Leadership Styles

By David Newby (Copyright 2020)

Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee (2013) identified 6 leadership styles in their book “Primal Leadership”. Each of these styles has a different effect on people’s emotions, and each has strengths and weaknesses in different situations. Four of these styles (Visionary, Coaching, Affiliative, and Democratic) promote harmony and positive outcomes, while two styles (Pacesetting and Commanding) can create tension, and should only be used in specific situations. Goleman and his co-authors say that no one style should be used all of the time. Instead, the six styles should be used interchangeably, depending on the specific needs of the situation and the people that you’re dealing with.

Leadership StyleHow it builds resonanceImpact on climate of organisationWhen it is appropriateWhen it doesn’t work
VisionaryMoves people towards shared dreamsMostly strongly positiveWhen changes require a new vision or when a clear direction is neededWhen the leader is working with a team of experts or peers who are more experienced or knowledgeable
CoachingConnects what a person wants with the organisation’s goalsHighly positiveTo help an employee improve performance by building long term capabilitiesWhen employees lack motivation or require excessive direction and feedback or when the leader does not have the knowledge or sensitivity needed to help the employee along
AffiliativeCreates harmony by connecting people to each otherPositiveTo heal rifts in a team, motivate during stressful times or strengthen connectionsThe affiliative style should not be used exclusively as                                        this can allow poor performance to go uncorrected and cause employees to perceive that mediocrity is tolerated
DemocraticValues people’s input and gets commitment through participationPositiveTo build buy-in or consensus or to get valuable input from employeesSometimes it seems like the process is more important than getting the job done
PacesettingMeets challenging and exciting goalsBecause too frequently poorly executed often highly negativeTo get high-quality results from a motivated, competent teamThis style tends to be low on guidance and assumes that people know what to do. It can lead to exhaustion and decline
CommandingSoothes fears by giving clear direction in an emergencyBecause so often misused, highly negativeIn a crisis, to kick-start a turnaround or with problem employeesGreat emotional control is required by the leader and they can be seen to cold and distant 

Kurt Lewin in his book Field theory in social science reminds us that behaviour (B) is a function of both the person (P) and the environment (E). B=f(P,E). We could therefore argue that Leadership behaviour is a function of a particular personality type working within a particular context. It may be that when a particular personality type encounters a certain context, a particular type of behaviour is likely to ensue. It does not help to tell someone to behave differently without addressing the contextual factors causing their particular personality type to behave in that way.  We cannot look at leadership style in isolation. We need to look at both the person and the organizational context.

Ideally leaders should be accessing all of the leadership styles in what one would term a “situational leadership” approach. Whilst certain leadership styles come more easily to certain leaders, adopting a style most likely to achieve the outcome we hope for is what we should aspire to.


Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee. 2013. Primal Leadership, Boston MA: Harvard Business School Publishing

Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science. New York: Harper and Row.