When Being a Visionary Isn’t Enough

Being a far-seeing innovator won’t inspire everyone. The best leaders have multiple styles, says best-selling author Daniel Goleman.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry. His latest book, "Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body," is available now. 

Dylan was a young entrepreneur who founded a tech startup. His vibrant enthusiasm and smart ideas for innovative products—hallmarks of a visionary leader—led his business to quickly flourish. At first, talented people and venture capital flowed his way. But as his business continued to grow, Dylan encountered some problems.

In critical meetings with investors, he came across as pompous and unwilling to listen to advice from those with more experience and expertise. Dylan’s new hires found him overbearing. After the first few exciting years building his business from the ground up, he’d grown accustomed to having a hand in every aspect of the startup. Instead of delegating to his employees, he micromanaged them.

Visionary leadership can be the most versatile of leadership styles. The ability of someone to motivate people toward a shared dream in a positive way cannot be underestimated. These leaders create a positive emotional climate and workers are inspired to give their best efforts. Even when a business goes a bit adrift, a visionary leader can see the big picture and garner support for new, innovative ideas.

Despite its versatility, however, the visionary style won’t work in every situation. As Dylan found, the approach can make a leader appear out-of-touch when working with people with more experience and can come across as overbearing to a highly-competent team. Dylan’s visionary style was effective for getting his startup off the ground, but he needed to develop new styles as his leadership responsibilities evolved.

For his meetings with investors and experts in his field, Dylan found the democratic style, where a leader listens and tries for consensus, particularly successful. By listening to these stakeholders and opening to fresh ideas, Dylan gained the trust, respect, and commitment of his investors and advisors. 

With his employees Dylan tried something else: the affiliative style. Affiliative leaders are natural relationship builders and create a sense of harmony for their employees. Dylan, once a micro-manager, now gave people the freedom to choose the most effective way to do their jobs. Communication with his team became clearer and more effective.  Dylan added another element of affiliative leadership: positive, motivating feedback to his employees. That improved morale.

When Dylan needed to take some time off while his mother underwent surgery, he felt comfortable sharing his emotions openly with his team and thanked key folks for the contributions they made to ensure he could take time off on such short notice.

While expanding your repertoire of leadership styles might not come naturally, doing so offers tremendous payoffs. If there is a particular leadership style you want to hone, I recommend identifying the emotional intelligence competencies and skills that comprise it. For example, if you want to develop the democratic style, strengths in teamwork, collaboration, and communication are vital. This more granular approach makes it easier to strengthen a leadership style. And, of course, the guidance of a coach can help you develop and apply competencies to fit your goals, whatever your aspirations.

Bottom line: The more leadership styles you have in your repertoire the better.

Click here to learn more about Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence Coaching Certification.