Styles of leadership--how to avoid "leisure suits," "high waters," and other career ending mistakes



This paper will help you determine your leadership style preferences and challenges to accuracy, how to implement each style, and which styles work best in most situations for the exceptional project manager. Also included are failed leadership styles, their impacts, and how to strategically determine how to manage people. You will learn practical applications for immediate implementation in your current situation, regardless of your experience level.


Great leadership is a differentiator for a project manager to move from average to superior business performance. Great leaders move us, ignite our passions, and inspire the best in us—they work through our emotions. Leadership is also a skill required to effectively influence without direct authority over resources. This skill includes the ability to move from one leadership style to another depending on the situation. The leadership style we use determines the way people receive us and can either help or hinder their ability to perform.

In reviewing your personal experiences with great leaders—consider the characteristics they may have displayed: trust, respect, great communication, vision, integrity, etc. Implementing behaviors to show these characteristics is crucial to your team viewing you as a great leader.

To be an effective leader you must use a broad repertoire of styles in the right situations. Each style has its purpose, although some have more positive applications than others. Great leaders use a variety of the six styles depicted next (The Hay Group, 2006, p. 36-41). Each style has its own purpose, upside and downside. Like a set of golf clubs, you have to choose which club to use while considering the playing conditions—each works best in a different situation. Each “club” is a leadership style and your ability as a good leader to select the right style for the team, person, and situation is crucial to be extraordinarily effective. Mastering these styles will allow you to increase efficiency and decrease resistance to change.

Most of us must manage our teams without authority. When we lead others who do not directly report to us, we have limited ability to punish and reward. We must rely on influence. Therefore, to be successful, you should use leadership styles to motivate, engage, and gain commitment.

“Leadership is the knack of getting somebody to do something you want done because he wants to do it” — General Dwight D. Eisenhower (n.d. ¶34)

Styles of Leadership

You can use each of the styles below in positive or negative ways. It is the situation that determines what you should do to be most successful. The key factor is actually taking the time to consider the best option and using it rather than relying on your “typical” style. Additionally, you can use combinations of styles in your communications.

The Visionary Leadership Style

The primary objective of the visionary leadership style is to provide long-term direction and vision. It moves people toward shared dreams (Goleman, Boyatzis, & McKee, 2002, p. 55). In utilizing this style, you are concerned with developing and articulating a clear vision. It is not a style that is used in isolation—it solicits others’ perspectives on the vision. Many times project managers think they are visionary leaders, but they may be just “telling” others the direction they have decided—this is NOT visionary. This style sees “selling the vision” as key. It persuades others by explaining the “whys” in terms of their or the organization's long-term interests. It sets standards and monitors performance in relation to the larger vision, and uses a balance of positive and negative feedback to motivate. To utilize the visionary leadership style in the best manner, employ it when the communication of goals is needed. Additionally, you can use it with new employees, and when knowledge of direction or the “whys” of a project or task needs to be known or reinforced.

Do not use this style when the leader does not develop the team. Additionally, if the leader is not credible this style will not be very effective. Consider ahead of time what you need to do or say to be an effective visionary leader. When starting a new project management office (PMO) a few years ago, I decided we needed a charter to help establish the purpose of the group. I had conversations with the senior vice president to find out what he expected from the PMO. Additionally, I interviewed my peers to understand what they needed and would like from the PMO. Once the overall direction was clear, I gathered the project managers repeatedly to get their inputs to their specific goals, needs, and proposed accountability. My role was to ensure they were aware of organizational requirements and re-focus and guide them as needed. Their role was to create the specific vision statement with boundaries to which they would be held accountable. During one of the meetings, a project manager did not like the use of one word but no one else agreed with him. He took some time and was eventually able to articulate why the word had a different meaning to him. Given the additional definition, the team agreed that it could be misinterpreted and worked to determine a more accurate word. The end result was not only a much clearer statement, but also, more importantly, the team had tremendous buy-in. They were “heard” and their inputs were valued. People follow more readily when they are orchestrators of the vision rather than people merely being directed.

Additionally, this is a great style to use in conjunction with others—usually as a preface for additional information. In an email, it can easily be used as the first sentence to highlight “why” the following content is important to the goals of the project. This keeps the team fully informed of why you are asking them to do something specific, helps them feel like a part of the initiative, and gives them a sense of direction.

