Leadership Style and Employee Attitude


Leadership Styles and Employee Attitude


By Jim Ollhoff, PhD


Organizations are mishandled constantly. There is no leader who always does the right thing at the right time. Still, most organizations muddle through, going from year to year and staying afloat. Other organizations go belly up. Others manage to stay perpetually flatline. A few organizations succeed, of course. And even a smaller few skyrocket to the top of the organizational heap. There are many reasons, of course, for organizational success or organizational failure. We’ll deal here with one of those reasons: How leadership affects employee attitude.


Six Leadership Styles

Daniel Goleman’s (2000) research identifies six styles of leadership, and their correlation to the climate of an organization. This research is summarized below.

The Coercive Style. This is the authoritarian, do-what-I-say kind of leader. This kind of leader demands compliance—whether you like it or not. They see themselves as the best of the best, always with the best wisdom and the best insights. They see discussion of topics a waste of time, since they know best.

The Authoritative Style. This kind of leader identifies the goal, but gives people freedom to perform the tasks in their own way. They desire to mobilize people toward a vision. These leaders tend to be enthusiastic and can articulate a clear vision. They see their mission as reminding people of the vision, but then they want to get out of the way and let people do their job.

The Affiliative Style. This leader has a “people come first” mentality. They will focus on helping, praising, and creating positive feelings. The affiliative leader creates strong emotional bonds between people, and the staff are typically fiercely loyal to the affiliative leader. These leaders believe that a good, healthy, friendly environment will provide the best kind of workers.

The Democratic Style. This leader is always interested in building consensus. The democratic leader will constantly seek input, and won’t move ahead until everyone is “on the same page.” Discussion of problems and the solving of problems take a lot of time, but when decisions are made, there is a huge amount of investment in those decisions.

The Pacesetting Style. The pacesetting leader sets extremely high standards, and role-models that hard work. This kind of leader focuses on doing everything faster and better. These leaders work long hours, they work hard, and keep their mind going constantly. The pacesetting leader believes that their hard work will be a model for everyone else to copy.

The Coaching Style. This style of leader focuses on personal development of individuals. The coaching leader works one-on-one with people so that they are the best they can be. This kind of leader is as much a counselor as a boss. The coaching leader will help people by sending them to trainings, or meeting with them to discuss how to improve their skills. These leaders see the most important aspect of work is the skills of the workers, and so will do whatever it takes to improve their workers’ skills.

All six styles have their place!  Each style is appropriate sometimes, but not all the time. The critical issue is to match your style of leadership with the type of organization you are in, and at the appropriate time. Matches will likely make your organization successful. Mismatches can be profoundly disempowering.


The Effect of Each Leadership Style

Generally, most leaders use only one style. Often, it is the style they were first exposed to in their first organization. Using only one style can be dangerous, since there are times when each style is useful, but times when each style is ineffective. Here is a list of how each leadership style plays out in the mood, morale, and climate of the organization. In other words, if the leader has only one style, here’s how people will react.

Coercive: The worst of all the styles. This style almost always has a negative impact on people. People feel like cogs in a machine—they feel unvalued and unappreciated. Flexibility, innovation, morale, and commitment quickly evaporate. Creative, talented people will leave the organization.

Authoritative: The best of the styles. This is the style with the highest correlation for organizational climate. With an authoritative leader, people feel valued and feel like they will be supported.

Affiliative: This style is also very positive in its effect on people. People feel like the leader cares for them and will protect them when they need it.

Democratic: This style is also positive, as people feel like their opinions matter.

Pacesetting: This is a strongly negative style. People feel like the leader doesn’t trust them to do the job their way, and they spend most of their time trying to guess how the leader wants them to do their task. Leaders tend to act as if they are the most competent in everything, and the people react very negatively.

Coaching: Again, a very positive style. People feel like the leader cares about their unique gifts and talents, and they are encouraged to use their unique skills.


When to Use Each Style

If a leader has the ability to create and use more than one style of leadership, they can be more effective. Each leadership style has a place. Using a style during the right time will bring better leadership effectiveness.

Coercive: Research shows that there is one time when this is a helpful style. It should only be used directly after a disaster—and even then it should be used sparingly. During a disaster, people’s heads are spinning and no one is quite sure what to do. It is helpful to know that there is someone at the helm who seems to know what they are doing. Even this style should only be used for the short term, until people get a sense of what happened. It should never be used for the long term.

Authoritative: This style works well in almost all settings. It seems to work best when a new vision or new direction is required. When a change is needed, the supportive, nurturing behaviors of the authoritative leader can help facilitate people’s creative talents to form a new vision or direction.

Affiliative: This style is most useful when there has been conflict in the past, or when circumstances are particularly stressful. The affiliative leader’s friendly, relationship-building style helps people heal from interpersonal conflict, and facilitates trust again.

Democratic: This style is most useful when buy-in is needed, or when the leaders doesn’t have the answers. A democratic leader is good at encouraging people to voice their opinions, and using those opinions to formulate a new goal. This listening and encouraging feedback will help people invest in a new mission or strategy.

Pacesetting: This style works when the employees are highly motivated and highly competent, and some kind of result is needed quickly. Perhaps a deadline is fast approaching, or some big project needs to get out the door quickly. The pacesetting leader’s role modeling will motivate employees to finish the project. This style will only work for the short term, for a specific, known period of time. When the leader tries to do this with no impending deadline, the results on employee morale will be highly negative.

Coaching: This style works best when the leader can help improve individual performance, or to develop people who will be taking over important long-term projects. Taking the time to cultivate needed skills in a new leader is the forte of the coaching leader.


Nurturing Multiple Styles

The important thing for leaders is to nurture multiple styles. Everyone has a “home style,” that is, where we have the most skills and feel most comfortable. However, the best leaders have the ability to change their leadership style to fit the situation. It’s always best to have multiple styles at our disposal. When we have many different tools in our leadership toolbox, we’ll be better equipped to lead a complex organization through uncertain times.



Goleman, D. (2000, March-April). Leadership that gets results. Harvard Business Review [electronic version]. Product #4487.



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