Corner Office: Leadership Styles

Good chefs need knives. Lots of knives: Knives with long blades and short, serrated and smooth, heavy and light. Good chefs know when, and why, to use each knife: whether slicing carrots or bread, boning fish or spreading frosting.

Good leaders need different styles of leading: Demanding and mobilizing, harmonious and consensus-building, driven and developmental. Good leaders know when, and why, to use each style: One style works best in a crisis while another helps forge a new vision, one helps heal and another builds competencies for the long-term.

Getting to be a good leader who can use varied styles isn't easy: The only learning is trial and error. But good leaders are resilient and they look for options, so if one style doesn't work in a given situation they try another. As they learn which style they're best at and which people respond to, they can draw on them as needed.

Getting there takes self-awareness, discipline and a willingness to take risks. But ultimately, the leaders most comfortable with all six leadership styles are the leaders who get the best results. Isn't that what leadership is all about?

Taking Action

Know the six styles. It used to be that good leadership was like good art: No one could define it, but everyone knew it when they saw it. Recent research by the consulting firm Hay/McBer, however, has clarified what good leadership really is. The research drew on the experience of more than 3,800 executives worldwide, and found that there are six basic leadership styles: coercive, authoritative, affiliative, democratic, pacesetting and coaching.

Each style reflects underlying emotional intelligence competencies. Empathy, self-awareness and the ability to develop others are the foundation of the "coaching" style, for example. Each style works best then when deployed in the appropriate circumstance — and doesn't work at all when used inappropriately. Using a "coercive" ("because I said so") style, for example, is disastrous when "consensus" is needed. Each style also has an impact on the organization's climate. Two of the six are negative.

Know yourself. After even a quick review of the six styles, one will probably feel "right." That's the style that comes most naturally to you. Now pay attention to how you interact with your staff. Do you use solely that style, or do you use others as well? Do you use varied styles on your own, or only when your boss forces you to? Which style gets the best results, or does it depend on the situation?

Ask your employees. Ask a few of your employees which leadership style you use because it's hard to see yourself objectively. Ask employees you trust to be truthful, though not necessarily your favorites. You want honesty, not fawning.

Observe your staff. Just as we all use different leadership styles, we also respond to different styles. Someone with an "affiliative" personality, for example, won't feel warm and fuzzy toward a "pacesetter"-style leader. Which styles do members of your staff respond to? It's unlikely that all your employees all respond to the same style.

Challenge yourself. Think about situations in your department that might benefit from different leadership styles and work at using some of the emotional intelligence skills required in those situations. If your style is "affiliative," for example, work on your collaborative skills to forge a more "democratic" style, or work at developing the potential in your employees to get better at "coaching."

Stretching yourself is important because even generally positive styles can become negative if they're used in every situation. Too much of an "affiliative" style, for example, can leave a group feeling rudderless. The group might feel good about each other, yet fail.

If your style is naturally "coercive" or "pacesetting" — the two leadership styles with negative impacts — you'll want to balance your approach with more positive styles.

Find mentors. You can easily identify the leadership style of anyone you know at all well. Pay attention to other people in your organization or even outside it. You can easily identify the leadership style of anyone you know. Single out those who use the styles you'd like to learn and observe them. Look for examples of how they get things done.

Experiment. In the end, thinking and observing will get you only so far. To grow, you must take the plunge and actually try different styles in different situations and see what works for you in your company. Be bold. As William James once advised, "To change one's life: start immediately, do it flamboyantly — no exceptions."

Bob Rosner is the co-author of the No. 1 Amazon business best-seller The Boss's Survival Guide (McGraw-Hill, 2001), along with Allan Halcrow, former editor of Workforce Magazine and Alan Levins, senior partner of San Francisco-based employer law firm Littler Mendelson. Rosner is also founder of the award-winning and He can be reached via fax at (206) 780-4353, and via e-mail at: publishes a new Corner Office column every Tuesday.