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Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

What's Your Natural Leadership Style?

Ivan Zoric

At some point in their education, most students are required to take the Myers-Briggs test, a psychological questionnaire designed to pinpoint personality types. The idea is to help teachers and counselors identify learning styles and possible career paths for their charges. Managers would be wise to embrace the idea that understanding your personality type—or your leadership style—can help you be more effective. 

One of the most respected lists of styles comes from the 2000 Harvard Business Review study “Leadership That Gets Results” by Daniel Goleman. The survey of more than 3,000 managers identified the following leadership styles and their benefits and weaknesses: 

Coercive: This manager demands immediate compliance, employing a “do what I say” approach. Goleman says this personality trait can be extremely effective in dealing with a crisis or a problem employee. In most situations, however, coercive leaders dampen motivation and stifle innovation and flexibility. 

Authoritative: This manager focuses on the ultimate goal, stating it clearly and urging employees to reach it, but allowing freedom to choose the means. An authoritative leader’s skill is to mobilize the team toward a desired result, which gives employees space to experiment and take calculated risks. This approach tends to fall short, however, when the manager has less experience or expertise than his team. In these cases, Goleman warns, the manager can come off as out of touch. 

Affiliative: This manager adopts a people-first philosophy, creating emotional bonds with employees. This technique is useful for building harmony or boosting morale. But focusing on praise alone can allow poor performers to skate, and employees in need of concrete advice can feel adrift. 

Democratic: This manager gives employees a voice in decisions, helping build flexibility in the office and delegating responsibility for producing results and fresh ideas. But, Goleman notes, the impact on the office climate is not as high as one might guess. The downside can be endless meetings and confused employees who feel leaderless. 

Pacesetting: This manager leads by direction, setting high standards for performance and expecting skill and speed. When a pacesetting manager has a highly competent and motivated team, this leadership style can bring quick results. But, Goleman notes, a natural pacesetter in the wrong environment can undercut morale, overwhelm team members and make employees feel as if they are consistently failing. 

Coaching: This manager takes on the role of mentor, focusing more on personal development than on immediate work-related tasks. These leaders are willing to deal with short-term failures for the sake of long-term development. When employees are aware of their weaknesses and want to improve, this style can be effective. But when they are resistant to change or when the organization faces pressure for immediate results, this approach can backfire. 

Goleman notes the authoritative leadership style has the most positive effect on an organizational climate, with affiliative, democratic and coaching not far behind. But his research indicates no style should be relied on exclusively. 

It is crucial that managers make an honest self-assessment of their leadership style and recognize how it benefits or hinders the organization. But to handle diverse challenges, they also must develop styles that don’t come naturally.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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