“The biggest problem I have is getting the right people . . . I need people who can keep up with me and make their own decisions without needing me to hold their hand”. That may well be true, but it’s also possible that it’s just the wrong style of leadership for that situation.
What often happens is that we lead using the way that comes naturally to us, or that we have seen being used by key role models from the past. The quote above is from someone who uses a Pacesetting leadership style. This can be the natural home for experts who lead by example, setting their own high standards which they then expect others to meet. It can be by far the most effective way to lead a small and capable team, with mutual trust and a clear sense of what they’re trying to achieve. When people talk of the Golden Years at work, often there was a Pacesetting leader, making very rapid and creative progress with a small team of trusted followers. It’s a sink or swim mentality where those that thrive have great responsibility and opportunities to learn.
The problem with it is that it can be very hard to scale. Trust and ability sit at its foundations and replicating past success can be very difficult, if not impossible. Furthermore, Pacesetting leaders can intimidate and alienate followers who fail to meet required standards. Even though new staff might have the capacity to reach them, they risk being left behind and losing confidence. Pacesetting leaders might find that eventually they’re shedding new staff at a damaging rate.
What might be necessary at this point is a shift to a new way of leading. Sometimes this doesn’t happen as we simply don’t see that other options are possible or available. Hay McBer, researched and found six key archetypal models of how to lead, following a study of nearly 4,000 executives in many different types of organisations and countries. A key finding was that context had a huge influence on what was the best approach at any one time.
Understanding these models can be invaluable to people who are new to leadership roles as well as those who’ve occupied positions for a long time. I will go into each of them in more detail but they can be summarised as follows:
Coercive “Do what I tell you”, demands immediate compliance.
Authoritative “Come with me”, mobilises people towards a vision.
Affiliative “People come first”, creates harmony and builds emotional bonds.
Democratic “What do you think?”, forges consensus through participation.
Pacesetting “Do as I do now”, sets high standards for performance.
Coaching “Try this”, develops people for the future.
As mentioned, each of these can have its own right time and place. However, there is quantitive analysis that compares and contrasts their efficacy over time, showing that some styles are better more often than others.
Coercive leadership style
It’s maybe not surprising that this style scores worst over time. Whenever I talk about this way of leading I find myself talking about Malcolm Tucker so here’s a link to what I mean. Coercive leaders are sometimes described as presiding over a Reign of Terror. Bullying, demeaning, erratic behaviors are typical. These leaders often intimidate staff and focus exclusively on short term goals.
None of this sounds good but often people have learned early in life or their careers that this is what Leadership is. Despite the many ways this approach conflicts with current cultural and indeed legal expectations it’s still the predominant culture in some work environments. And at times it’s highly effective, for example in a crisis, to kick start a turnaround, or with problem employees.
But the net score for this as way to lead over time is minus 0.26, in other words it degrades rather than builds teams.
Authoritative leadership style
An Authoritative leader paints a clear and vivid picture of where they want to get to. How to get there isn’t their focus, that’s what their followers are trusted to get on with. Actually it’s preferred that they come up with their own solutions to problems and develop autonomy, but within the context of knowing exactly what they’re all shooting for. This is the approach that gets the highest net score of plus 0.54.
Within a larger organisation, this can raise difficult questions about what it IS all for. But I’ve worked with leaders who found ways to create a meaningful vision within an unclear company situation. Creating a sense of challenge and journey can be highly motivating, structures and parameters can be paradoxically liberating.
It does help a lot though if there is a genuinely motivating vision to achieve and in its absence there’s a risk this approach can breed cynicism and the worst management clichés.
Affiliative leadership style
Caring, nurturing, offering praise, emotionally candid, uncritical – this approach can come across as a bit soft. However, it’s the second most effective style over time (plus 0.46) and as ever context is what makes it appropriate or not. Great sports managers (and some celebrity chefs) often make use this style as part of a toolkit.
Jose Mourinho and Gordon Ramsey are well known for their confrontational and Coercive side but away from the cameras spend more time building camaraderie and bringing fragile egos together. And this is a key point about leadership styles: effective leaders often have a toolkit of approaches that they apply rather than a single mode.
The Affiliative style works particularly well with teams that have been rocked by adversity, but if used exclusively, it can lead to mediocrity as poor performance is uncorrected and unchallenged.
Democratic leadership style
There are often times when the insight and opinions of staff and a consensus on what to do are genuinely needed. In fact this is a principal that many leaders pay lip service to; it’s hard to make the case that I don’t care what other people think. The danger is that democracy, in the words of Winston Churchill, can just be the least worst way of running something.
“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”.
The risk of a democratic or participative approach is that it can drag on and at worst be a cover allowing a leader to put off or delay decision making. And depending on your view of the wisdom of crowds, it can encourage a rush to the centre and the choosing of safe options.
But where there is a sense that the democratic process is genuine, not surprisingly it has a powerful motivating effect and makes this another high scoring leadership style (plus 0.43).
Pacesetting leadership style
I mentioned this style at the start: great for getting things done in bursts but hard to sustain in the long run without going off the rails. Consequently it’s the second worst scoring style at minus 0.25.
I often come across over-reliance on this way of leading with clients who have strong personal expertise, for example in design, computer programming, project management or client management. Many careers oscillate between an inward facing priority and an outward facing one.
Take the example of a writer: to start with, the quality of their own work is all that matters and outperforming peers can matter to such an extent that their under-performance might even be desirable. But then the writer becomes an editor and responsible for corralling other talents. Their own writing becomes less important and the success of the group is the key measure of achievement. They’ve moved from an inward priority to an outward one. Their next role often though turns them inward as they become a feature writer and focus on their personal skills and expertise. And so on.
Often the progression from the reputation-creating first role to a more generalist one is accompanied by defaulting to a Pacesetting leadership style until this falters and a crisis begins. At which point coaching on alternative leadership styles can be a great help.
Coaching leadership style
“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. This is the principal of a coaching style of leadership, what I call leading from the back. It’s about allowing staff time and space to learn from their mistakes and find their own best solutions to problems. Again it scores well (plus 0.42) and brings the most out from staff who warrant a high level on confidence in their potential.
The problem with this approach is that events can intrude. Not every critical client meeting is an opportunity for people to learn. An unlike an external coach, a coaching leader has a vested interest in business outcomes that can vye with the desire for staff to develop.
As with all of the leadership styles, there’s a time and a place for this approach, but over-reliance on it in all situations risks unbalance. I’m happy to recommend that an interest in staff development through mentoring or coaching is best supplemented by bringing in the services of an external expert. The involved perspective of the leader can combine very well with the reflective space offered by an executive coach.
Many clients find it useful to analyse their own portfolio of leadership styles based on these six. Identifying their gaps and building up strengths in under-used ones can be a very helpful exercise.