Mastering New Leadership Styles

Credit: Wikimedia

“The best leaders master multiple leadership styles”, blithely comments some post on leadership. OK, including one written by me. But how? Many leaders are overly reliant on a style and this can hold them back. Generally leadership styles are a function of emotional intelligence, and working on emotional intelligence, such as working on becoming more coachable may help, but how to work on this aspect specifically?

That depends on the style you want to build out. In 2000, Daniel Goleman published research in the Harvard Business Review identifying six main styles of leadership, each originating from different aspects of emotional intelligence—Pacesetting, Authoritative, Affiliative, Coaching, Coercive and Democratic. Even though our expectations of the workplace and of our managers have changed in that time, these styles are still a useful place to start in considering what situations call for and the styles we tend to default to ourselves.

Pacesetting

Pacesetting leaders expect excellence and self-direction.  A leader who sets high performance standards and exemplifies them himself has a very positive impact on employees who are self-motivated and highly competent. But other employees tend to feel overwhelmed by such a leader’s demands for excellence—and to resent his tendency to take over a situation.

When is it useful?

Pacesetting is for those times where there’s just a lot to be done. Maybe you’re digging out a backlog, or surviving an intense period. Direction should be very clear, with minimal need for collaboration or experimentation.

What do you need?

Stamina and focus. The pacesetting leader is rarely known for their work life balance. You need to be ruthless in saying no to the things that are not core to your effectiveness.

Situations to seek out?

Look for the numerically measurable problem, where everything is fixable by just Doing The Work. Just make sure it’s not indefinite, and that you have what you need to be successful.

Shift your mindset

High expectations of other people are key to the pacesetting leadership style, and what distinguishes the pacesetter from the general hard working leader. Most of the hardest working leaders know they cannot expect the same level of dedication from their teammates – their commitment and work ethic are often what has propelled them up the ladder. However to be a pacesetting leader, you need to demand excellence from your teammates, which means you need to have a clear idea of what excellence is, and be prepared to set expectations accordingly. Some people may match the style without you saying anything; others may have to be told.

I suspect one of the reasons why pacesetting has a negative affect on teams is that pacesetters over rely on working harder and miss the point where they need to work smarter instead. Make sure that you deploy this style when working harder will make the difference – and switch to another style when it won’t. 

Authoritative

Authoritative leaders mobilize people towards a vision. An authoritative leader takes a “Come with me” approach: she states the overall goal but gives people the freedom to choose their own means of achieving it. This style works especially well when a business is adrift. It is less effective when the leader is working with a team of experts who are more experienced than he is.

When is it useful?

Authoritative is helpful when you have a new, or lost team, that needs a way forward. 

What do you need?

Well-founded confidence in the domain and your own expertise, the ability to tell a compelling story about what the team is doing and why. 

Situations to seek out?

Seek out a problem where you have a strong reputation and deep expertise. Potentially a slight adjustment or repeat of something you have done before. This might seem a little dull – who wants to do the same thing again? – but will allow you to be more definitive and work more quickly.

Shift your mindset

The differentiator of the authoritative leaders is confidence. They believe they know the way, and they will lay out the path to get there. To take on this style, you need to believe that you know how to address the situation. This doesn’t mean not listening to other people, but it does mean fitting that information into your model and pushing things forward. This style is best adopted when it comes based on a reputation earned elsewhere, ideally nearby, so you need to be able to take pride and believe in your past accomplishments, too.

Affiliative

Affiliative leaders create emotional bonds and harmony. The hallmark of the affiliative leader is a “People come first” attitude. This style is particularly useful for building team harmony or increasing morale. But its exclusive focus on praise can allow poor performance to go uncorrected. Also, affiliative leaders rarely offer advice, which often leaves employees in a quandary.

When is it useful?

This style is incredibly useful when healing a broken team, or bringing together a team exhausted (perhaps by the pacesetting style…).

What do you need?

Patience and empathy. You need to be willing to hear people out, give people space, and let some amount of chaos happen as the team evolves. 

Situations to seek out?

Look for the team you believe in, that you can see has had a hard time as a result of outside forces. Maybe you take over from a bad leader, or at the end of a difficult time (e.g. a team that has been scaling).

