• Article
  • April 23, 2020

6 Leadership Styles and When to Use Them

Looking beyond health care for inspiration, find ways to bring other philosophies into your repertoire to drive success for your team and hospital. 

By Megan McDonnell Busenbark

Fall 2017 cover

Over the course of a golf game, the golf pro picks and chooses clubs based on the demands of the shot. Sometimes, the golfer ponders the selection. But usually, it is automatic. The pro senses the challenge ahead, swiftly pulls out the right tool and elegantly puts it to work. That's how high-impact leaders operate too.

The above is an excerpt from "Leadership That Gets Results," an article in Harvard Business Review exploring a landmark study on leadership. In it, internationally renowned psychologist and journalist Daniel Goleman draws on research of more than 3,000 executives worldwide. He suggests the most effective executives use a collection of leadership styles in just the right times and places. The research, from consulting firm Hay/McBer and based on Goleman's emotional intelligence work, found:

  • Six distinct leadership styles, each springing from different components of emotional intelligence. Also known as emotional quotient (EQ), emotional intelligence is the ability to understand, use and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.
  • Each leadership style has a direct effect on the working atmosphere of a company or team—and, ultimately, on its financial performance, stating that leadership style is responsible for about one-third of an organization's profits.
  • Leaders with the best results do not rely on one style. They use most of them in any given week in different ways, depending on the situation.

Everyone at a children's hospital can lead. Whether you're on the front lines or in the front office, you contribute to the delivery of the best care possible for children in a safe environment focused on the needs of patients and families.

Here are the six leadership styles according to this research, along with their effect on teams and the working environment and when to use each style. We looked outside of health care for inspiration and real-world examples of leaders who exemplify these styles. Look for these traits in yourself and find ways to bring other styles into your repertoire to drive more success for your team and institution.


1The authoritative leader

This style in a phrase: "Come with me."

WHO ARE THEY?

Authoritative leaders are visionaries. They mobilize people toward their vision and motivate their teams by showing them how their work fits into the larger vision for the organization. They set the standards for success and the company's end goal (both of which always revolve around that broader vision), and give feedback based on whether performance is advancing the vision. These leaders also give people the flexibility to experiment and innovate in their daily work.

WHAT THIS STYLE CAN DO

Of the six leadership styles, the research found this one to be the most effective, improving every aspect of an organization's climate. There is clarity: People know what's expected of them, and their performance is driven by the company's broader vision. And there is purpose: They understand that what they do matters and why. And that purpose and meaning in one's work leads to increased employee satisfaction and engagement.

WHEN THIS STYLE WORKS BEST

Because the effect of this leadership style is so positive, it works well in almost any setting or situation. But it works particularly well when the leader is charting a new course for the organization and needs to sell his or her people on a new vision—like when a children's hospital expands into a new area of care or merges with another institution. There are a couple caveats: This style will likely fail if the leader's peers are more experienced than he or she, making the leader seem out of touch, or if, in an effort to be authoritative, the leader becomes overbearing.

REAL-WORLD EXAMPLE: Elon Musk

Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla Motors and SpaceX is known for his visionary, world-changing and sometimes controversial ideas. Tesla is upending the automotive industry with its electric cars. SpaceX is one of two companies NASA chose to develop the next generation of systems to take U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station. Musk said his goals for both companies "revolve around his vision to change the world and humanity" and that, in his experience, "people work better when they know what the goal is and why. It's important that people look forward to coming to work in the morning and enjoy working."


2The affiliative leader

This style in a phrase: "People come first."

WHO THEY ARE

The affiliative leader cares about people and works to create harmony and build emotional bonds. He or she values individuals and their emotions more than goals and tasks. This leader wants to keep employees happy and shares positive feedback often.

WHAT THIS STYLE CAN DO

It builds strong loyalty. This style also positively effects communication because people who like each other talk more. They share ideas and inspiration. The trusted environment the affiliative leader builds also leads to more innovation and a strong sense of belonging.

WHEN THIS STYLE WORKS BEST

This works well in most situations and environments but can be particularly effective when you need to motivate people during stressful times, increase morale, improve communication or heal rifts in a team.

REAL-WORLD EXAMPLE: Sheryl Sandberg

According to Forbes, when Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook started her job, she went to hundreds of people's desks, interrupted their work and said, "Hi, I'm Sheryl." Then, she asked questions and listened. Ever since, she has been known to engage with employees and show them that their ideas—and their feelings—matter. Some people think if a leader reveals his or her feelings, it's a sign of weakness.

But Sandberg thinks it's a strength. When her husband died suddenly while on vacation on 2015, Sandberg opened up about it. She made herself vulnerable. That approach, like her leadership style, encourages others to open up, share their feelings and show they are human. And that helps them bond and connect in ways they may never have without Sandberg's influence—without her "people come first" leadership style.


3The coercive leader

This style in a phrase: "Do what I tell you."

WHO THEY ARE

Coercive leaders demand immediate compliance. They are driven to achieve—and driven by top-down decision making. They care about authority, using hierarchy as a way of persuading people to get things done. They are very rules- and instruction-oriented and do not tolerate insubordination.

