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The Pitfalls of Inappropriate Leadership Styles - Pacesetting

Alyssa, the founder and managing director of a software company specialising in payroll solutions, embodies the spirit of entrepreneurship and is deeply committed to her company and its clients. Her leadership style, predominantly pacesetting, reflects her drive and high standards. However, this approach has had a nuanced impact on her team and the company culture, which isn't so positive.


As a pacesetter, Alyssa sets a demanding pace, often working long hours and weekends, especially during critical project phases. She dives into operational tasks to assist her team, occasionally taking over tasks to expedite completion rather than delegating and mentoring. This method showcases her dedication but doesn't always translate into effective leadership or sustainable work practices. Instead, it creates an expectation that others need to ‘keep up’.


The essence of the pacesetting style is leading by example at a high-performance level. While this can be effective in situations requiring quick results from a competent team, it also has significant downsides if not moderated. Alyssa's intense pace is difficult for her team to sustain. While she can recuperate by taking time off after a major project launch, her team might not have that luxury, often leading to burnout and increased turnover. They are left to address any emergent issues or mistakes, which are more frequent due to the rushed and high-pressure environment.


The repercussions of a pacesetting leadership style are profound:

  1. Cultural Impact: Alyssa’s approach heavily influences the company's culture, promoting an expectation of constant high performance and a hero culture that is unrealistic long-term.

  2. Team Well-being: Continuous high-speed operation without adequate breaks leads to burnout, affecting team morale and physical well-being.

  3. Poor Quality: In the rush to meet deadlines, the quality of work may decline, resulting in technical debt, costly long-term corrections, or a lack of understanding of customer needs.


Daniel Goleman’s research on leadership styles emphasises the necessity for leaders to adapt and shift between styles based on the situation, team needs, and specific challenges. Recognising your default approach is the first step. The next step is developing self-awareness and situational awareness, which involves understanding how your actions affect team dynamics and performance. 


Goleman identifies several leadership styles that can complement or serve as alternatives to the pacesetting approach:

  • Commanding / Coercive Leadership: Characterised by Do what I say. This style is best in crisis situations. It demands immediate compliance and is centred around control. It is effective in urgent turnarounds but can dampen morale if overused.

  • Authoritative / Visionary Leadership: Characterised by, Let's do this together. Visionary leaders use this style to mobilise people toward a new vision or path, providing clear direction and motivation. It is highly effective during transformative phases.

  • Affiliative Leadership: This style prioritises emotional bonds and harmony, creating a supportive environment by valuing people and their feelings. It is beneficial for boosting morale and healing team rifts.

  • Democratic Leadership involves soliciting input from team members, building consensus, and fostering ownership and flexibility. It is useful when diverse ideas are needed or when commitment is required for complex decisions.

  • Coaching Leadership focuses on personal development, helping team members identify their strengths and weaknesses, and encouraging growth. It is ideal for developing future leaders and promoting long-term team skills.  

Effective leadership involves flexibility. By integrating other styles from Goleman's framework—such as coaching to develop team capabilities, affiliative to foster emotional bonds, or democratic to build consensus—you can cultivate a more balanced, resilient, and supportive work environment. This adaptability not only enhances team satisfaction and performance but also sustains the company's growth by nurturing a healthier organisational culture and creating longer-term resilience.


Understanding and adjusting leadership styles is not just about personal growth but is crucial for the health of the organisation. Becoming aware of the styles you use in any given situation and being able to easily move between styles depending on the context, the problem, and the people involved will not only give you more options but also create longer-term resilience, better decision-making, and improved organisational culture. 


The first step is cultivating self-awareness of your behaviour and preferences and then developing the skills needed to succeed at the different styles. Once you have that, you need situational and self-awareness skills together to help you decide which style would be most appropriate. These skills and behaviours take time to cultivate, so in the meantime, start slow and be gentle with yourself. 

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