Shift your mindset

Affiliative leaders believe that the responsibility for team health and culture lies with leadership. It means taking a deep and personal responsibility for the culture of the team, and working to create an environment where everyone can be successful. You will need to rank team goals after team health (and have the space to do so).

Coaching

Coaching leaders develop people for the future. This style focuses more on personal development than on immediate work-related tasks. It works well when employees are already aware of their weaknesses and want to improve, but not when they are resistant to changing their ways.

When is it useful?

This style is useful when there’s been a lack of personal development, for example people haven’t been getting feedback, or when stretch assignments come without support. It can unlock a huge amount of capacity in your team or organization. 

What do you need?

Patience and optimism.

Situations to seek out?

Look for situations where people haven’t been set up to succeed, but who have done okay under the circumstances. For instance, people who were reporting to someone who didn’t make time for them. Pay attention to how coachable they are, and how they view team responsibilities.

Shift your mindset

Coaching leaders believe in each individual. Shifting to this style means shifting your mindset and evaluating each individual on the team not against your expectations, but against their best selves. Coaching leaders are a buffer who believe more in people who don’t believe in themselves; this creates a balance against those who tend to over-confidence (and failing upwards).

Coercive

Coercive leaders demand immediate compliance. This “Do what I say” approach can be very effective in a turnaround situation, a natural disaster, or when working with problem employees. But in most situations, coercive leadership inhibits the organization’s flexibility and dampens employees’ motivation.

When is it useful?

As much as we don’t like to admit it, at times, as leaders, our job is to tell people what to do. People who embrace this style do it too much, but we all need to be willing to use it at times.

What do you need?

Conviction.

Situations to seek out?

Moments where you know you are right and someone else is wrong, and it’s your job to tell them so.

Shift your mindset

Dig into that righteous anger and channel it, even if you don’t express it fully. Personally, I am never more icily British than when I am consumed with rage; the last time I deployed this style the conversation started, “A note on etiquette…”

Democratic

Democratic leaders build consensus through participation. This style’s impact on organizational climate is not as high as you might imagine. By giving workers a voice in decisions, democratic leaders build organizational flexibility and responsibility and help generate fresh ideas. But sometimes the price is endless meetings and confused employees who feel leaderless.

When is it useful?

There’s a reason why most new leaders start with around 90 days of listening; this style is incredibly useful for a new leader building credibility in a new organization, as it ensures that everyone feels heard and maximizes buy in. This style can be useful even when you are confident you have a good idea of what’s going on, as you can diffuse resentment by showing you are listening and making people feel heard.

What do you need?

Patience. The leeway to invest time up front in exchange for increased buy in later.

Situations to seek out?

Seek out situations where you know what you don’t know, and where building the knowledge to be effective is part of your remit so you’ll be given the time to do so.

Shift your mindset

The mindset of the democratic leader is we will make better decisions together. They would sooner have the “best” 100% result of the collective than the 80% the individual might create alone. They are willing to prioritize that buy in, consistently, even when there are pressures that might make a more expedient solution more appealing.

Where to Begin?

It helps to start with the end in mind. The goal is some level of comfort with all of these styles, even if you tend to use some of them very sparingly.

The easiest way may be to build around, starting with what you’re comfortable with. If you default to affiliative (as many new managers do), start adding the democratic style and making sure that decisions are made. Work on getting better at coaching people. These three styles are incredibly compatible with each other, and mastering them alone will take you a long way. Eventually, though, you will need to branch out.

If you need to make a more extreme change, either because you are reaching the limits of your effectiveness or in response to feedback, it may be harder.

If you fall on the “softer” side – affiliative, democratic, coaching – seek out or embrace a situation where combining the authoritative and pacesetting styles is warranted. It should be relatively timeboxed, so know that once you’re out the other side your other leadership strengths will allow you to deepen and continue your impact. Make sure that you have (well-founded) confidence, and the support you need to be effective, like a coach and supportive friends to get real with, because you’ll need to continually project that confidence to the team, even if you don’t always feel it yourself.

If you fall on the “harder” side – coercive, pacesetting – try embracing the democratic or coaching styles more actively (they are less emotional than the affiliative style). Find some people whose potential you believe in and work on developing them, seek out situations where you have influence rather than authority and lean into it, for example working across the org. You’ll have to take a deep breath and accept that progress won’t happen on the timeframe you think it should, but then… did it ever, anyway?

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