“If you aim at nothing, you will surely hit it”—Lieutenant General Robert H. Forman (n.d. Sec Success & Happiness ¶1)

The Affiliative Leadership Style

The primary objective of the affiliative leadership style is to create harmony by connecting people to each other (Goleman et al., 2002, p. 55). This style is most concerned with promoting positive interactions and team development. It places emphasis on addressing others’ personal needs and identifies opportunities for positive feedback. The affiliative style stresses the importance of others’ morale on performance and rewards personal characteristics more than job performance. The affiliative leader puts less emphasis on accomplishing goals and tasks and more on valuing people's feelings. On the down-side, this style avoids performance-related confrontations.

It is best used when getting conflicting team members to work better together, motivate during stressful times, improve communication, repair broken trust, or strengthen connections. This style is open with communicating feelings about those you are leading.

Avoid using this style when discussions to correct poor performance are needed. Additionally, when clear direction is needed in a crisis, this is not the time to use the affiliative style.

One of the best project managers I have encountered used a great technique to bring her worldwide team together. Before the first core team meeting, she had everyone email to the whole team a picture of themselves and a picture of something that was important to them. She knew that it was critical to tie people together with common threads or knowledge. The first core team meeting revolved around discussions of the photos, common and unusual interests and experiences, and bonding the members together. Her teams were always very high functioning even though many times they would never meet. Utilizing the affiliative style in this way was extremely effective.

“Union gives strength” — Aesop

The Participative Leadership Style

The participative leadership style's primary objective is to build commitment and generate new ideas. It values people's input and gets commitment through participation (Goleman et al., 2002, p. 55). It trusts that team members can develop the appropriate direction for themselves, and invites others to participate in the development of decisions and goals. This style builds on a triad of emotional intelligence abilities: teamwork and collaboration, conflict management, and influence. The best leaders are excellent listeners, and listening is a key strength of the participative leader. It seeks opportunities for consensus, holds many meetings, and listens to others’ concerns. On the detrimental side, this style rewards adequate performance and rarely gives negative feedback. It is best to use this leadership style when the team is competent, or needs coordination.

The time to avoid this style is in crisis mode, when there is no time to meet or gain consensus. Also, if your team members are incompetent—your productivity will drop if you rely on this style solely.

One of the most outstanding success stories I’ve witnessed involved an amazing senior program manager. A tremendously complex project, including a team of over 300 engineers in six countries, was the most important in the company. He was put in place after the project was in execution, following the removal of the original project manager due to poor leadership skills. The project was required to deliver within five months, and was forecasting seven months late. There was not one person on the team that believed it could deliver on-time. The new program manager called in all of the project leadership and many of the contributors and spent two weeks re-planning the project—much to the chagrin of the company's executive team. By listening to the team, challenging them to parallelize, provide partial deliveries early for other team members to begin, removing non-value add tasks, and setting up clear lines of communication and roles and responsibilities—the team realized that it was actually possible (although not probable) that the project could deliver on-time. With the proper incentives, and perceived ability to affect the end result, the team was now motivated to try to achieve the improbable—which they did! Use the participative leadership style to achieve buy-in from your team by acknowledging how each individual can impact the end result.

“Strange as it sounds, great leaders gain authority by giving it away”—Vice Admiral James Stockdale (2007, ¶2)

The Coaching Leadership Style

The primary objective of the coaching leadership style is the long-term professional development of others. It connects what a person wants with the organization's goals (Goleman et al., 2002, p. 55). This style helps team members identify their unique strengths and weaknesses and encourages them to establish development goals. It reaches agreement with team member's functional managers in their development. This style provides ongoing instruction as well as feedback, and may trade off immediate standards of performance for long-term development. This style is utilized best when team members are able to acknowledge and accept the feedback and are motivated to take action. Coaches are good at delegating and giving team members challenging assignments that stretch them, rather than tasks that simply get the job done. It works best with people who show initiative and want more professional development.

The worst time to use this style is when you as the project manager lack expertise. Another time to avoid the coaching style is when the team member needs too much developing—all your time will be spent in trying to get them up to speed. Additionally, avoid this style when in crisis mode. When executed poorly, the coaching approach looks more like micromanaging or excessive control of a team member. Consider how it feels to be on the receiving end each time you implement a leadership style.

The term “Management By Walking Around” (MBWA) refers to a style of business management that consists of managers wandering around the workplace at random to check with employees, both about the status of ongoing work and more importantly to develop relationships (Wikipedia, 2011). This is a form of management that may be a great contributor to utilize the coaching leadership style—helping people develop in areas that are important to them and the company because of information gleaned during those impromptu conversations. Showing genuine concern for your team member's growth helps develop trust in you as a leader.

