6 Leadership Styles, And When You Should Use Them

Taking a team from ordinary to extraordinary means understanding and embracing the difference between management and leadership. According to writer and consultant Peter Drucker, "Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." 

Manager and leader are two completely different roles, although we often use the terms interchangeably. Managers are facilitators of their team members’ success. They ensure that their people have everything they need to be productive and successful; that they’re well trained, happy and have minimal roadblocks in their path; that they’re being groomed for the next level; that they are recognized for great performance and coached through their challenges.

Conversely, a leader can be anyone on the team who has a particular talent, who is creatively thinking out of the box and has a great idea, who has experience in a certain aspect of the business or project that can prove useful to the manager and the team. A leader leads based on strengths, not titles.

The best managers consistently allow different leaders to emerge and inspire their teammates (and themselves!) to the next level.

When you’re dealing with ongoing challenges and changes, and you’re in uncharted territory with no means of knowing what comes next, no one can be expected to have all the answers or rule the team with an iron fist based solely on the title on their business card. It just doesn’t work for day-to-day operations. Sometimes a project is a long series of obstacles and opportunities coming at you at high speed, and you need every ounce of your collective hearts and minds and skill sets to get through it.

This is why the military style of top-down leadership is never effective in the fast-paced world of adventure racing or, for that matter, our daily lives (which is really one big, long adventure, hopefully!). I truly believe in Tom Peters’s observation that the best leaders don’t create followers; they create more leaders. When we share leadership, we’re all a heck of a lot smarter, more nimble and more capable in the long run, especially when that long run is fraught with unknown and unforeseen challenges.

Change leadership styles

Not only do the greatest teammates allow different leaders to consistently emerge based on their strengths, but also they realize that leadership can and should be situational, depending on the needs of the team. Sometimes a teammate needs a warm hug. Sometimes the team needs a visionary, a new style of coaching, someone to lead the way or even, on occasion, a kick in the bike shorts. For that reason, great leaders choose their leadership style like a golfer chooses his or her club, with a calculated analysis of the matter at hand, the end goal and the best tool for the job.

My favorite study on the subject of kinetic leadership is Daniel Goleman’s Leadership That Gets Results, a landmark 2000 Harvard Business Review study. Goleman and his team completed a three-year study with over 3,000 middle-level managers. Their goal was to uncover specific leadership behaviors and determine their effect on the corporate climate and each leadership style’s effect on bottom-line profitability.

The research discovered that a manager’s leadership style was responsible for 30% of the company’s bottom-line profitability! That’s far too much to ignore. Imagine how much money and effort a company spends on new processes, efficiencies, and cost-cutting methods in an effort to add even one percent to bottom-line profitability, and compare that to simply inspiring managers to be more kinetic with their leadership styles. It’s a no-brainer.

Here are the six leadership styles Goleman uncovered among the managers he studied, as well as a brief analysis of the effects of each style on the corporate climate:

  1. The pacesetting leader expects and models excellence and self-direction. If this style were summed up in one phrase, it would be “Do as I do, now.” The pacesetting style works best when the team is already motivated and skilled, and the leader needs quick results. Used extensively, however, this style can overwhelm team members and squelch innovation.

  2. The authoritative leader mobilizes the team toward a common vision and focuses on end goals, leaving the means up to each individual. If this style were summed up in one phrase, it would be “Come with me.” The authoritative style works best when the team needs a new vision because circumstances have changed, or when explicit guidance is not required. Authoritative leaders inspire an entrepreneurial spirit and vibrant enthusiasm for the mission. It is not the best fit when the leader is working with a team of experts who know more than him or her.

  3. The affiliative leader works to create emotional bonds that bring a feeling of bonding and belonging to the organization. If this style were summed up in one phrase, it would be “People come first.” The affiliative style works best in times of stress, when teammates need to heal from a trauma, or when the team needs to rebuild trust. This style should not be used exclusively, because a sole reliance on praise and nurturing can foster mediocre performance and a lack of direction.

  4. The coaching leader develops people for the future. If this style were summed up in one phrase, it would be “Try this.” The coaching style works best when the leader wants to help teammates build lasting personal strengths that make them more successful overall. It is least effective when teammates are defiant and unwilling to change or learn, or if the leader lacks proficiency.

  5. The coercive leader demands immediate compliance. If this style were summed up in one phrase, it would be “Do what I tell you.” The coercive style is most effective in times of crisis, such as in a company turnaround or a takeover attempt, or during an actual emergency like a tornado or a fire. This style can also help control a problem teammate when everything else has failed. However, it should be avoided in almost every other case because it can alienate people and stifle flexibility and inventiveness.

  6. The democratic leader builds consensus through participation. If this style were summed up in one phrase, it would be “What do you think?” The democratic style is most effective when the leader needs the team to buy into or have ownership of a decision, plan, or goal, or if he or she is uncertain and needs fresh ideas from qualified teammates. It is not the best choice in an emergency situation, when time is of the essence for another reason or when teammates are not informed enough to offer sufficient guidance to the leader.

Bottom line? If you take two cups of authoritative leadership, one cup of democratic, coaching, and affiliative leadership, and a dash of pacesetting and coercive leadership “to taste,” and you lead based on need in a way that elevates and inspires your team, you’ve got an excellent recipe for long-term leadership success with every team in your life.

