Why your leadership style should be leadership styles

Tailoring your leadership approach to the situation is a hallmark of great leadership.

If you think about the leaders you’ve known, you can probably pick out different styles of leadership. And you probably have an opinion about which were effective and which missed the mark. You may have even modeled your own leadership style accordingly.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman identified six common leadership styles in a Harvard Business Review article back in 2000. (You might know Dr. Goleman through his widely read work on emotional intelligence—EI—which we’ve discussed in more detail here and here.)

It turns out the old saying that there’s a time and place for everything also applies to leadership styles. Each of the six leadership styles Dr. Goleman identified draws from different aspects of EI, and each can be very effective depending on the situation. Skilled leaders know how to shift their leadership style to suit both the situation and the people they’re leading.

Let’s look closer at the six styles—Coercive, Visionary, Affiliative, Democratic, Pacesetting, and Coaching—and which situations they are best suited for.

  • Coercive: “Do what I tell you.”
    This style is effective only in limited situations. Think: a crisis that demands immediate action with a clear chain of command. Or when a swift turnaround is needed, whether in a particular project or with a problem employee. Overuse is extremely detrimental to culture and typically leads to disengagement and turnover.
  • Visionary: “Come with me.”
    Goleman originally called this style “authoritative,” but the negative connotation led to a more appealing rename to “visionary.” This style mobilizes people toward a vision, with leaders able to motivate people to see the big picture and work toward it in tangible ways. It creates a positive climate, especially during times of change or uncertainty when clear direction is needed.
  • Affiliative: “People come first.”
    This style is emotional, promoting team spirit and creating a positive, trusting environment where people feel free to open up, contribute, and cooperate toward a common goal. It’s effective to heal riffs in a team or to motivate people during stressful situations. But it needs to be balanced, however, as leaders still need to be able to exert their authority when necessary and make tough decisions.
  • Democratic: “What do you think?”
    Leaders who practice the democratic leadership style empower their teams to participate in decision-making and reach consensus on how to act. It’s a good way to promote ownership among the team and foster engagement and collaboration. But, it can be time consuming, and leaders must still be able to step in and make the final call when the team can’t agree.
  • Pacesetting: “Do as I do, now.”
    A pacesetting leader is performance- and goal-driven, making assignments and setting timelines. It can be very effective with highly skilled and motivated teams, especially when quick results are needed. But when overused, it can also lead to burnout and leave less accomplished performers behind. Proceed with caution!
  • Coaching: “Try this.”
    Leaders who coach focus on developing team members over the long term by understanding each individual’s goals and helping them achieve them. By taking an interest in employees and giving feedback for improvement, coaches help people feel valued and motivate them to stretch and grow. While this personal attention can be quite effective and lead to a positive environment, it’s time consuming and hard to achieve with larger teams.

Hone your skills
You may see yourself or another leader in one or more of these styles. And you may also need some guidance about how to refine your leadership skills in a particular style and how to shift styles as needed.

Each style displays different aspects and levels of emotional intelligence. One of the sessions we frequently build into our Executive Retreats is focused on understanding individual and team leadership styles through Birkman Method workshops. These sessions are valuable to help your whole leadership team better understand themselves and one another. They also help identify and guide opportunities for skill-building or executive coaching to help leaders reach their full potential.

As always, our Executive Retreats are tailored to your needs and what you want to accomplish. Here’s an overview.

Each of the six leadership styles has a time and place. Part of the art of leadership is knowing when—and being able—to apply each one. How are you building that leadership muscle in yourself and others?

Goleman, Daniel, Leadership that Gets Results, Harvard Business Review, March-April 2000.
Knight, Rebecca, 6 Common Leadership Styles—and How to Decide Which to Use When, Harvard Business Review,
April 9, 2024.

How can we help your leaders and business excel?