In a recent session with a Stage 5 company, 75% of the managers selected Pacesetting as their top leadership style. When we examined the definition and descriptions for each of the styles, the question was asked: Why is this style dissonant and recommended used sparingly?

This style can work extremely well, particularly in technical fields, among highly skilled professionals or a hard-driving sales team. Pacesetting makes sense during the entrepreneurial phase of company’s life cycle, when growth is all important. In the 7 Stages of Growth, the Pacesetting Style shows up in Stage 2, Stage 3 Stage 4 and Stage 6. Any time that group members are all highly competent, motivated and need little direction, the style can yield brilliant results. Given a talented team, the pacesetting leader gets work done on time, or even ahead of deadline.

So why is this style better used sparingly? It would seem that advice runs counter to the value this style can provide. There is nothing wrong with a leader that holds and exemplifies high standards for performance. That leader is obsessive about doing things better and faster and asks the same of everyone. That leader quickly pinpoints poor performers, demands more from them and if they don’t rise to the occasion, rescues the situation themselves.

Here’s the rub.

If this style is applied poorly or excessively, or in the wrong setting, the pacesetting approach can leave employees feeling pushed too hard by the leader’s excessive demands. And since pacesetters tend to be unclear about guidelines – expecting people to ‘just know what to do’, followers often have to second-guess what the leader wants. In too many cases, morale plummets as employees see their leader as driving them too hard – or worse, feel the leader doesn’t trust them to get the job done in their own way.

A pacesetting leader can be so focused on their goals that they can appear not to care about the people they rely on to achieve those goals. The net result is dissonance.

In the book Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman, he states that their data shows, more often than not, pacesetting poisons the climate – particularly when a leader relies on it too much.

The pacesetters dilemma is: the more pressure put on people for results, the more anxiety it provokes.

What does it take to be an effective pacesetting leader?

A heavy dose of two leadership competencies: Empathy and Self-Awareness. The absence of empathy means pacesetting leaders can blithely focus on accomplishing tasks while remaining oblivious to the rising distress in those who perform them. An absence of self-awareness leaves the pacesetters blind to their own failings.

Other competencies that pacesetting leaders often lack include the ability to collaborate or communicate effectively, particularly providing timely and helpful performance feedback. The most glaring lack is emotional self-management, a deficit that manifests as either micromanaging or impatience or worse.

Pacesetting can work in tandem with other leadership styles such as the passion of a visionary style and the team building of the affiliative style.

When leaders use the pacesetting style exclusively or poorly, they lack not just vision but also resonance. Too often, such leaders are driven by numbers alone which aren’t always enough to inspire or motivate people.

We talked about why someone chooses to follow a leader:

  • They want to know that leader cares about them
  • They want to know that leader can help them
  • They need to be able to trust that leader

Pacesetting leaders don’t take the time to show people they care about them as they are so focused on the tasks and deadlines. Leaving people ‘second-guessing’ what that leader wants doesn’t provide timely feedback or send a message that the leader wants to help that person succeed, they just want the job done. And finally, that lack of caring and helping will erode trust.

I speak from experience.  When I was a less than experienced manager, my pacesetting style created havoc when I joined a new organization as the leader and, in my own drive to show ‘I can do my job better than anyone and improve performance overall’, I drove my new staff to frustration and burn-out. Huge lesson for me was when one of my team actually got so sick from trying to stay up with my driving pacesetting personality. That was a huge wake-up call for me and I began my own skills development program to become a more ‘engaged’ leader.

Your success. My passion.

Laurie Taylor, FlashPoint!