6 Essential Leadership Styles for Aspiring Leaders - International Coaching Federation
COVID-19 Resources for ICF Coaches

6 Essential Leadership Styles for Aspiring Leaders

Posted by Diane Craig | July 24, 2017 | Comments (2)

Leadership style describes how leaders choose to connect with their teams to deliver results. Harvard University has identified six key leadership styles that comprise an essential toolbox for leaders. Choosing the right style, at the right time can produce powerful results. Emotional intelligence plays a critical role in the process of selecting an opportune leadership style, in the moment.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence or empathy is the capability to recognize both your own and other people’s emotions. The intelligence part is what you do with this information to manage and modify behavior in varying circumstances, to affect outcomes that achieve goals.

Often called EQ, to emphasize its status and importance—like our IQ—emotional intelligence both defines and sets superior leaders apart. Although often considered a so-called soft skill, EQ is pivotal to identifying the most beneficial leadership style to apply, based on the situation and in the actual moment.

The savvy leader varies the leadership style according to team and individual needs—according to the prevailing circumstances.

The 6 essential leadership styles to motivate and guide teams

Aspiring leaders new to the idea of the “essential six styles” quickly grasp the significance of their relevance with this simple analogy: golfers would never play a round of golf with only one club; they approach every game with a full set of 14 clubs!

Just like golf clubs, there are no good or bad leadership styles but some that may be called upon less frequently. The important thing is learning to use all six.

Although studies have shown that leaders typically have a very narrow repertoire of styles they use with their teams, these six styles are applicable to any organizational size and across all industries and corporate cultures.

3 long-term styles that set the stage for sustained productivity:

Visionary, Participative, Coaching

1. Visionary Style

A Visionary style establishes standards and monitors performance in relation to the larger vision. Sometimes, a visionary style may be described as inspirational. Consider for a moment how it would feel like to work on a team with no vision.

A thorough understanding of the organization’s vision, coupled with the skill to articulate it to team members is fundamental to this leadership style:

  • Do you know the vision of your company?
  • Can you articulate it to your team?

 2. Participative Style

A Participative leader invites employees to participate in the development of decisions and actively seeks opportunities for consensus. Often characterized as supportive, these leaders:

  • Hold regular meetings
  • Listen to employees’ concerns
  • Focus on “how to”
  • Identify opportunities for positive feedback
  • Recognize the impact of employee morale on performance
  • Avoid performance-related confrontations

This style complements and combines well with a Visionary style. Participative leaders reward the team, not individuals.

 3. Coaching Style

A Coaching style is focused on long-term development of team members by providing ongoing instruction and balanced feedback. Leaders with this style are typically very experienced in their roles and, as a result, have a high comfort level with delegating. Sometimes, Coaching leaders are prepared to trade off immediate results for long-term development of team members. A willingness to accept short-term failures and disappointments is indispensable for this style.

 3 short-term styles for specific, usually limited application

Affiliative, Directive and Pacesetting are categorized as “short-term.” These three are often useful in highly emotional, difficult and extreme situations. Consider the golf club analogy. Some clubs, like the sand wedge, have very specific and limited application. This applies to the final three leadership styles.

 4. Affiliative Style

An Affiliative leader:

  • Identifies opportunities for positive feedback
  • Stresses the importance of how employee morale impacts performance
  • Avoids performance-related confrontations

Although a leader with this style may appear to be supportive and want to be friends with everyone, when overused, these leaders may have a hard time making tough decisions. With time, people may take advantage. Following innumerable chances, opportunities and latitude, when there are disappointing results, this leader may become frustrated, shifting to tight reins and more control.

5. Pacesetting

This style pairs well with both a Visionary style and a Coaching style.

The Pacesetter:

  • Is apprehensive about delegating
  • Takes away responsibility when high performance is not forthcoming
  • Rescues risk-prone situations

Faced with tight deadlines, this can be a very effective style. It lifts spirits and resonates with people who learn by watching. If overused, even the highest achievers may start to decrease their discretionary effort while other less performance-focused team members may feel overwhelmed by the Pacesetter.

6. Directive

This style best reserved for critical situations. The captain of a fire department is a prime example of a leader who must use this style.

The Directive leader:

  • Controls tightly
  • Explains by directing or commanding
  • Motivates by stating the negative consequences of noncompliance
  • Offers short-term clarity and action plan

When overused in non-threatening situations, it’s often demotivating; nothing happens without the input of the leader—creating a bottleneck with the team.


Today, successful leaders understand that authority is meaningless without the ability to motivate and guide teams. As coaches, we use the term “leadership presence” to describe the ability to remain focused and proactive, while steering the ship with a steady hand to deliver results. A nimble agility to shift leadership styles is a mandatory component of leadership presence. Like executive presence, it must be honed and developed through coaching and professional development.

Diane Craig

Diane Craig is the President and Founder of Corporate Class Inc. Diane is recognized throughout North America for her Executive Presence Training System, and she also facilitates customized corporate training, etiquette and leadership development workshops to leading organizations and multinationals around the world: From Europe to the Gulf Region and across the Americas—North, Central and South. Backed by 30+ years of expertise, her exclusive EP training system helps integrate personal competencies with organizational goals and accelerates advancement at every stage of corporate life, empowering participants of the EP system to align academic and technical expertise with individual, professional potential. Discover more about Professional Development with this CCI White Paper.

The views and opinions expressed in guest posts featured on this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of the International Coach Federation (ICF). The publication of a guest post on the ICF Blog does not equate to an ICF endorsement or guarantee of the products or services provided by the author.

Comments (2)

  1. It’s awesome that you talked about leadership styles and their characteristics. In my opinion, we need to learn about leadership skills and how to improve them. In that way, we could improve our character and our job performance. I think you did an excellent job explaining the importance of how leaders connect to other people.

  2. I ran a mentor session on this subject today via Lisnic! You raise some excellent points, such a good topic worthy of discussion.

Leave a Reply

Not a member?

Sign up now to become a member and receive all of our wonderful benefits.

Learn more