What's Your Leadership Style?

The strongest leaders have more than one way to motivate people, Daniel Goleman writes.

Daniel Goleman, author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence,” is a regular contributor to Korn Ferry.

At 9 a.m., Emma met with a skilled team effective on day-to-day assignments but lacking a broader view of the company’s goals. She articulated a shared mission and the big picture, which got them motivated and headed in the right strategic direction.

At 10 a.m., she joined a group having a crisis after an overnight fire destroyed the warehouse of one of the company’s key suppliers. She knew that an emergency like this meant she needed to take a directive approach; she tasked group members to plan work-arounds and initiated a customer service response to manage delayed deliveries.

At 1 p.m., Emma headed to a session with a team that had lost most of its senior members after a recent wave of reassignments. She adopted a coaching role, helping the group recognize their missing skills and devising a way to quickly build the team’s capabilities.

By mid-afternoon Emma had already used three different leadership styles. To be an effective leader in today’s changing world, you need more than a one-size-fits-all approach to leadership. You must adjust your leadership style to face the challenges of the moment.

First, a quick review. Here are several leadership styles that produce a positive work climate and outstanding performance:

  • Visionary leaders articulate a shared mission and give long-term direction.
  • Participative leaders get consensus to generate new ideas and build commitment.
  • Coaching leaders foster personal and career development.
  • Affiliative leaders create trust and harmony.

In the short-term, directive leaders who simply give commands and pacesetters focused only on hitting targets (like the emergency situation Emma confronted) can be effective. In the long-term, however, such styles produce a negative climate and very poor performance.

How to Expand Your Repertoire of Leadership Styles

I wrote about flexibility in leadership styles in my 2000 Harvard Business Review article “Leadership that Gets Results.” What’s new is recent Korn Ferry research that affirms and explains the link between effective leadership, leader style, and emotional intelligence (EI). The new report confirms that emotional self-awareness is the cornerstone of EI. Leaders strong in this competency are more likely to be strong in other EI competencies, use the positive leadership styles, and create positive climates at work. Several EI competencies predict leadership effectiveness, including conflict management, inspirational leadership, and empathy.

Overall, leader emotional intelligence is a key predictor of employee effectiveness, engagement, and innovation.

To build your flexibility in leadership styles, you need strengths in the underlying emotional intelligence competencies. Of course, it’s easy to think you’re self-aware and skilled at EI competencies such as emotional self-control, positive outlook, or adaptability. However, do the people around you agree with your self-assessment? Feedback from others might show a different picture. I encourage leaders to work with a coach to digest such feedback and develop a plan for strengthening your EI muscles in a variety of different situations. If you find yourself pushing the same strategy no matter what the circumstances, then try taking a step back to first absorb what’s going on and then respond with what is most needed.