Leadership Styles

Primal Leadership Book Cover

I am reading a book called “Primal Leadership” and just completed the chapter on The Leadership Repertoire. This chapter talks about four broad styles of leadership which are resonant in nature (and two more which are not resonant). Resonance here means that the people are in sync with the leader. Reading about these six styles, some examples, and what these styles look like made me think of managers and leaders in my own life.

The book is a good discussion of how the brain works in a social setting (even if that setting is just one other person). It discusses various traits that, when combined, lead to these styles. Primal Leadership also explains the nature of conflict and comfort in the brain and how it impacts our behavior. This is an informative book and I recommend it. For now, we’ll just talk about the various leadership styles.

Various Leadership Styles

Let’s list these leadership styles. The resonant ones are:

  • Visionary – Defines a vision and is able to communicate that effectively.
  • Coaching – Helps the team grow.
  • Affiliative – Builds relationships in the team increasing happiness.
  • Democratic – Collaborates and makes everyone feel heard and on-board the decision.

The two dissonant ones are:

  • Pacesetting – Sets very high standards.
  • Commanding – Gives commands and expects compliance.

Of course, these are not mutually exclusive in a person. Any leader would exhibit any of the styles depending on the situation. One of the styles may be more dominant than others, and that largely determines the kind of leadership that the leader exhibits.

Let’s return to the topic of the blog post.

Leadership Styles at work

I work at an awesome company called Axelerant which is distributed in nature and espouses values of enthusiasm, kindness, and openness. We call it EKO for short when talking about our values internally. As of this writing, I have been at Axelerant for almost six years and I have seen how we have grown and transformed our style of work, our target audience, our style of working, but not our basic values.

Why do I talk about this? It is important to say this to clarify that regardless of the changes we have brought in processes or culture, the strong base values of EKO at Axelerant has ensured that the leadership at Axelerant has always grown the team that way. Our leadership team has grown and transformed. Many of the people on the team lead differently, and I will talk about different styles I have seen.

Disclaimer: This is my own perspective and opinion. All of this post represents only my thoughts in my personal capacity, not as a representative of my company.

Executive Team

The executive team comprising of leaders from various divisions generally demonstrate visionary and democratic leadership styles. Over my time at Axelerant, I have noticed that the leadership style is tending more towards coaching compared to democratic and for a good reason: We are growing and our focus now is to grow more leaders through coaching.

While there is a place and time for pacesetting and commanding leadership styles, it is generally a bad fit at a broad level such as an executive team. Consequently, I see no sign of these leadership styles at the executive level at any time.

Engineering

Axelerant is an engineering heavy company with a huge percentage of its people belonging to the engineering team. On a broad level, the team again demonstrates visionary and democratic styles. Again, the coaching style is gaining traction here as the engineering team is growing fastest at Axelerant.

Democratic style is quite popular here as the engineering managers commonly put up ideas and questions transparently to the team and even try to build consensus. In such a large, varied, and distributed setting, building consensus is a problem best described in another post. We are learning to deal with these problems.

Sales & Marketing

Of all the service areas in Axelerant, I am probably least familiar with sales and marketing. So, you should take my word here with a grain of salt.

In my view, sales and marketing teams highly demonstrate the affiliative style of leadership combined with the visionary. Given the nature of the work done by the people here, I also see pacesetting style employed here but very judiciously.

Operations and Delivery

Operations is where the rubber meets the road, and it is common to see a diverse mix of leadership styles depending on the engagement, manager, team, deadlines, and other factors. Across a variety of projects, I commonly see a mix of democratic and affiliative leadership styles. There is a healthy amount of pacesetting and even coaching (but that is more a part of the engagement team, not operations). I rarely see the commanding leadership style, but it happens when the deadlines loom closer.

I’d like to see more of the visionary style play out here. It happens but there is definitely room for improvement. I can see why it doesn’t happen here as often as in other teams and we just need to find good ways to make it sustainable and practical to communicate vision. We’re getting there.

Leadership Styles elsewhere

I tried not to go too deep into Axelerant’s leadership styles (because this post isn’t about that). I’ll talk about some of other places here. But first…

Previous Workplaces

My first company was a large MNC (~17000 employees at the time). As is typical of a company like this, it was hierarchical and traditional in its values. On the project I worked there (I was part of only one project there–rather complex and a large team), I worked with two different managers.

