Matching Leadership Styles to Situations

Should leaders use the same leadership style to lead every individual in the same way, in all types of situations?

  • Great leaders adapt to specific situations and people
  • Great leaders meet people where they are 
  • Great leaders meet the moment with situational leadership

Scholars and social scientists, Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis, in their book, Primal Leadership lay out six “styles of leadership”.  Most of us have either experienced these styles from leaders or coaches in our past, and many of us have even deployed these styles at certain times, in certain situations over the years.  The key takeaway is that the best leaders understand how to toggle from one “style of leadership” to another, at the right times, for specific situations, such that their messages, inspirations, and motivations resonate with those they lead.

Here are the six styles and some ideas for when to deploy them as you and the leaders on your team navigate the daily challenges facing all of us:

Visionary Style

When employing the visionary style, a leader is constantly and passionately sharing their vision with others in a compelling way, highlighting how everyone can contribute to the cause; allowing the leader and the team to move forward, together with a clear view of the future.

Affiliative Style

When employing the affiliative style of leadership, the leader promotes harmony with the team and partners, building trusting teams and partnerships that feel connected to one another.

Coaching Style

When employing the coaching style of leadership, the leader seeks partnership through collaboration and creativity, and actively pursues developing others around them.  

Democratic Style

When employing the democratic or participative style of leadership, the leader enlists the help, counsel, and contribution from team members in making decisions by committee.  Using this style is effective when the team has varying points of view about a problem or issue at hand.  The leader can bring multiple parties together, encourage some healthy debate, and reach a compromise in which everyone feels a part of the solution.

Pacesetting Style

When employing the pacesetting style of leadership, the leader sets very high standards for performance and pace; always urging team members to do better, faster.  Daniel Goleman and other scholars and experts advise using this style sparingly, as it can undercut any progress the leader has made in building a trusting and comfortable environment.  If this style is used, the recommendation is to use it in conjunction with the coaching or visionary styles, to temper the delivery and feeling it creates among the team.

Commanding Style

When employing this style, the leader becomes forceful, direct, and tough; as they are focused on bottom-line results, not afraid to make unpopular decisions, and they will do anything to achieve their goals.  Again, experts suggest and as you may be thinking, leaders should use this style sparingly as well.  If it’s used, it should certainly be used in conjunction with the visionary, affiliative, and coaching styles to temper the delivery.  Otherwise, if used on its own, it can demoralize the team, effectively shutting some people down.

Bringing it all together:

The reason we want to highlight each of these styles isn’t for you to pick one style and one style only.  It’s so you begin to see that for certain situations and people, you may need to leverage one style or a couple of styles in tandem with one another.  For other situations and people, you may need to leverage completely different styles.  

The goal is for all of us, as leaders in our journey toward self-mastery, to be able to charismatically toggle in and out and between each leadership style, matching the style to the situation that connects best with people.  Remember, unless or until we establish strong connections with people on a human level, we will struggle to inspire and influence them to become their best. 

A simple exercise to put this into action — Identify at least one person or situation for which you’ll employ each of the following leadership styles:

  • Visionary Style – Whom or what may need to hear your vision for the future and how things will be better once you arrive.
  • Coaching Style – Whom or what situation may need your development, encouragement, or coaching to help someone or a process improve?
  • Affiliative Style – Whom or what situation may need you to promote harmony and collaboration among key stakeholders?
  • Democratic Style – Whom or what situation may need you to bring together multiple key stakeholders, enlist their collective advice or healthy debate to arrive at a decision to be made?