During my many years as a business leader I have encountered pacesetting leaders many times. In fact, I must admit that I have strong pacesetting tendencies myself. This article explains theoretical and practical aspects of pace setting leadership including definition, advantages and disadvantages, how to implement it, when to use it, examples of famous pacesetting leaders and some practical examples from my leadership career.
As in most of our articles, we will start with a short and sweet explanation to set an overview for the article.
What is pacesetting leadership?
Pacesetting leadership is when the leader sets an example of high performance, high pace and high quality. Team members are expected to follow suit, and the pacesetting leader values results more than anything. This leadership style can be good to reach short term results, but can be detrimental for employee engagement and motivation in the long run.
The Pacesetting Leadership Style is part of the framework of leadership styles by Daniel Goleman. I really suggest you get his book Primal Leadership (Amazon), it’s a great source of knowledge. If you find yourself being too much of a pacesetter, then I suggest you create a leadership development plan targeting some alternative leadership styles instead.
Keep reading this extensive article or watch our youtube video on pacesetting leadership right here:
Pacesetting leadership, as the name implies, focuses on the leader setting the pace for the organization by adopting a “Do as I do. Now.” approach. Team members watch the pacesetting leader and his or her speed, performance and quality of work. The same output is expected from the team since the pacesetting leader sets an example for others to follow. As the team performs, trouble looms if the end product isn’t provided by the stated deadline and doesn’t meet the leader’s high expectations. Results are what counts in the end.
A pacesetting leader is guided by the principle of not assigning a task to an incapable employee. In other words, this leader won’t give an employee more than he or she can handle. Therefore, the leader believes that it’s fair to either swoop in and take over from an employee who is failing or fire that employee on the grounds of incompetence.
What does the word pacesetting mean?
The word pacesetting means:
- “A person, group or organization that is the most progressive or successful and serves as a model to be imitated.”
- “A person or thing that sets the pace, as in racing.”
This doesn’t sound all too bad, does it? Who wouldn’t want to be the most progressive or successful and be a model for others to imitate?
Background of Pacesetting Leadership
Daniel Goleman is a world-renowned psychologist best known for developing the concept of emotional intelligence. Through many years of study and observation, he was able to establish a connection between emotions and leadership. His Harvard Business Review article titled “Leadership that Gets Results” set the stage for reframing leadership and conceptualized six emotion-based leadership styles. Pacesetting leadership is one of the six leadership styles, and they are all explained in detail in the book Primal Leadership as well as in our article on the six leadership styles by Goleman.
Some key points from Goleman’s pivotal article include:
- “The most successful leaders have strengths in the following emotional intelligence competencies: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation and empathy.”
- Pacesetting leadership emphasizes self-regulation.
- “The more styles a leader exhibits, the better. Leaders who have mastered four or more – especially the authoritative, democratic, affiliative, and coaching styles – have the very best climate and business performance. And the most effective leaders switch flexibly among the leadership styles as needed.”
- Organizational climate can have as much as a 33 percent impact on organizational performance. This is one reason for supporting leadership styles (such as affiliative, democratic and coaching) that improve organizational climate.
Despite not being the perfect fit for a positive organizational climate, pacesetting leadership still has its place. Continue reading this article to learn more. It is of key importance that you consider pacesetting leadership as one out of a set of six leadership styles that shall be used interchangeably. Read more about this and the basic platform of emotional intelligence and resonant leadership in our article on the six leadership styles by Daniel Goleman.
Goleman’s book Primal Leadership (Amazon) is a great read on leadership styles.
What Are the Elements of Pacesetting Leadership?
A pacesetting leader is highly self-motivated. This leader has a strong desire to succeed and sets standards of extreme performance and perfection. Invariably, a pacesetting leader assumes that employees have the same level of self-motivation and will, therefore, meet the leader’s high-performance standards.
2. Clearly Communicated Requirements
There is no room for ambiguity. An effective pacesetting leader knows that high quality can’t be expected from a team if requirements are unclear. Therefore, this leader will begin each project by ensuring that requirements are clearly understood before asking employees to complete their assigned tasks.
However, there’s a flip side. Direct reports may clearly understand what is required but a pacesetting leader won’t necessarily provide guidance along the way to ensure that the right end result is produced. A pacesetting leader expects direct reports to be competent enough to know how to produce the required output without being told. Hence, the pacesetting leadership is not built on micromanagement.
We can all get better at communication. Check out my personal tips here: How to improve communication as a leader.
Time is always working against the lofty goals that pacesetting leaders strive to achieve. Therefore, these leaders use great initiative to get things done as quickly as possible. An employee who isn’t keeping up with the leader’s fast-paced approach may be asked to step aside so that the leader can take over. There’s no time for tasks to fall behind.
A pacesetting leader leads by example. This leader sets the trend for others to follow. Those who can’t keep up with the trend are often left at the wayside.
What are the Pros and Cons of Pacesetting Leadership?
Advantages of Pacesetting Leadership
There are significant advantages to the pacesetting leadership style. Just beware, there is a backside to this. Detailed descriptions of the advantages, as well as the disadvantages, continue after this overview image.
1. Business goals are quickly achieved.
Strict timelines and emphasis on high-quality output make pacesetting leadership ideal for achieving short-term, time-sensitive organizational goals. For instance, a sales department working on a sales campaign or pushing through to maximize seasonal sales. It could be getting that new product introduced on time, requiring the research and development department to finalize all prototyping as planned.
