6 powerful leadership styles and when to use them.

There’s not one “best” leadership style. Here are the six best leadership styles you should learn – as well as advice on when to switch between them.

John Crowley • 
6 powerful leadership styles

As you progress through your career as an HR Manager or people manager you’ll be confronted with a range of scenarios and situations where you’ll be expected to show leadership. You might be revitalising a demoralised team, keeping heads focused during an M&A situation, dare we say it, managing a business through an unprecedented pandemic, or simply ensuring that the proverbial ‘super tanker’ stays on course. You know, “steady as she goes”. 

The six distinct leadership styles

Each situation will require a slightly different leadership approach, there is no one-size fits all strategy. Landmark research by Daniel Goleman at Stanford University presented in this paper, Leadership That Gets Results’ that the best leaders use six distinct leadership styles – each in the right amount at the right moment.

These are:

1. The coercive leadership style.

This “Do what I say” approach can be very effective in a turnaround situation, a natural disaster, or when working with problem employees. Over-reliance on this can reduce motivation, initiative, and flexibility. Therefore, in isolation, it is not a sustainable long-term leadership strategy.

2. The authoritative leadership style.

An authoritative leader takes a “Come with me” approach: she states the overall goal but gives people the freedom to choose their own means of achieving it. This is effective when a team or business has lost direction and impetus, but is not thought to be so effective when managing experts with greater knowledge than their manager. 

3. The affiliative leadership style.

The affiliative leader offers a “People come first” attitude, which is effective in building team harmony and boosting morale. This kind of approach emphasises praise, (the carrot over the stick) but can mean that poor performance goes unchecked. The researchers observed that this encouraging style of leadership was great at healing rifts in a team or motivating people under stressful conditions.

4. The democratic leadership style. 

Crowdsourcing employee opinions to support decision-making is a great way to empower employees and generate fresh ideas. It’s particularly useful if you want to build buy-in for a controversial or risky initiative. Again, there is a time and a place for this leadership style, because, in times of high anxiety and uncertainty, a democratic decision-making process can seem misplaced and can make employees feel leaderless.

5. The pacesetting leadership style

This leadership style is characterised by the setting of very high-performance standards and leading by example. This approach is thought to be especially good at galvanising those who are self-motivated and highly competent. But this approach can leave other employees feeling overwhelmed by such an uncompromising demand for excellence. 

6. The coaching leadership style.

As you can imagine this approach focuses more on personal development than immediate work-related tasks. This approach works well for those with an innate learning mindset who want to improve, but less so for others who are resistant to changing their methods. 

The highest performing leaders have mastered 4 or more of those leadership styles, especially the authoritative, affiliative, democratic, and coaching styles, and can switch between these styles as circumstances demand.

Fluid leadership in action

The researchers gave an example of fluid leadership in action:

Jane (not her real name) was a GM brought into a major division of a global food and beverage company that had missed its profit targets by more than £35 million. 

Morale among the leadership team was low and mistrust and resentment were rife, and her job was to turn the failing operation around. The researchers chronicled how Jane had cycled through the affiliate, coaching, authoritative and democratic styles of leadership at critical points and periods to successfully drive her agenda and motivate/refocus her team.

And after only 7 months her division exceeded its yearly profit by £3.5 million. The researchers managed to demonstrate that without this adaptive leadership style, this success is unlikely to have happened.

The role of emotional intelligence (EI)

This fluid leadership style is nice in theory but is harder to implement in practice because research shows that adaptive leaders need to have strengths in five areas of emotional intelligence (EI) which are: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skill. 

The good news is that we can improve our emotional intelligence. This article from Roche Martin, titled 50 tips for improving your emotional intelligence could form the basis of a great leadership training seminar for your managers. It has some highly actionable tips based around these 5 areas of EI which could easily be distilled to your leaders via an internal HR Manager led seminar. 

If HR managers wish to take EI development further, then a comprehensive 360-degree emotional intelligence test can be easily administered through HR software to help identify areas of weakness in EI that should be targeted for improvement.

The modern, rapidly-changing and unpredictable world demands agile organisations that can respond, and pivot, as required. Such agile organisations need to be built on a bedrock of leaders with high emotional intelligence and a fluid leadership style.