The first manager was highly pacesetting bordering on commanding leadership style. This fit well with the rest of the team whose lead was equally pacesetting. They were friendly but it was painful to get anything done there (bureaucracy). My second manager was affiliative in style and built ways to solve problems. I had a lot of fun and was able to deliver a lot of value while working with him.

My second engagement was freelancing and contracting, eventually full-time with a startup. There were not a lot of opportunities here to witness leadership in action here. Either I was alone, or working with just one other person for the most of that time.

I later joined another company which was of an appropriate size where I could be a part of the team. Here, the leadership style was affiliative and pacesetting for the most part, occasionally visionary. I had a chance to grow at this company and I learnt a lot.

Popular Culture

Let’s look outside workplace for a bit and have some fun. I am listing some of the TV shows and movies I like and write about the leadership styles I perceived in the story there. This list is in no particular order. A few general notes before I get into each show.

Military and law enforcement organisations typically stress on the commanding leadership style combined with visionary. This makes sense given the structure of the teams here. I won’t go too deep in this discussion here though. On the other hand, the typical office settings shown in comedy shows tend to display incompetence or even a toxic work culture. I think that’s beyond the discussion of leadership styles. Still, I have tried to take those elements that make sense in the shows I have seen.

Also, these observations don’t really mirror the character off-screen. I am merely writing based on the behaviour I have seen, not speculation on how they might have behaved off-screen.

Star Trek

As mentioned before, Star Trek exhibits a team which works in a military setting, and therefore demonstrates commanding leadership style as expected.

Captain Kirk is highly affiliative in nature apart from demonstrating the commanding style. On the other hand, Captain Picard has a more visionary bent in comparison. Kirk builds individual relationships with every member of his crew. When the time comes to follow orders, everyone trusts him and follows his orders. While this is true with Picard generally, I find him share his intent and vision more easily. This is not surprising as The Next Generation has a more diverse crew and deals with topics of mind a lot more than The Original Series.

In Star Trek: Discovery, we see differing styles again in Georgiou (the real universe) and Lorca. However, the basic leadership style is still commanding. That is no surprise. In my opinion, I find Georgiou to be more coaching (what little we saw of her) and Lorca to be highly pacesetting.

The Office (US)

Michael Scott displays affiliative leadership–no surprises there. I think his defining characteristic is incompetence but when he does demonstrate competence (e.g., in sales settings), it is highly affiliative in nature.

On the other hand, Dwight Schrute is the classic commanding leader and a pacesetter. His character has been shown as someone who’s strict to military standards since the beginning of the show. When he gets into power, he has no qualms about behaving exactly like expected. No, he wasn’t cruel, but he was a commander.

Throughout the show, we saw multiple managers demonstrate most of the styles mentioned here, but mostly the dissonant ones. It’s a comedy show, after all, based on experience in an office.

Brooklyn Nine-Nine

Captain Holt is a commanding leader as expected, but considering this is a detective unit and in a modern (and comic) setting, there are also elements of pacesetting (especially seen between Jake Peralta and Amy Santiago) and affiliative.

Office Space

The managers in the movie Office Space (I forget their names) are commanding and pacesetting (in all the bad ways).

My Leadership Style

I’ll try to share my style as best as I can. Of course, this can be a biased view as I am talking about myself but I’ll leave it here anyway.

I find I operate mostly in the coaching style of leadership. There are times when I turn to the visionary style, especially when introducing people to a project or when solving a problem. I occasionally have a democratic bent but lately, I am learning how to take decisions without consensus as challenges vary.

There are times when I demonstrate the pacesetting style. This usually happens when working on a specific project, but rarely otherwise. I am trying to make this consistent so that I can deliver consistently. As for the commanding leadership style, I don’t think I demonstrate that but that is only to the best of my memory. It is fair to say that only the people who report to me can make such a statement.

Last notes

While it is interesting to look at these things through the lens of leadership styles, that is not the only thing that matters. I like to think of this as a tool to observe and learn from other’s behaviors. It is also a method for me to understand my own behaviors and begin improving them. Something as complex as human interaction and leadership can’t be reduced to just one style.