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The six styles of leadership


August 11, 2022

One of the topics we commonly include in our Leadership Development training is the different styles of leadership.

We work with managers to help them become more aware of their natural leadership styles and learn how to adapt their approach to differing situations.

Much of this development is based on the work of consulting firm Hay/Mcber and emotional intelligence expert Daniel Goleman, which identified six styles of leadership and how each one should be employed.

Researching leadership styles

The principle that there is a direct link between a leader’s emotional intelligence/style of leadership and tangible business results was first muted by psychologist David McClelland in the 1980s. He identified that leaders who demonstrated strengths in six or more areas of emotional intelligence were far more effective than those who didn’t. Their departments tended to outperform their annual targets by 15 to 20%.

This became the basis of more detailed leadership styles research, published in 2000, which studied the behaviour of 3,871 executives. From data analysis and observational work, the researchers noted specific leadership behaviours and their impact on the workplaces “climate”. (Climate being defined as the levels of flexibility, sense of responsibility, standards of work, suitability of rewards, clarity of vision/mission and level of commitment to that common purpose).

Six leadership styles were identified which have a measurable effect on the company’s climate:

  1. Coercive
  2. Authoritative
  3. Affiliative
  4. Democratic
  5. Pacesetting
  6. Coaching

They found that leaders who used leadership styles that positively affected the climate achieved greater financial results for their company.

You can read a full copy of the research here (note that a subscription is required to access it).

1. The coercive style (aka the “directive” style)

“Do what I tell you”

The coercive leader demands immediate compliance. They make the decisions, take action and expect everyone to follow them.

Paramedic standing next to ambulance
In emergency situations a strong, coercive leadership style can be essential to save lives. But how often is this really needed in the average workplace?

When to use the coercive style of leadership

This style of leadership is useful in a very limited number of situations, generally involving some sort of crisis. This might be an emergency situation or a sudden downturn in the business’ performance.  It can be useful to give direct instructions to someone new to a task.

When to not use the coercive style of leadership

When there isn’t a crisis the coercive style is the least effective of the leadership styles. People will quickly reject this form of leadership, losing job satisfaction and their sense of purpose.

It will quickly reduce the company’s ability to adapt and can have a devastating effect on employee motivation.

2. The Authoritative style (aka “visionary”)

“Come with me”

An authoritative leader gives their people a clear goal, but allows them flexibility in choosing how to achieve it.

Leader with colleagues
An authoritative leader will inspire their people to follow them, but allow them to do so in their own way.

When to use the authoritative style of leadership

The Hay/McBer research suggests that the authoritative style of leadership is the most effective at improving the climate in a company and, therefore, increasing business performance.

This type of leader sets out clear goals and channels all the company’s resources into achieving them. This gives the people in the organisation clarity of vision. By allowing them to find their own ways to achieve the goal, it also motivates them and encourages innovation.

An authoritative leader is particularly useful in businesses which are underperforming, where there’s a need to refocus people and set new challenges.

When to not use the authoritative style of leadership

While generally the most successful approach, for teams who are already performing highly the authoritative style can be less effective. The manager can be perceived as out-of-touch or overbearing – their authoritative style being seen as “overkill” if the team is already well-focused and successful.

3. The affiliative style

“People come first”

This is a highly empathetic style of leadership which focuses on communication and building relationships.

The leader offers frequent, positive feedback and gives their people the freedom to work in the way that suits them.

Team members using Facetime
During the height of the covid pandemic affiliative leadership helped people to cope with the changes and stay motivated.

When to use the affiliative style of leadership

Where there’s conflict, stress, a breakdown in trust or poor morale in a team, the affiliative style of leadership can help to focus attention on employee wellbeing, rebuild collaboration and re-energise team spirit. It’s really useful during times of change.

The principle of valuing each individual and promoting harmony within the team can reap great rewards in terms of employee motivation, communication and loyalty.

The flexibility and feeling of trust this gives people allows them to find new, innovative ways of working together.

When to not use the affiliative style of leadership

While improving morale in the short term, the lack of correcting poor performance may, over time, impact the effectiveness of the team.

The absence of decisive leadership can also create uncertainties, with employees feeling unable to move forward with their work.

The affiliative style is, therefore, often used in conjunction with the authoritative style; the two approaches complementing each other perfectly.

4. The democratic style

“What do you think?”

The democratic style of leadership endeavours to give everyone in the company an equal voice in decision making.

Colleagues at a team meeting
A democratic style can be useful to give your team a sense of responsibility, so long as you don’t end up just going round in circles.

When to use the democratic style of leadership

By involving everyone in making decisions about the company’s future, leaders increase innovation, flexibility and each employee’s sense of responsibility.

