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When it comes to effective management and team building, understanding different leadership styles is crucial. Whether you’re a seasoned executive or a new manager, recognizing the various approaches to leadership can help you create a work environment where everyone thrives. From visionary to coaching to affiliative leadership, each style has its unique strengths and challenges. Allow me to explain.

A while back, I was out in the woods with my soldiers, doing field training exercises. We took a break from our intense missions to rest and recharge. We gathered in a circle just inside the tree line, enjoying some much-needed downtime. The heat was intense, so we had shed most of our gear and were only in our pants and tan tee-shirts. We sat on the ground, drinking water and eating our meals.

Since I was new and still getting to know the group, these moments were valuable for building our team comradery. Everyone chatted, laughed, and connected with one another. Despite the tough missions, everyone had a positive attitude. Smiles were everywhere, and the air was filled with laughter.

During our break, Casey, a young leader from another platoon, walked over to our area. Strangely, as soon as he approached, the laughter and conversations abruptly stopped. Being new to the group, I didn’t fully understand what was happening, but it felt eerie and uncomfortable. It turned out that this leader’s attitudes and behaviors were deeply troubling. He made everyone who served with him feel uneasy. People were genuinely scared of the thought of working under him or even being in the same department.

The Illusion of Outstanding Leadership

Casey suffered from what I call the Illusion of Outstanding Leadership. This happens when someone thinks they’re an amazing leader, but in reality, they’re far from it. Let me explain. A truly great leader creates an environment where team members feel safe and positive. They encourage open communication, even when it involves pointing out their own flaws. The best leaders are open to hearing feedback and criticism about their own shortcomings. They understand that they’re not perfect and are willing to learn and grow.

On the other hand, toxic or abusive leaders create a culture of fear. They make people afraid to talk about any problems or weaknesses. As a result, these leaders never receive honest feedback because people are afraid to speak up. And since they don’t hear any complaints, they mistakenly believe they are outstanding leaders. They live in an illusion, unable to see the truth about their poor leadership.

There is only one logical solution to avoid this pitfall. We must intentionally recognize that we’re not the outstanding leaders our people deserve. As leaders, we owe the members of our team exceptional leadership, and we acknowledge that we’re currently falling short of that standard. We simply assume and take for granted that we suffer from this illusion.

This deliberately humble mindset fuels a desire for self-improvement and personal growth. As such, we constantly seek opportunities for learning and development. We invest time in reading, studying, working with mentors, and striving to become more effective leaders. We commit ourselves to improving our leadership ability so that we can provide them with the best leadership we can offer.

The Power of Emotional Intelligence in Leadership

Each of the leadership styles comes with its own strengths and weaknesses. It’s important for leaders to understand these styles and how they affect their teams. This understanding allows leaders to create an environment where growth and success can flourish.

In the book “Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman, the author talks about how emotional intelligence is linked to effective leadership. Emotional intelligence is really important for both being a good leader and a valuable team member. It means being able to understand and control our own emotions, and also being able to understand and empathize with how others feel. When we have high emotional intelligence, we can deal with conflicts and challenges more easily, communicate well, and build relationships based on trust and respect.

Emotional intelligence helps leaders connect with their team members on a deeper level. It allows us to see their strengths and recognize their needs, so we can provide the necessary support and guidance for their success. This creates an inclusive and supportive environment where individuals feel valued and motivated to do their best.

A woman writing symbolizing leadership styles.

Exploring the Six Leadership Styles

Goleman goes on to outline six main leadership styles: visionary, coaching, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting, and commanding leadership. These styles give us valuable roadmaps as to how leaders can guide their teams. When we tap into our emotional intelligence, we can figure out which style works best in different situations.

Visionary Leadership: Inspiring a Shared Future. Visionary leaders have an amazing talent for motivating others. They paint a clear picture of the future and create a common goal that attracts people. By igniting the collective imagination of their team members, visionary leaders inspire them to strive for greatness. However, they should be careful not to get caught up in big dreams without providing a practical plan of action.

Coaching Leadership: Nurturing Growth and Potential. Coaching leaders act as mentors and guides. They focus on the personal and professional development of their team members. They invest time and effort in nurturing individuals’ skills and talents, offering guidance, support, and helpful feedback. Through their coaching approach, these leaders empower their team members to unleash their full potential. However, they need to strike a balance between coaching and allowing autonomy, avoiding excessive control.

Affiliative Leadership: Fostering Collaboration and Trust. Affiliative leaders prioritize building relationships and creating a positive work environment. They emphasize teamwork and cooperation, understanding that a united front can overcome any obstacle. By fostering a sense of belonging and encouraging collaboration, these leaders cultivate a culture of trust and camaraderie within their teams. However, they should be cautious not to shy away from addressing conflicts or resolving underlying issues that may hinder progress.