Robyn Benincasa is a two-time Adventure Racing World Champion, two-time Guinness World Record distance kayaker, a full-time firefighter, and author of the new book, HOW WINNING WORKS: 8 Essential Leadership Lessons from the Toughest Teams on Earth, from which this article is excerpted. (Harlequin Nonfiction, June 2012)

[Image: Flickr user Bas Kers]

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33 Comments

  • Leelavathi Subramaniam

    A Great article to follow The author has used her day to day experience to pace the leadership styles. It is all about being flexible in adopting and adapting to situation and how leaders act and react. Coaching and guiding staff towards high performance though need time, ,,, it is critical in order to create a learning platform.

    Thank you very much for sharing your lovely thought

  • This is a good article with interesting insights. One weakness I spot is that it continues the single "CEO at the top" paradigml that is the norm in large corporations (typifying the post-WW2 military model).

    However, many more large privately held firms are increasingly using Co-CEO models as a way to handle the growing global complexities. An emerging term I have seen refers to this as "Orbiting Suns" leadership.

    This model has been seen sporadically in history, with perhaps the best known model being Rich DeVos and Jay Van Andel of Amway Corporation. The "Orbiting Suns Leadership" model is now being effectively used by other huge private international firms such as Rovia (Mike Putman and Mike Flory), an emerging competitor in the Orbitz/Travelocity space. Other major firms include J.M. Smucker, Who;e Foods, SAP and Aeropostale. Certainly worth further exploration as an emerging trend.

  • Abdurahiman Kubsa

    Useful article. The art of driving is governed by the nature of the landscape and the quality of the road. Leadership cannot remain within one style alone due to the potentially encountered different situations the same to driving.

  • Ntllogistics

    I agree with the above article and thats the difference between leading quality and managing quality......

  • LeadershipSkillsHQ

    I totally agree that to be an effective leader, one must learn to wear different hats when dealing with different circumstances . Flexibility is the key for a leader to lead effectively. Different personalities require different approaches on  what leadership styles is appropriate. To cite an example, if an employee is so shy and an introvert,  a leader can use the "coaching leadership" style. The most important thing is that they are able to tap the potentials of their employees and become better persons in the end.

  • vcindex

    Brilliant article, how simply the author has created different set of leadership for us to comprehend. Well this is true not just in corporates but in our everyday life. Coming back to article.... if the objective is to go beyond academic classification, it will do wonders for targeted at current leadership, HR thinkers and future leaders in terms of improving on weak areas, etc. This brilliant insight needs to be taken further to impact on lager scale... 

  • Macker1156

    Great article.  Unfortunately, managers are not doing their job in developing leaders and in too many situations leadership is not rewarded and often considered as very risky

  • edouard

    There is also a Symbiocratic leader. One who believes in his team and understand how all parties of his business ecosystem are equally important. http://symbiocratie.com (in french, only, unfortunately, but I found it interesting)

  • Russell Gary Alker

    I have sometimes found the democratic leadership style is most effective when you need to keep employees informed due to major changes happening within the organisation, and that will affect them, such as divestment of the organisation.
    Another key motivator has also been, to encourage team building and participation, and to encourage employees to develop a sense of personal growth and job satisfaction.
    Excellent post, and easy to read.
    Gary Alker

  • Eliottjack

    Leaders think differently and they have the power to guide their team in the right direction. Good leaders can take strong decisions and work for the improvement of the whole team. The author has mentioned different leadership styles that can be used accordingly for directing the team in a right way to achieve success.

  • jugglingart

    I think everybody has their  own style, and their style is different from other. So in my opinion, the leadership style is not just based on this 6 styles only, there are many style which cannot describe precisely. That is why leadership is called as an art.

  • Ishan_10189

    A very good most. It gave clear idea of entrepreneurship in a precise way.

  • Hmmm.

    Great article, but a somewhat unfortunate choice of illustration. 

    We see half the Rabobank team riding hard at the front of a the peloton to keep their teammate Michael Rasmussen out of the wind. Days later Rasmussen was thrown out of the Tour De France for being a drug cheat. Is there a hidden message here?

  • Leo

    Great article on leadership styles but I believe a great leader is someone who can customize his approach to the personality of his/her people. Just like in martial arts no style is superior above others. One has to know which moves to make in order to conquer the heart of the people. That will lead to leadership success

  • Brad

    Great article - as an FYI, the consulting company that Goleman worked for when he did this research (Hay Group) - has since updated the names of the 6 Leadership Styles to make them more current.  They are now called: Directive, Visionary, Affiliative, Participative, Pacesetting, Coaching.  Its certainly one of the best approaches to leadership I've come across.

  • MindYourOwnBusiness

    I agree, leaders and managers are two different types of people. Some jobs need a strong manager to ensure tasks are done however I have found that most successful business big and small need a leader at the top to move the business forward and develop and nurture the team.

    From my experience, being managed / lead and managing / leading others…

    A manager will get things done to a set time line as cheaply as possible.

    While a leader will look ahead and make sure the right team are in place (which could involve a manager or two) and can cope with what is to come.

    You could say a manager is more reactive and a leader is often more pro-active, what do you think?

    Dom O'Neill
    www.myobshowuk.blogspot.co.uk