“The task of leadership is not to put greatness into humanity, but to elicit it, for the greatness is already there”—John Buchan (2011)

The Pace Setting Leadership Style (“Leisure Suits”)

The primary objective of the pace setting leadership style is to accomplish tasks to a high standard of excellence. It meets challenging and exciting goals (Goleman et al., 2002, p. 55), leads by example, and has high standards, but expects others to know the rationale behind what is being modeled. This style is apprehensive about delegating, takes responsibility away from the team member if high performance is not forthcoming, and rescues the situation or gives detailed task instruction when employees experience difficulties.

On the surface, this seems like a great style to utilize—obsessive about doing things better and faster and asks the same of everyone. Also, it quickly pinpoints poor performers, demands more of them, and if they don’t rise to the occasion, rescues the situation personally. If applied poorly or excessively, or in the wrong setting, the pace setting approach can leave team members feeling pushed too hard by the leader's relentless demands. Many times, pace setters are not clear about the guidelines and leave the team guessing as to the best approach. Morale plummets in that situation as the team feels the leader does not care about them or does not feel they are capable. Pace setting can poison the climate.

The best time to utilize this style is when your team is highly motivated and competent, and you need to help the organization move fast. Because it is too frequently poorly executed, it is often highly negative (Goleman et al., 2002, p. 55). Use the pace setting style sparingly—restricted to settings where it truly works. The time to avoid utilizing this style is when your team members need direction and development or cannot perform their job well. When focused exclusively on high performance, leaders often think they are coaching when actually they are micromanaging or simply telling people how to do their jobs. Such leaders tend to concentrate solely on short-term goals.

A project manager was put in place of a team and believed she had excellent leadership skills. Her team, though, felt otherwise. This project manager wore an outdated and unfashionable “leisure suit” leadership style. Her team knew she was dedicated, evidenced by her long working hours and high expectations. But they felt railroaded and undervalued. The project was a miserable failure. The project manager blamed the team for not performing and not keeping the company needs and goals at the forefront. She was wrong. Be careful not to fall into this trap.

“Boldness, without the rules of propriety, becomes insubordination”—Confucius, Analects, circa 500 B.C.

The Directive Leadership Style (“High Waters”)

The directive style's primary objective is immediate compliance. We all want that on our projects—“please just do what I say.” It soothes fears by giving clear direction in an emergency (Goleman et al., 2002, p. 55). This style gives directives rather than direction by telling others what to do. It expects immediate compliance, controls tightly, and relies on negative and/or corrective feedback. This leadership style motivates by stating the negative consequences of noncompliance. You can effectively use this style well when combined with other leadership styles. It is best used with straightforward tasks, to kick-start a turnaround, with problem team members, or in a crisis.

Because it is so often misused though, the directive style can be highly negative (Goleman et al., 2002, p. 55). You should avoid using this style when you are developing long-term strategies. Also avoid using it if you have self-motivated, experienced teams. Always consider how this style feels on the receiving end before utilizing. At a company I was affiliated with, a very experienced senior project manager was tasked with achieving certain critical goals in a very short time span. To be able to get the results he needed, he relied on the ridiculous-looking “high water” directive leadership style that came naturally to him in that situation (and for many other project managers). He told the team what was needed to be successful and expected complete compliance. The team felt “used” and insignificant. Morale and productivity diminished appreciably. Had he stepped back and implemented a more participative style (maybe using the directive style occasionally) and created a team that had buy-in into the goals—I truly believe they would have been able to achieve the results required.

“The superior man is firm in the right way, and not merely firm”—Confucius, Analects, circa 500 B.C.

Utilizing Leadership Styles

Consider how you may utilize different leadership styles when strategically managing people. When leading through influence, you should:

  • Create clarity around project goals and objectives and job/role expectations
  • Set high standards for performance
  • Provide feedback and recognize others’ achievements
  • Hold the team members accountable for following through on commitments.

Remember the characteristics of great leadership—trust, respect, great communication, vision, integrity, etc. To be a great leader and get results, do not just act and react as you naturally do, but truly choose to combine the behaviors needed with the proper leadership style in a given situation.

“The foundation of leadership is character”—General Alexander M. Patch (n.d.)

Culture Impacts

We live in a global environment. Even if all your team members are co-located, your stakeholders may come from other cultures. Research and be sensitive to the styles which resonate with different cultures. One excellent company to help you with this is GlobeSmart (GlobeSmart, 2010). “Many cultures place tremendous value on strong personal ties (affiliative style) and establishing a strong relationship is a prerequisite for doing business” (Goleman et al., 2002, p. 64).

