Six Leadership Styles: Selecting the Right Leader

Ref: Primal Leadership: Learning to Lead with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee.

You are the Chairman of the Board of Directors. Your Board must select a new CEO. To succeed, all you have to do is figure out what makes a good leader, a debate that has been ongoing for centuries. You prefer not to wait centuries to make this decision. You have six reasonable candidates, and your organization needs leadership now!

You learn that there is new study that may help, in two ways. First, it shows how leadership affects profitability. The equation goes like this: leadership directly affects the organization’s climate. The quality of the climate accounts for about one third of profitability. Thus, the decision you make about the new leader has the potential to have a huge impact on your bottom line.

Climate is not an amorphous, feel-good word. It is used with precision as a comprehensive term to describe six important elements among workers: how flexible employees are in solving problems; the sense of responsibility employees feel to the organization; the kinds of standards employees have; the effectiveness of rewards the organization uses; the clarity workers have about the organization’s mission and values; and how committed employees feel to the common objectives.

Second, the study assesses how each of six leadership styles affects climate. As good luck sometimes has it, each of the leadership styles fits with one of your candidates.

The Coercive Leader: This person rules by fear. “My way or the highway!” The leader takes charge and invites no contrary opinions. This style had the most detrimental impact on climate in this study. The correlation between coercive leadership and climate was -.26, i.e., as coercion increased, quality of climate declined. But don’t rule out your coercive candidate. This is the leadership style of choice when a company is in crisis. If your organization is in serious trouble, you may want to hire this person. Remember, though, that once the crisis resolves, coercion can create its own crises unless your leader can shift to another style.

The Authoritative Leader: This leader has a powerful ability to articulate a mission and win people to it with enthusiasm. He makes a clear path for followers, cutting away the confusion that exists in most organizations. Followers do not work at cross purposes because a commitment to a common vision is created. This leadership style had a +.54 correlation with climate, the highest correlation of any leadership style. As authoritative behaviors increased, so did the quality of the climate. This style will be particularly effective if your organization needs a new vision. Before making a final determination, however, give yourself the chance to look at the other styles, their impact, and when they work best.

The Affiliative Leader: This leader is a master at establishing positive relationships. Because the followers really like their leader, they are loyal, share information, and have high trust, all of which helps climate. The Affiliative leader gives frequent positive feedback, helping to keep everyone on course. The correlation of this leadership style with climate is +.46. Consider your Affiliative candidate if your organization primarily needs team harmony, improved morale, or if previous events have created an atmosphere of mistrust. The downside of this style is that poor performance of followers sometimes is tolerated out of loyalty.

The Democratic Leader: This leader focuses on decision making by winning consensus. With consensus comes intense commitment to goals, strategies and tactics. Trust is a major feature of this leadership style as well. The correlation with climate is a healthy +.43.This style works particularly well when the leader is genuinely not sure what to do and has talented employees who can and will make excellent input. In assessing your democratic candidate, consider the talent level of direct reports. If they have had time to grow into their jobs and work well as a team, the democratic candidate might be a good choice. Drawbacks of this style include the fact that it works poorly during crises that need rapid action.

The Pacesetter: This leader sets high performance standards for everyone, including himself. He walks the talk. This sounds admirable and has been widely believed to be effective. The data, however, indicate otherwise, with a -.25 correlation with climate. Why? Pacesetters tend to have trouble trusting their followers. Their self esteem rests on being smarter, faster and more thorough than everyone else. They unintentionally undermine the efforts and morale of those around them. Before dismissing your pacesetting candidate, however, look at the followers. If they are already highly motivated, with strong technical skills, a pacesetter can be effective because the followers’ styles and competence already fit with the pacesetter’s expectations.

The Coach: This leader develops people. He is able to recognize talent and how best to develop it. He offers developmental plans, including challenging assignments that push people to cultivate new skills. This leader can see the future and bring out the best in followers. This style has a +.42 correlation with climate. It works best when followers are receptive to personal growth. If your organization is characterized by individuals who are waiting for retirement, don’t hire the coach candidate. If your employees are excited about learning, give the coach a good look. If you hire this candidate, recognize that coaching is time consuming, meaning that this leader will devote less time to other activities.

Decision Time: In making your decision, consider the fit between leadership style and the characteristics of your organization. Even more important, remember that things change. Take one more look at your six candidates. Look for flexibility. The very best leaders are those who have learned how to shift from one leadership style to another as circumstances demand. If one of your candidates shows evidence of being able to move smoothly among several of these six styles, that may tip the balance.

Dana C. Ackley, Ph.D., is founder and CEO of EQ Leader, Inc. He can be reached at (540) 774-1927, or by e-mail at

The comprehensive science based EQ Leader Program builds lasting change in EQ skills that make a dramatic difference in performance.

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