, Jr.’s unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech.
Where coercive leadership ignores others, authoritative leadership inspires. The authoritative leader is confident but not bossy. Instead of promoting their ideas without listening, authoritative leaders seize opportunities to fix the problems they see in their workplace.
Authoritative leadership also allows others to flourish in a team setting.
“Authoritative leaders give people the freedom to innovate, experiment, and take calculated risks,” Goleman explains.
The authoritative leader trusts others to help carry out the vision he or she has in mind. That team effort brings about large changes, creating an almost 100% chance of a positive outcome.
When and how to use the authoritative leadership style
So what’s the catch? While it sounds too good to be true, the authoritative style is appropriate for the majority of situations.
Goleman points out that it may fail if an authoritative leader is less experienced than their peers or if they become domineering and threaten to overshadow others.
Still, authoritative leadership is a multi-use device in the leader’s toolbox. Whether your team is in need of serious inspiration or a breakthrough, give the authoritative style a spin.
3. The affiliative leader
Like the authoritative style, the affiliative style of leadership is sensitive to the feelings of team members.
Common characteristics of affiliative leaders
Goleman describes the affiliative leader as someone who values “individuals and their emotions more than tasks and goals.”
In a way, the affiliative leader is more of a mediator. He or she is readily available to talk to everyone and prioritizes the team’s emotional wellness.
“The affiliative leader strives to keep employees happy and create harmony among them,” Goleman says.
As you might expect, the affiliative style enhances communication and morale. By giving positive, constructive feedback and allowing for flexibility in work styles, the affiliative leader creates an atmosphere of trust and peace.
When and how to use the affiliative leadership style
Affiliative leadership can be the perfect antidote for a broken, despairing team. Like an attentive friend, the affiliative leader builds emotional bonds and tends to others’ mental and physical health.
Affiliative leadership works well when the team is self-motivated. Since the leader isn’t constantly checking up on everyone, team members need to be driven to accomplish work.
Because it’s so positive, the affiliative style shouldn’t be used by itself. Goleman warns that “its exclusive focus on praise can allow poor performance to go uncorrected.” It can also withhold advice for improvement from workers.
The solution? Goleman recommends using the authoritative and affiliative styles in tandem. The two complement each other nicely, giving team members a firm vision while encouraging them along the way.
4. The democratic leader
Steve Jobs has been immortalized as one of the best business leaders of all time.
But he wasn’t always that way.
In 1985, he was fired for his leadership style. He had become somewhat coercive, demanding too much from employees and maintaining a sour attitude.
When he returned to Apple in 1997, Jobs took a new approach. Instead of bossing his employees around, he trusted them to do their jobs well.
In fact, Jobs’s definition of teamwork closely resembles Goleman’s definition of democratic leadership: “Teamwork is dependent on trusting the other folks to come through with their part without watching them all the time.”
Let’s take a closer look.
Common characteristics of democratic leaders
Democratic leaders aren’t concerned with micromanaging. Instead, they prefer to sit back and allow their employees to pitch in their thoughts about how they ought to work.
“By letting workers themselves have a say in decisions that affect their goals and how they do their work, the democratic leader drives up flexibility and responsibility,” Goleman says.
However, the democratic leader isn’t simply a yes-man.
While workers have a say, it’s still ultimately up to the leader. The difference is that a democratic leader invites collaboration without letting team members call the shots.
When and how to use the democratic leadership style
Democratic leadership is most useful when you’re stuck on a certain problem and need fresh ideas. Just be careful not to overuse this style. Otherwise, you run the risk of completely ignoring your own thoughts.
Like the authoritative and affiliative styles, the democratic style tends to produce positive results. It gets others involved and lets them know their contributions and insight are valued.
Using the democratic style wisely leads to a better team with inspired, motivated members. As Jobs proved, a little trust goes a long way.
5. The pacesetting leader
At first glance, pacesetting leadership looks like a successful style because it’s all about efficiency, speed, and accuracy.
But looks can be deceiving.
Common characteristics of pacesetting leaders
The pacesetting leader sets high standards and expects his or her workers to follow them. If some workers fall behind, the leader either challenges or replaces them.
Like the coercive leader, the pacesetting leader is often seen as a commanding know-it-all. Team members who work under a pacesetting leader often fear messing up or doing something the wrong way (i.e., they feel they need to do exactly what the leader does).
Pacesetting leadership may sound like a formula for efficiency. That’s why Goleman was surprised to find out the pacesetting style is extremely damaging.
“Many employees feel overwhelmed by the pacesetter’s demands for excellence, and their morale drops,” Goleman explains.
So while a pacesetting leader aims to improve their team by demanding more, they’re actually doing exactly the opposite.
When and how to use the pacesetting leadership style
So is the pacesetting style a dud? Goleman says it follows the same rules as the coercive style: Use sparingly.
If your team is composed of highly motivated individuals, the pacesetting style can help drive them even further. Self-starters will see the leader’s standards and challenge themselves to meet those.
In general, the pacesetting style produces negative results, but like every leadership style, it has its place. For most team situations, it’s best to avoid pacesetting leadership.
6. The coaching leader
Coaching refers to one-on-one training with a focus on improvement. It’s surged in popularity because many people thrive on personalized feedback and actionable goals. They can receive advice that’s specific to them.
That’s exactly the heart of the coaching leadership style.
Common characteristics of coaching leaders
The coaching leader acts as a mentor or counselor to team members, creating an encouraging atmosphere.
Like the affiliative leader, the coaching leader cares about his or her team members. For the coaching leader, taking time to listen and talk with individuals is more important than demanding a certain work ethic from them.
When and how to use the coaching leadership style
As you might expect, this is another style that creates positive outcomes. Coaching gives team members opportunities to improve themselves. This boosts both morale and performance.
Yet, Goleman says coaching is the least-used leadership style. Why? Most leaders don’t have enough time for the gradual, one-on-one approach.
Still, Goleman argues it needs to be used more:
“Leaders who ignore this style are passing up a powerful tool: Its impact on climate and performance are markedly positive.”
So while coaching may carve a good chunk out of the workday, you can feel confident that time is going to good use.
Which style is right for your team?
Every team deserves a combination of leadership styles that’s right for them.
Teams will respond well to different styles in different situations, so consider team composition and context when choosing your approach. For example, if you’re in the middle of a project with a tight deadline, the affiliative style probably wouldn’t work as well as the authoritative style.
Goleman argues that no leadership style should ever be used alone. Every style has its strengths and weaknesses, but when you combine them, you can get the most out of your team.
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