WHAT THIS STYLE CAN DO

It can drive short-term output from a team and can prevent missteps in high-risk situations. But of all the leadership styles, this was found to be the least effective in most situations. This aggressive approach can demotivate people. It can stifle flexibility and innovation. So, this style should be used with caution and in very specific situations that call for it.

WHEN THIS STYLE WORKS BEST

When your institution is going through a critical time, such as a merger or acquisition, or when you're kick-starting a turnaround. In these cases, the coercive style can break old business habits that need to be broken and can "shock" people into new ways of thinking. This style also works well during a genuine crisis like a fire, tornado or earthquake—or for handling ineffective employees when no other approach has worked.

REAL-WORLD EXAMPLE: GORDON RAMSAY

Gordon Ramsay, international chef, restaurateur and reality TV star is known for his controversial intensity and criticism, but his commitment to culinary perfection has driven results. His restaurants have been awarded 16 Michelin stars—a coveted award for every chef—and he is considered one of the top 10 chefs in the world.


4The democratic leader

This style in a phrase: "What do you think?"

WHO THEY ARE

This leader forges consensus through participation and relies on collaboration and team leadership. Democratic leaders do a lot of listening. They spend time gathering input and buy-in from people, giving them a lot of say in decisions that affect their goals and the way they do their work.

WHAT THIS STYLE CAN DO

It builds trust, respect and commitment. Because employees participate in decision-making, it drives up responsibility. Because they feel heard, morale is higher under a democratic leader. And because they play a role in setting goals, they are often more realistic about what can and cannot be done.

WHEN THIS STYLE WORKS BEST

When the leader is unsure of the best path forward and needs ideas from trusted, valuable employees. Even when the leader has a strong vision, this approach helps generate fresh thinking to execute it. Of course, this style makes much less sense if employees are not informed or experienced enough to provide sound insights. And naturally, the consensus-building approach would not work well in the face of a crisis.

REAL-WORLD EXAMPLE: GOOGLE

True, Google's not a person. But co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page started building a democratic leadership approach together with former CEO Eric Schmidt in the late 1990s. Today, the entire company remains highly democratic in its approach to product development, seeking ideas from all levels of employees at all times to keep innovation churning. And in 2019, the company's revenues (together with parent company, Alphabet) topped $160 billion. So, something seems to be working.


5The pacesetting leader

This style in a phrase: "Do as I do, now."

WHO THEY ARE

Pacesetters set high standards for performance and exemplify them themselves. These leaders are obsessed with doing things faster and better and ask the same of others around them. Placing a high priority on quality and execution, pacesetters are very focused on meeting deadlines and are not fans of slow progress.

WHAT THIS STYLE CAN DO

It can get work done on time or even ahead of schedule. But, while all the hallmarks of the pacesetting leadership style are admirable, this research found it should be used sparingly or in combination with other styles. This is primarily because employees can become overwhelmed with the pacesetter's demands for excellence and speed, which can lead to a drop in morale.

WHEN THIS STYLE WORKS BEST

When you need fast results from employees who are all highly competent, self-motivated and need very little direction.

REAL-WORLD EXAMPLE: VIRGINIA (Ginni) ROMETTY

As the first woman president and CEO of IBM, Virginia (Ginni) Rometty has admitted she is obsessed with what's new and continuously looks for the next big thing. She led IBM through the most significant transformation in its history, reinventing the company to lead in the new era of AI, block chain, cybersecurity and quantum technologies—always driving toward change.


6The coaching leader

This style in a phrase: "Try this."

WHO THEY ARE

The coaching leader develops people for the future. The leader becomes more of a mentor or a counselor rather than a boss. They help people identify and develop their strengths and career aspirations. They help them set goals and a plan for achieving them. And they give lots of instruction and feedback.

WHAT THIS STYLE CAN DO

Because this style of leadership requires constant dialogue (think of a basketball coach on the sidelines guiding you at every play), it helps dial up every driver of corporate climate. Take flexibility: People know they can experiment in a safe environment like this and will get quick feedback. That ongoing coaching dialogue also means employees know what is expected of them and how their work fits into a larger strategy, enhancing responsibility and clarity. And people are more committed to a leader they know is committed to them.

WHEN THIS STYLE WORKS BEST

When you want to help an employee improve performance or develop long-term strengths. This style—although not used as often as the others, this research found—works well in many situations. But, not surprisingly, it works best when the person on the receiving end wants to improve their performance—when that person wants to be coached.

REAL-WORLD EXAMPLE: SATYA NADELLa

In 2014, Satya Nadella became Microsoft's third chief executive in its four-decade history. He came on at a time when the technology giant had lost momentum. So, he had to turn around the culture of a 130,000-person company. He moved Microsoft to a growth mindset, where everyone in the organization was to be open to constant learning. He encouraged people to be open about their mistakes and learn from them, modeling that behavior himself.

Bottom line: The more styles, the merrier

According to the study, "leaders who have mastered four or more—especially the authoritative, democratic, affiliative and coaching styles—have the best climate and business performance." The most effective leaders flexibly and fluidly switch styles based on the situation. Few leaders have all six styles in their repertoire, but the more you have, the better leader you'll be.

Megan McDonnell Busenbark is a writer and founder and principal of Encore Communications LLC, in Omaha, Nebraska. Send questions or comments.