Make It about Your People and Place

Think about all of the people you’ve reported to over the years.

If you’re like me, the first thing that pops up is some aspect of their personality:




  • “She was afraid of confrontation so never stood up for us as a team.”
  • “He considered himself a devil’s advocate, so used to ask questions until he happily found a hole in people’s proposals.”
  • “He wanted the ‘executive summary’ approach and was impatient with too much detail.”
  • “She loved inspiring us with visions but would flake on how to get there.”

The same can be true for us. We a pick leadership style that syncs with our personality. For example, we exclude certain options by saying, “I’m not touchy-feely.” Or choose something by saying, “I like to meet goals.”

What we should be doing is looking at our people and organizations and asking what they need.

The Myth of a “Best” Leader

It’s true. Research spearheaded by Daniel Goleman, psychologist and author of books including Emotional Intelligence (EI), indicates most successful leaders score high in these areas: motivation, self-regulation, empathy, social skill and self-awareness.

Goleman believes leaders express these EI qualities through six basic styles:

Coercive: “Do what I say”—Best Use: in natural disasters, organization turnarounds, or dealing with problem employees. Biggest Drawback: most of the time this style makes a company less flexible and reduces employee motivation.

Authoritative: “Come with me”—Best Use: when a business is trying to find its way, the leader states the overall goal but gives people the freedom to choose how to achieve it. Biggest Drawback: doesn’t work well when others around the leader have more experience than she or he does.

Affiliative: “People come first”—Best Use: for building team harmony or increasing morale. Biggest Drawbacks: 1) by focusing only on praise, poor performance can go uncorrected, and 2) leaders rarely offer advice so people can be unsure what to do.

Democratic: “We’re in this together”—Best Use: giving workers a voice in decisions builds flexibility, responsibility and helps generate fresh ideas. Biggest Drawbacks: 1) lots of long, unfocused meetings, and 2) people can feel confused and leaderless.

Pacesetting: “Follow me to excellence”—Best Use: employees who are very competent and self-motivated like a leader with high standards who lives up to them. Biggest Drawback: other employees may feel overwhelmed by these demands, and when he or she takes over situations.

Coaching: “I’ll help you”—Best Use: works well when people understand their weaknesses and want to do better. Biggest Drawbacks: 1) focuses more on personal development than on immediate work-related tasks so these can go undone, and 2) not useful when employees resist changing how they work.

The Leader as Chameleon

Goleman believes the authoritative leadership style creates the best results on a day-to-day basis—and the coercive style should be used sparingly. Beyond this, he suggests that leaders should change the style they use to reflect the needs of the people and operation in the moment. This “creates the best organizational climate and optimizes business performance.”

A business coach I know says, “Whoever has the most tools in a system will win.” The last thing your people want to experience is being the nail to your hammer.

When we’re under stress, we tend to double-down on behavior that feels familiar. This is designed to soothe us. Maybe we get more controlling. Or ask for more details so we won’t make a mistake. Or try to inspire people with glowing phrases. Or ask everyone to just get along.

Evaluate the situation you’re facing, those involved, and take a deep breath. Then ask, “If I were them, which type of leader would I want right now?” Be that. And be more successful.