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In a Nutshell: 6 Primal Leadership Styles

The Six Primal Leadership Styles, Six Emotional Leadership Styles, Six Resonant Leadership Styles, or sometimes referred to simply as Goleman’s Leadership Styles is a notable framework in the literature on organisational leadership and emotional intelligence...

In significant part because it is based on a joint research effort, draws on data from thousands of executives from multiple sources, makes links to neurology, defines the styles in terms of their effectiveness, and is advanced by Daniel Goleman (whom many will recognise as the populariser of the term emotional intelligence).

The six primal leadership styles each influence performance positively or negatively through the process of emotional contagion or emotional impact on followers and organisational climate, referred to as “resonance” when the effect is positive; “dissonance” when negative.

It should be emphasised that each style has its place in the leader’s toolkit and works best under different organisational conditions. No style is recommended as a permanent leadership mode in all situations, applied to all groups at all times. The first four styles are usually positive overall, while the last two styles are often negative.

From best to worst, the six styles are outlined below.

1. Visionary

The Visionary Leader inspires, motivates, and guides others towards shared dreams. This style is best suited to situations where a new vision is required or when an organisation needs to move in a different direction. The focus is on the big picture, rallying support, gaining buy-in, broadcasting hope, building the brand, connecting organisational interests to people’s own interests, and having discussions that centre around the vision, mission, values, and goals, without getting drawn into the details of daily tasks. The Visionary is the most likely of the six leadership styles to have a strong positive impact on climate.

The Visionary Leader is likely to be ineffective if people sense a lack of sincerity, especially if it seems like the leader does not really believe in the vision they are attempting to sell to others. When the vision being articulated is too far removed from the workers’ day-to-day experience or the executive team’s agenda and expertise, the leader runs the risk of sounding naïve, idealistic, or out of touch. Applying this style without empathy or having a good sense for how others are feeling and failing to read emotional currents is another potential pitfall. To be effective, people must be guided, not forced, towards a shared vision.

2. Coaching

The Coaching Leader achieves performance through the release of human potential. This style takes a genuine interest in people and gets to know each individual on a personal level, not shying away from deep conversations about dreams, aspirations, and career goals. They make people feel appreciated foremost for who they are, not just what they can achieve for the business. The Coaching style looks to enhance strengths and mitigate weaknesses, sets challenging assignments and stretch goals, and provides constructive feedback to help team members grow. An organisation is strengthened through having capable, engaged, loyal staff, which is the ultimate positive effect of the coaching style.

Where the Coaching style can go wrong is when people do not believe the leader has their best interests at heart, particularly when employees are treated as a means to an end or when the leader appears to be more interested in their own agenda and issues than in the understanding the personal needs of others. Leaders who lack the capacity for empathy will have difficulty linking organisational goals to individual interests. Poorly executed, the coaching style can seem like micromanagement: the difficulty lies in giving ongoing performance feedback without being overbearing.

3. Affiliative

The Affiliative Leader fosters harmony through a collaborative, team-oriented approach. This style places a high value on emotional support, which can help to build close personal ties and strengthen loyalty during difficult times. The Affiliative Leader is generally open about sharing their feelings and tends to be perceived by others as friendly, relaxed, and undemanding. Performance is positively impacted through a strong focus on teamwork and human connection. This style is most effective in environments where relationships are central to doing business and where trust needs to be constructed or rebuilt.

A major potential drawback to the Affiliative style is their focus on feelings at the expense of performance. The tendency to avoid confrontation means that staff don’t receive enough critical constructive feedback and thus their professional growth can suffer. The reluctance to hurt others’ feeling may lead to poor performance and mediocrity being accepted as the norm. When agreement is valued over candour, the Affiliative style may not hear bad news from those around them until it’s too late.

4. Democratic

The Democratic Leader places a high value on group input and arriving at decisions through collective participation. This style is interested in keeping people in the loop, exposing blind spots, and honestly hearing concerns. Knowing the danger of being out of touch, they seek advice from diverse perspectives and invest time in gathering relevant opinions. Their goal is to be as informed as possible before proceeding forward. Because the Democratic Leader makes it safe for staff to speak up about problems, they’re able to promote transparency, build community, and support the free exchange of information.

Significant drawbacks to the Democratic style concern the time involved in meeting people to understand the issues and their slowness in making decisions. This is most dangerous during times when quick action is required, such as a crisis or turnaround. While time is expended on gathering information, market conditions can shift, leading to competitors gaining a strategic advantage. Other potential risks to the Democratic style lie in gathering information from people who are not fully informed as well as preferring the general consensus view rather than favouring expertise from those with specialised knowledge. The longer a decision is left open, the greater the risk of confusion, conflict escalation, and lack of confidence in the leader’s ability.

5. Pacesette

The Pacesetter Leader is strongly focused on hitting targets and pushing high levels of performance. Driven to win and concerned with maintaining high standards of excellence, this style is most appropriate in situations where there is a focus on growth, meeting deadlines, and achieving ambitious targets. This style gets the most from a team that is talented and requires little direction. They are generally challenge-oriented, hard-driving, and not afraid to make personnel changes when performance lapses.

The impact on team morale is a significant cost to the Pacesetter’s style. They may appear to care more about getting results than valuing the people responsible for those results. There is also the danger of letting long-term innovation and employee development slide while productivity and bottom-line results are emphasised. Pacesetters can be impatient with poor performance and have a tendency to intervene in the affairs of others and assert their authority. Although this style can be effective in boosting short-term results, its forceful execution often leads to an overall negative effect on culture and its application is therefore recommended sparingly.

6. Commanding

The Commanding Leader is focused on getting results through decisive action. The style is most appropriate during times when clear direction is required or when tough decisions need to be made. Sometimes what a company needs most to survive and thrive is a leader with the fortitude to make a bold but unpopular decision. The command-and-control style is typified in the military where orders are given and expected to be followed without explanation or questioning. The Commanding style is the least effective overall of the six styles, however, like the Pacesetting style, has its place in the leader’s toolkit when used judiciously.

There are many potential risks and downsides to the Commanding style. Demanding by nature, team morale is often the first casualty. The longer the Commanding style is used, the more stress and dissatisfaction are likely to rise; they are known to drive away talent. Although forceful tactics can get dramatic results, the Commanding leader needs to ensure their aggressive tactics are aimed at tasks, systems, and cultural practices, not focused on attacking individuals personally. Praise or personal concern, if given at all, can be a rarity. Perhaps the most significant downside is the climate of fear created by a forceful leadership style, which can have negative effects that spill over to customers and other key business relationships.

In their book "Primal Leadership” (2002) authors Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee contend the most effective leaders “act according to one or more of six distinct approaches to leadership and skilfully switch between the various styles depending on the situation.”

Theo Winter

Theo Winter

Client Services Manager, Writer & Researcher. Theo is one of the youngest professionals in the world to earn an accreditation in TTI Success Insight's suite of psychometric assessments. For more than a decade, he worked with hundreds of HR, L&D and OD professionals and consultants to improve engagement, performance and emotional intelligence of leaders and their teams. He authored the book "40 Must-Know Business Models for People Leaders."

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