Democratic Leadership: Inclusive Decision-Making. Democratic leaders actively involve team members in the decision-making process. They value diverse perspectives, seek input, and promote open communication. This inclusive approach leads to stronger decisions through consensus-building and ensures that everyone on the team feels heard and valued. However, in time-sensitive situations, the democratic style may not be practical, as it requires significant time investment and may result in delayed actions.

Pacesetting Leadership: Setting High Standards for Excellence. Pacesetting leaders establish demanding performance standards and expect nothing less than excellence from their team members. By leading by example and demonstrating an unwavering work ethic, they inspire others to strive for greatness. This style is particularly effective when quick results are needed and the team is motivated. However, the constant pursuit of perfection can create excessive pressure, leading to burnout and decreased morale if not managed properly.

Commanding Leadership: Directing in Urgent Situations. Commanding leaders take charge by providing clear instructions and expectations. In urgent or crisis situations, this style can offer a sense of direction and stability. The commanding leader possesses the decisiveness and assertiveness required to make quick decisions. However, if this style is overused or applied in non-urgent circumstances, it can breed resentment and create a culture of blind obedience instead of empowerment.

Every leadership style has its own strengths, but good leaders know that being flexible and adaptable is key. They realize that one style alone can’t handle every situation or meet the different needs of their team. By using different leadership styles and being in touch with their emotional intelligence, leaders can navigate various circumstances with skill. They can choose the best approach that fits their team members and the specific dynamics of the situation.

Military helmets symbolizing leadership styles in the army.

The Importance of Flexibility and Adaptability

Let me tell you a real-life story to demonstrate how adaptive leadership can make a real difference. A few months back, I introduced the different leadership styles to my team. During a military training exercise later that week, I gave Greg, one of my team leaders, a mission to accomplish. Right away, he separated from his team and started planning. Greg is known for his tactical expertise and has a history of successful missions. If he had done it alone, he would have come up with a brilliant and innovative solution.

While Greg was deep into his planning, I approached him and asked, “Hey, brother, which leadership style do you think you’re using right now?” He paused, looked at me, and after a moment of thought, he smiled and nodded. Without saying a word, he called his team over and involved them in the planning process. Time was limited, as it often is in military operations, so he had to occasionally steer the discussion back on track and avoid going off-topic. And In the end, after having considered their ideas and input, he had to make the final decision.

The result? Greg gained the complete support of each team member. Even though they couldn’t incorporate every suggestion, they felt respected and valued because their ideas were carefully considered. By switching from commanding to democratic leadership in that moment, Greg achieved immediate results. A plan that is 90% effective but gets 100% buy-in from your team will always outperform a technically flawless plan that lacks commitment.

The bonus effect of this shift was that Greg also engaged affiliative leadership and created an environment that welcomed and encouraged his team’s feedback. Unlike the earlier example with Casey, Greg already had meaningful relationships with his team members. This exercise further strengthened those bonds. Greg’s people respected him enough to feel comfortable offering constructive feedback. It deepened their connection with him and with one another. It brought them closer together as a united team.

Embracing Empowering Leadership Styles

Being a good leader means understanding these six leadership styles. Each style has its own strengths and potential problems. Skilled leaders know it’s important to be flexible and adaptable. They use their emotional intelligence to choose the right style for each situation. If we want to create an environment where people can grow, work together, and succeed, we need to embrace the wide range of leadership styles available to us.

If you look at the experiences of Greg and Casey, you can see a clear difference. Casey represented toxic leadership, making people around him feel anxious and uneasy. On the other hand, Greg showed the power of adaptive leadership and emotional intelligence. Greg actively sought feedback, involved his team members in decision-making, and created a supportive environment. As a result, he built trust, respect, and commitment within his team.

To be effective leaders, we need to humbly admit that we’re not perfect. By having a mindset of humility and a commitment to constant self-improvement, we can provide our teams with the outstanding leadership they deserve. This means embracing different leadership styles, being open to learning and growth, and leading with empathy, adaptability, and a genuine desire to empower and inspire those around us.

The choice is ours: Will we lead with empathy, wisdom, and a willingness to adapt? Or will we continue practicing toxic leadership that holds back progress and stifles the growth of individuals and organizations? It’s up to us to decide the type of leaders we want to be and the impact we want to have on the people around us.

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R. E., & McKee, A. (2013). Primal leadership: unleashing the power of emotional intelligence (Tenth anniversary edition). Harvard Business Review Press.
Nicholas Cardot

The transformation begins with you. Develop the leader inside you and become the driving influence your community is looking for.

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