Where a leader needs guidance from their team before making a decision it can be an excellent way to get the expert input and fresh points of views needed for the best outcome.

It’s also a good approach in situations where you need to build trust or get buy-in. When people feel they are involved and share in the decision making they are more likely to support tough decisions.

When to not use the democratic style of leadership

Leaning too heavily on this style of leadership can create an environment where your people feel that, effectively, they don’t have a leader. In fact, some leaders opt for a democratic approach as a way of putting off difficult decisions, or trying to pass the buck.

Continual decision-by-committee can lead to an endless stream of meetings to discuss the way forward and progress stalling.

5. The pacesetting style

“Do as I do, now.”

Where leaders set out to exemplify only the highest standard of performance, expecting others to follow, this is a pacesetting style of leadership.

They are quick to identify areas of the business which are not performing highly enough and take swift action to remedy this.

While they have a clear vision in their heads, pacesetting leaders often fail to communicate this well. This lack of clarity and task-focus can undermine people’s motivation and enjoyment at work.

Colleagues working late in the office
Some people may thrive under the pressure of a continually pacesetting leader, however they tend to be in the minority.

When to use the pacesetting style of leadership

When you have self-motivating people who are also highly competent in their jobs, the pacesetting style of leadership can be an excellent way to drive performance.

Nevertheless it should always be balanced with other leadership styles, otherwise even people who enjoy the challenge of keeping up with their leader’s pace will start to feel demoralised about the lack of clarity and positive feedback.

When to not use the pacesetting style of leadership

While useful in some situations, like the coercive style of leadership, pacesetting should be used sparingly.

While the continual drive for high performance, and removal of underperforming people and processes, may appear to be a successful mix, under the surface they can do severe damage to the business’ climate.

A pacesetting leader can be very demotivating for employees who can’t, or don’t have the confidence to, mirror their manager’s incessant high performance. Often, they don’t even know what is expected of them because their leader doesn’t stop for long enough to explain things clearly.

And mistrust can build when the leader appears to swoop in and take tasks away when they’re not immediately done to their exacting standards.

6. The coaching style

“Try this.”

A coaching leader concentrates on developing the people in their team, rather than focusing on their tasks.

They take mistakes to be opportunities to learn and develop, and support their people in doing so.

The researchers discovered that this is the least used of all the leadership styles. Many managers feel that they don’t have the time (or perhaps inclination?) for coaching their team. However, the benefits of this approach are overwhelmingly position for the majority of people (as is the resulting improvement in performance), so it’s definitely a good tool to have at your disposal.

Manager and colleague
A little one-to-one time can reap a lot of rewards.

When to use the coaching style of leadership

A coaching style of leadership is useful in virtually every situation. It can be particularly effective in teams who are already self-aware and driven to improve their personal performance – ie where the people want to be coached.

It encourages constant two-way dialogue, which opens the door to improve every aspect of the company’s climate. It encourages ownership of the process and the result by the team members.  The result is a team which knows what they need to achieve, and feels motivated and supported to get there in the way that suits them.

When to not use the coaching style of leadership

When team members don’t have a desire to improve their personal performance (perhaps because they’re not aware of the opportunities to improve, or simply lack ambition) a coaching style of leadership can seem overbearing or pointless.

In addition, where the leader lacks expertise or experience, the coaching can backfire by emphasising their lack of ability and undermining their team’s trust in them. This is why we often include a Coaching Skills masterclass in our Leadership Development programmes.

Which leadership style is best?

Of course, things aren’t that straightforward. In our leadership development training we can’t just say “adopt this style and all will be well”, it simply isn’t the case.

Great leaders need to have the self-awareness and circumspection to switch fluidly between leadership styles as each situation requires.

Having said that, in general a focus on the authoritative, affiliative, democratic and coaching styles of leadership will help you to create the optimal climate in your organisation and, therefore, maximise performance.

Which doesn’t mean to say that the coercive and pacesetting styles of leadership don’t have their place – however you should only use them sparingly where a situation clearly demands it, otherwise they can do far more damage than good.

Learn how to hone your leadership styles

Few leaders have all six styles readily available in their toolkit, let alone the well-honed instincts to know when each one should be deployed.

But, like all skills, these can be learned. The improvement in your company’s performance, and your own morale, will make this time very well spent.

We work with organisations to develop bespoke development plans for their leaders, giving them the tools and techniques to refine their leadership styles, gain confidence and achieve more for themselves and their businesses.

We also offer one-to-one executive coaching to develop these skills on a more personal level.

Call us on 01444 702 701 for a free 15 minute consultation to discuss the leadership strengths you currently have and how you’d like to expand them further.

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