Many years ago, I was given the directive to rollout a new mandatory process in Hong Kong. After meeting for hours with the team, building some relationships, and receiving positive responses (agreement, smiles, head nodding), I went to dinner with a local peer. I expressed how pleased I was that it had gone so well and he agreed. I then asked him how long he thought it would take to implement the process in that location. He informed me that they weren’t going to implement it, even though it was mandatory. My jaw was on the floor! But, I had assumed we had agreement. What I discovered they had agreed on was the concept that the process was a good one. The Hong Kong team just didn’t feel it would work for them and weren’t inclined to state that unless asked directly and with respect. I was relieved I had scheduled another day on that site. I met with the group again, and because I had previously worked on making relationships (affiliative) said, “You are all aware of the need for the company to be able to have comparable metrics between divisions (visionary). So now that you have had time to think about this process, are there any roadblocks that would keep you from utilizing it?” (participative). The difference in response was tremendous. They readily chimed in with challenges and options, we reached a compromise and timetable, and the process rolled out smoothly. Had I not returned after the first meeting, the outcome would have been very different. Not understanding how to lead in their culture and with their regional needs was critical.

Personal Activity

One of the best ways to determine how you should act in the future is to review past negative outcomes. Think about personal times as a leader that there were negative effects on the team's motivation and commitment or there was a negative outcome. What leadership style did you employ? Then consider what leadership style(s) might have been better to use in that situation and how you might have communicated it. As a situation similar to that arises, remember that you can consciously choose what you could say and do—how you lead.

Exceptional Project Manager Leadership Styles

All the styles have their time and place. Think about how it feels to be on the receiving end of these styles before implementing them. Additionally, research shows that there are two most commonly used leadership styles of the majority effective project managers. To achieve the best results in more situations, project managers should lean more to the visionary and participative leadership styles. In the project management community, surveys show that many project managers rely on the directive leadership style most often. As previously stated, the directive style is least effective in most situations. Consider acquiring training to modify your behavior if you don’t rely on participative and visionary most often, or if you employ the directive style too much.

Combinations Are the Key

Most of us naturally lean toward one or two comfortable leadership styles. I highly recommend you ask your team and peers what they think your leadership style is—understand that perception is reality. Then proactively consider which leadership styles you will use in an upcoming situation. Consider utilizing many (as in the example under the culture section). Starting a meeting with some sincere affiliative questions to the team can be a good idea to bond the team. Starting the formal part of the meeting with a visionary statement helps align the team. Use the participative style to achieve buy-in. Even if you have difficult deadlines, asking if there are better options may save you time and shows you are listening to the team. Coach during one-on-one meetings with team members to help them feel value. Use directive and pace setting sparingly.


There are six leadership styles for you to learn to use appropriately in different situations. You should consciously and constantly assess and choose to utilize the most effective leadership style. Visionary, affiliative, coaching and participative are team-building styles. Each has its own strong, positive impact on the climate of the project. The other two, directive and pace setting, also have their place in a leader's toolkit, but must be used carefully and with skill if you are to have a positive impact. Remember that for the most effective project managers, you should lean on the visionary and participative styles.
Additionally, realize that modeling great leadership characteristics (trust, respect, great communication, vision, integrity, etc.) should be a strategy that you have thoughtfully considered to ensure that your team respects you as a leader. Making that correct leadership style choice and implementing the characteristics of great leadership will ensure you are highly successful in leading projects.

“You may be whatever you resolve to be”—General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson (n.d.)

Goleman, D., Boyatzis, R., & McKee, A. (2002). Primal leadership realizing the power of emotional intelligence. Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing.

GlobeSmart®. (2010). Retrieved June 9, 2011, from

Dwight D. Eisenhower (n.d.)In Retrieved from

General Alexander M. Patch (n.d.) In Retrieved from

John Buchan (2011) In Wikiquote Retrieved from,_1st_Baron_Tweedsmuir

Lieutenant General Robert H. Forman (n.d.) In Quotes to live by Success and Happiness Retrieved from

Stonewall Jackson (n.d.) In Think Retrieved from

The Hay Group. (2006). Making great leaders: Manager experience participant's guide. Leadership Styles (pp. 36-41). Philadelphia, PA: Making Great Leaders Training.

Vice Admiral James Stockdale (2007) In Retrieved from

Wikipedia. (2011). Management By Walking Around. In Wikivpedia, free enchyclopedia Retrieved June 9, 2011, from

© 2011, Cindy Margules, PMP
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, TX



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