Key Learning Outcomes

  • Learn to adapt your leadership style to your business’s changing circumstances and situations.
  • Outline the six leadership styles described by psychologist Daniel Goleman and used interchangeably by executives.
  • Assess the suitability of your leadership style as your team develop and gain experience.
  • Understand that when your business is experiencing difficulties, you need to determine if your leadership style needs to change.


It has been shown that the most effective leaders change their leadership style depending on the circumstances they find themselves in. Psychologist, Daniel Goleman, famous for his work on emotional intelligence, conducted a study with the US consulting firm The Hay Group to examine the leadership styles of over 3,000 executives worldwide. Goleman discovered six leadership styles and found that, typically, executives would shift styles depending on the setting and situation. His work was published in the Harvard Business Review in 2000 in an article titled “Leadership that Gets Results” and we use this as the basis of this article.[wlm_ismember]

Leadership styles

The six leadership styles Goleman identified were coercive, authoritative, pacesetting, affiliative, democratic and coaching. We will go through each style in detail and describe situations where each could be used very effectively and when care should be taken.


Goleman summed each style up with a phrase and for the coercive leader it is “Do what I tell you”.

The coercive leader demands compliance, is strict and will lead through direct orders. They often use intimidation and bullying tactics and run the business with a top-down mentality. While there may be a need for this style of leadership in moments of crisis or emergency, Goleman found this style to be the least effective in most situations.

Best uses: This style is useful in situations where immediate compliance is required, for example on a battlefield, or in moments of crisis or emergency or where drastic action is required. An examples is when there is physical danger such as due to a fire. This style can also be effective when you have inexperienced staff and a directive approach is needed for a short time.

Cautions: This style is best used for only short periods. If used long term it can produce a negative environment and will affect staff morale. This style is poorly received in creative environments and by professional and experienced staff.


This style is summed up with the phrase, “Come with me”.

Authoritative leaders are often characterised by a high level of charisma and are visionary. Like the coercive leader they seek to drive change and are demanding; however, rather than leading through discipline and bullying they do it with energy and enthusiasm. This style of leadership has been shown to be highly effective in many situations as the vision and standards are made clear and people feel comfortable knowing what needs to be done.

Best uses: This style has been proven to be effective in company turnarounds and takeovers, and when buy-in to a vision or change is required. It is also very useful when motivation and direction are required in difficult circumstances such as pulling a business through a severe economic downturn.

Cautions: This style, like coercive, is commanding and directive and is best used on a short-term basis to set the vision and direction of a business. It may not be received well by those who are creative, highly skilled or experienced as these people will often want to provide input and be involved in the decision-making process.


This style is summed up with the phrase, “Watch and do as I do, now”.

A pacesetting leader is driven by a need for excellence. They lead by example and place the same high demands on employees that they hold for themselves. A pacesetting leader is not tolerant of employees who cannot perform and sees development and training as low priorities, preferring to employ highly skilled and trained individuals who can hit the ground running.

Best uses: Pacesetters can get quick results from highly skilled and motivated teams. This style is used effectively in technology companies where the speed of innovation is important. Pacesetting works best when employees are self-motivated, highly competent and when little or no direction is required.

Cautions: This style can be hard on employees who are constantly being pushed to perform. Morale can suffer as often the leaders’ desire for perfection means that they do not stop to celebrate successes or provide positive feedback. These leaders often have trouble delegating, preferring to keep control and to do things themselves. Employee development can suffer as it is not a priority for a pacesetting leader.


Summed up with the phrase “People come first”.

The affiliative leader seeks to keep employees happy and strives to create a harmonious environment. An affiliative leader is very good at building relationships, is a great communicator and demonstrates high levels of empathy. They are quick to offer positive feedback and this translates into high levels of employee engagement.

Best uses: This style can be effective when a team has been through a difficult experience or when it is necessary to build up staff morale and engagement levels. It can be effective in reducing high levels of staff turnover and in building loyalty.

Cautions: As this style is not goal or task-oriented it can mean that it is not as effective as other styles in getting the job done if used long term.


The phrase used to sum up the democratic style of leadership is “What do you think?”

A democratic style of leadership is very participative and consultative. Management and employees discuss plans and goals, and decision-making is carried out as a collective allowing for high levels of buy-in from everyone. Typically, democratic leaders have excellent communication skills and promote high levels of employee engagement and satisfaction.

Best uses: This style is effective when team buy-in is required for long-term or major change. Once a course of action is decided using this leadership style, results come quickly as there is generally consensus from all parties to move forward.

Cautions: Decision-making can be slow which makes this style ineffective when quick change or results are required. Good ideas and projects can be stalled due to endless meetings and discussions leading to potential frustration and discord within the team.


This style up is summed up with the phrases “Try this” and “I’ll help you”.

The coaching leader is skilled at helping those around them to identify and build on their strengths and improve their weaknesses. They encourage employees to establish goals and work with them to achieve them. Coaching leaders encourage employees to try things and will often delegate challenging tasks and assignments to aid in developing skills within the team. Research shows that the coaching style is the least used of the leadership styles, but is one of the most effective in building a positive culture and improving business performance.

Best uses: This style can be used to increase employee performance levels and for long-term development. Coaching is effective in increasing overall levels of employee engagement and morale. It works best when employees are open to exploring their strengths and weaknesses and are open to change.

Cautions: Coaching can be time consuming for a leader as it requires regular one-on-one consultation with employees. Levels of effectiveness can vary within the team depending on the levels of engagement and acceptance of the process.

Putting the theory into practice

Everyone uses their own preferred style of leadership. Think about your own leadership style; analyse the things you say or how you react in certain situations or when under pressure. For example, if an employee makes a mistake, do you yell at them in the hope that they will not do it again (coercive), or perhaps take them aside calmly and ask why they think things went wrong to try to develop their skills (coaching)? Once you identify your default leadership style you can work on developing and improving the other styles for use in a range of situations and when they might be more appropriate and effective.

A great example of situational leadership would be Steve Jobs, founder of Apple. If you read his story you will see that he was very much a pacesetting leader. He set such high standards for himself and all those around him that he famously lost the support of his board and was forced to resign in 1985. They found his domineering and unreasonable demands outweighed his creative ability and hard work ethic at that time. When he returned to Apple some 10 years later, he had learnt from his mistakes, and while still a demanding and pacesetting leader, his style had evolved to enable him to turn the company around into one of the most successful of all time.

The most effective leaders are able to switch between styles or incorporate more than one style depending on the situation. It is important to think about your business and your team and ensure you are developing your leadership style as they develop and gain experience. For example, if you started your business with an inexperienced team you may have, by necessity, developed an authoritative or coercive style; however, over time this style should have shifted into one that is more democratic or coaching. Tell-tale signs that your leadership style needs some attention are things such as high staff turnover, high levels of absenteeism and a general lack of enthusiasm.

There is an old saying that every business owner would do well to remember: “a fish rots from the head down”. Whenever issues arise in your business, always look to yourself first as the leader of the business to see if you need to work on your leadership style to get better results.[/wlm_ismember]

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