Harvard leadership styles: Six leadership strategies

By Anne Sexton - Last update

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Which leadership strategies will give you the results you want? Research published in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) may just have the answer.

Corporate cultural components

The study used a random sample of nearly 4,000 executives. It found that the most effective leaders choose from six distinctive leadership styles. The research investigated how each of the six leadership styles correlated with the key components of the organisation’s culture.

HBR identified these cultural components as:

  1. Flexibility – employees’ ability to innovate without excessive rules and regulations
  2. Responsibility – how responsible employees feel towards the organisation
  3. Standards – the level of standards expected in the organisation
  4. Rewards – the accuracy of performance feedback and its link to rewards
  5. Clarity – how clear employees are about the mission, vision and core value
  6. Commitment – employees’ commitment to a common purpose


Six leadership styles

The six leadership styles, in order of their impact on an organisational culture are briefly discussed below.

1. Coercive

This is a leader who demands immediate compliance. The phrase most descriptive of this leader is: “Do what I tell you!”

This style can destroy an organisation’s culture. This is because the downside is far greater than the upside. Therefore, a coercive style should only be used with extreme caution. It is useful in an emergency and may work in a crisis. In addition, it can help in a turnaround situation or as a last resort with a problem employee.

The coercive leadership style has the most negative impact (-.26) on the overall organisational culture.

2. Pacesetting

This is a leader who sets extremely high standards for performance. The phrase most descriptive of this leader is: “Do as I do, now!”

A pacesetting style can destroy a good culture. It only works with a highly motivated and competent team who are able to,essentially, read the leader’s mind. Others will feel overwhelmed and give up. This is because they cannot see themselves meeting the leader’s standards.

The pacesetter has virtually the same negative impact (-.25) on the overall organisational culture as a coercive leader. This style particularly impacts rewards and commitment.

3. Coaching

The coach is a leader who focuses on developing people for the future. The phrase most descriptive of this leader is: “Try this.”

Coaching leaders are great delegators. They are also willing to put up with short-term failures, provided they lead to long-term development. This style works best when you want to help employees improve their performance or develop their long-term strengths.

The coach has a positive impact (.42) on the overall organisational culture.

4. Democratic

The democratic leader achieves consensus through participation. The phrase most descriptive of this leader is: “What do you think?”

This style builds trust, as well as respect and commitment. Furthermore, it works best when you want to receive input or get employees to “buy-in” or achieve consensus. It doesn’t work under severe time constraints or if employees are confused or uninformed.

If handled correctly, this style has a positive impact (.43) on the overall organisational culture.

5. Affiliative

An affiliative leader wants to creating harmony and build emotional bonds with employees. The phrase most descriptive of this leader is: “People come first.”

This style works best when you want to motivate employees. This is especially true when they face stressful situations. In addition, this style works well when you want build team harmony, improve communication, increase morale or repair broken trust.

An affiliative leader has a positive impact (.46) on the overall organisational culture. This style has virtually no downside, and therefore it is often seen as the best overall approach.

6. Authoritative

The authoritative leader mobilises people with enthusiasm and a clear vision. This is a visionary leader. This leader gives people leeway to innovate and take calculated risks, provided that they move in the direction of the stated vision. The phrase most descriptive of this leader is: “Come with me.”

This style works best when change requires a new vision or when employees are looking for a new direction. However, this style fails when employees are more knowledgeable or experienced than the leader, or if the authoritative style becomes overbearing.

Provided that it is used with finesse, this style has the most positive impact (.54) on the overall organisational culture.

The research found that the best leaders master four or more styles, especially the authoritative, affiliative, democratic and coaching styles. Leaders who can move seamlessly from one to the other, depending on the situation, produce the most positive organisational cultures and enjoy the greatest business successes.

Anne Sexton

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  1. steve 19th April 2018 at 10:27 am

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  4. ajith herath 12th August 2021 at 5:00 am

    this is really useful can I full note on leadership styles

  5. INVS Logistics 31st March 2023 at 10:06 pm

    I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. (Kariyerim boyunca 9000 atış kaçırdım. 300 maç kaybettim. 26 defa oyun kazandıracak son şutu kaçırdım. Defalarca başarısızlığı gördüm . Ve işte bu yüzden başarıyı yakaladım.) – Michael Jordan

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