The Two Leadership Styles That Can Destroy A Business

Your leadership style has a critical impact on your business. If you're using one of these two styles, you may be doing more harm than good.
September 23, 2013

From Jack Welch and Steve Ballmer to Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama, strong leaders prove that there are many right ways to lead people. Over time, these leaders have developed a specific style of leadership that they've become known for.

But consistently using only one leadership style can prevent you from being the best leader for your business. As the famous Chinese proverb goes, "The wise adapt themselves to circumstances, as water molds itself to the pitcher." This ability to adapt is the mark of a wise leader who has learned that one leadership style doesn't fit all.

In the article "Leadership That Gets Results," Daniel Goleman identifies six types of leadership: coercive or directive  ("Do what I tell you"), authoritative or visionary  ("Come with me"), affiliative or participative ("People come first), democratic ("What do you think?"), pacesetting ("Do as I do, now"), and coaching ("Try this").  

Which Style Is Best?

The good news is, there's no right or wrong leadership style. Just as golfers know to chose from a combination of clubs to play their best round of golf, so a seasoned leader knows how to choose the leadership style that's best suited for a specific situation and the particular people involved. For example, a democratic leadership style is useful when seeking input or trying to build consensus on an issue; an affiliative style is a good choice when it's necessary to intervene in order to mend rifts or to inspire people who are under stressful circumstances.  

And each style brings its own benefits. There are two styles, however, which can be problematic and need to be used with caution. Let's look at these two more closely:

Pacesetter Style

A pacesetter leader is obsessed with getting things done better and faster. He sets the bar high for himself and for others on the team. He prides himself on never asking others to do what he wouldn't do himself. He keeps his eye on the ball at all times, and he doesn't have much time for all the niceties. He is slow to praise and quick to criticize. He doesn't trust others to do as good a job as he would, and he's used to rolling up his sleeves and taking over when things don't move as quickly or as efficiently as he expects.

On the surface, we admire this highly competent leader. After all, this is someone whose drive for excellence and speed is formidable. But when we look behind the curtain, we see that this style comes with many negative side effects. As Goleman's research shows, this style will hurt your business in the long run. "Many employees feel overwhelmed by the pacesetter’s demands for excellence," Goleman notes, "and their morale drops." Guidelines for accomplishing company goals may be clear in the leader’s head, but he hasn't stated them clearly. This leader takes for granted that people know what to do and even thinks, “If I have to tell you, you’re the wrong person for the job.”

Coercive Or Directive Style

The coercive style is one of the least desirable leadership styles. This style is the hallmark of a top-down type of leader who squelches most new ideas before they even have a chance to be explored. This leader feels she knows best. Before long, people stop coming to her with new ideas. Flexibility and initiative are eroded, and people are demotivated. Some even become resentful and stop trying. As Goleman's research shows, people who work for this type of leader feel that their sense of responsibility has evaporated. "Unable to act on their own initiative, they lose their sense of ownership and feel little accountability for their performance," Goleman reports. This is a surefire way to stop your employees from giving you the best of what they have to offer. You never know how much your business stands to lose when you adopt this style.

Self-awareness is the first step toward self-management. Take the Leadership Styles Inventory, which will give you a clear picture of which of the six styles you think you use most often. It will also show you how your employees and colleagues see you—in other words, how you actually come across vs. how you intend to come across. Use the information to make any necessary adjustments.

If you recognize that your leadership style may be leaning toward the pacesetter or coercive models, these three tips can help guide you in a better direction:

1. Temper your approach. Both the pacesetter and the directive styles have their place. For example, when you're dealing with a turnaround situation that requires swift and authoritative action or when you're dealing with a crisis, these two styles help you take charge. However, every strength taken to the extreme becomes a liability.

Temper these approaches with the other leadership styles as needed. For instance, know when you need to dip into the affiliative style by offering a sympathetic ear when things don't go well for your employees. Let them know that you understand their world. Take a personal interest in people's lives, by asking about their families, remembering their spouse's and children's names, and celebrating their birthdays. These are all simple things that add a human touch in our relationships with others.

2. Eliminate fear. One of the hallmarks of a coercive boss is the use of implied or explicit threats to make employees acquiesce. A recent survey done in the UK by development consulting firm Head Heart + Brain, for example, shows that 47 percent of employees feel threatened by their boss. Threatening people may work to make them compliant, but in the long run, it makes companies less productive as everyone is spending more time in self-protective activities than in helping the company achieve results. Threat engenders fear, and fear cripples people's efforts.

One of W. Edward Deming's 14 principles of quality management is eliminating fear. There are many ways to do this:

  • Allow employees to openly express their concerns.
  • Give them opportunities to challenge the status quo.
  • Make it safe for people to test new ideas without being afraid of retribution if they fail.
  • Replace blame with lessons learned—when something goes wrong, use it as a learning opportunity rather than going on a hunt for the culprit.
  • Insist that all your leaders be approachable by anyone in the company.
  • Hold fewer meetings behind closed doors.

3. Be open to ideas from the group. Research conducted by Development Dimensions International shows that a boss is sometimes the biggest impediment to innovation in a company. Fewer than half of all employees surveyed think their boss is receptive to new ideas, and almost one in three suspect that their creative ideas will be killed by organizational bureaucracy. If you're a directive or pacesetter type of leader, confident that your own approach is the best approach, you may be unwittingly squashing creative ideas that can help your company succeed.

In Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration, Warren Bennis talks about "the end of the great man." The myth of the lone ranger—the lone hero—is no longer viable in a shrinking world of technological complexity. Today, greatness and innovation is aided by the coordinated contributions of many talented people. Bennis gives as examples successful companies such as Apple, Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center and Lockheed Martin's Skunk Works. As Bennis says, "None of us is as smart as all of us." So nurture creativity in your company by being open to ideas from a wide range of people. The positive results of this approach might surprise you.

Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd. and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

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