2. Highlights the competencies of a highly skilled and experienced team.
Pacesetting leaders work best with a highly skilled and experienced team. Such a team already knows how to effectively utilize the competencies of each team member to achieve the best results as quickly as possible. Also, the leader is able to identify the strongest competencies within the team and leverage those to increase the organization’s competitive advantage.
3. Issues are swiftly addressed.
Since the end result is of such great importance, a pacesetting leader doesn’t sit on his or her laurels hoping that the team gets things done. This leader requires constant progress updates so that the project’s timeline is kept intact. Although the leader may not have the best approach for resolving the issues, it helps that things aren’t allowed to spiral out of control.
Cons of Pacesetting Leadership
This chapter explains the disadvantages of pacesetting leadership. Detailed descriptions on each con is available below the summary image.
1. Employees can feel stressed, overwhelmed, and unmotivated
A team led by a pacesetting leader can quickly fall apart if each team member isn’t already highly skilled and intrinsically motivated. Employees who prefer more guidance and opportunities to learn and improve will quickly feel overwhelmed and unmotivated by this leader. Inability to deliver according to the highly set requirements can lead to stressed team members having self esteem issues and feeling inadequate.
2. Trust is lost
There isn’t a high level of trust in a team led by a pacesetting leader. Instead of focusing on doing their best, team members second-guess their work because they aren’t sure that it’s what the leader wants. The leader doesn’t trust the team to improve with the right guidance and development. (Tension abounds as the team never knows when the leader will either dismiss those deemed incompetent or become a micromanager. Read this great book by Patric Lencioni to learn the importance of trust as well as other great lessons: The Five Dysfunctions of a team.
3. Work becomes repetitive and boring
Pacesetting leaders have a bias towards being result-oriented. Therefore, there’s less room for creativity and innovation, when there are deadlines to meet and an expectation for consistently high levels of performance. This leads to work ultimately becoming short-sighted, repetitive, and boring.
4. Employees receive little or no feedback
Only one of two options come to the forefront of a pacesetting leader’s mind when a project’s timeline is being threatened. The leader will either take over from direct reports so that work gets done on time in the right way or get rid of those who are believed to be underperforming. There’s no middle ground. Therefore, employees don’t receive the feedback they need to improve. This feedback is necessary for them to develop themselves and achieve long-lasting success. (A dose of coaching leadership and creating leadership development plans can counter this disadvantage.)
5. Employee engagement is low
The team doesn’t really feel like a team. There’s no focus on establishing relationships and building team morale. Instead, employees fall into the routine of coming to work, hurriedly completing tasks to meet deadlines, and going home mentally exhausted from the pressure of a strained work environment. Always being in a rush and experiencing high pressure can be devastating for team morale and employee engagement. (Balance this out with some affiliative leadership.)
6. Pacesetting can become a part of the system
Since pacesetting leaders obviously prefer other pacesetters that deliver on time according to target there might be a positive bias towards such personalities. If people that cannot deliver as expected get fired, then who do you think will get promoted? Other pace setters of course. After a few cycles of promotions, a top pacesetting leader might have purposely or inadvertently transformed the organizational hierarchy in such a way that the proportion of pacesetting leaders has increased. Which in turn increases the chance of additional pacesetting leaders joining the club. In fact, the leader might influence the organizational culture and transform it into a pacesetting culture.
How to Improve Pacesetting Leadership?
Pacesetting leadership is best used for getting quick results from a highly motivated team that needs minimal direction. Some tips for using it effectively are given below, but the most important tip is to see pacesetting as one out of six leadership styles that you should use in different combinations. This is better explained in our article on the six leadership styles by Daniel Goleman.
- Provide regular performance evaluations so that employees clearly understand where they’re faltering and are provided with opportunities to improve.
- Display trust in your team by allowing them to provide input and giving them the space they need to complete their jobs in a way that works best for them. To put it simple: empower your team. You can do this and still set the pace, try to compromise here
- Consistently lead by example. The team should never see you failing to be the trendsetter you’ve portrayed yourself to be.
- Use pacesetting leadership sparingly and only when it is needed. Pretty much all of the six disadvantages of pacesetting leadership listed above only materialize if pacesetting leadership is applied long term. Don’t do it.
- Read Primal Leadership which explains the other five styles you should balance pacesetting with. Learning and using them will help you to avoid too much pacesetting.
Never forget that pacesetting leadership should only be used when needed. The entire style is defined to be situational and not behavioral. So, use it when short term results are extraordinarily important or when you need to push for completion of something large scale. Do not use it for everyday business, since it will then be used as an overall behavior rather than in specific situations. After all, pacesetting leadership is one out of six styles in a set, so use the other ones as well. Refer to the last chapter of this article for an overview of the full set and links to the other leadership styles.
Also remember that a certain level of pacesetting is good and perhaps even a requirement in most leadership positions. After all, it is the job of the leader to get some sort of results, and that requires ambition on delivering, right?
Why pacesetting leadership is important
To elaborate on the importance of pacesetting leadership, let us isolate a few key parts in the style and work out their significance.
1. Setting an example
Even though the expectations might be high, the pacesetting leader is really setting an example for others to follow. This is an important thing in leadership in general. It can make you a role model and perhaps more importantly, it underlines that you do not ask more of others than you ask of yourself – another important thing in a leader and perhaps a difference between a leader and a boss by the way.
2. Focus on excellence
If you are setting an example, you should probably show off traits that move your organization forward, right? What if you are mean, lazy, arrogant and don’t care about the organization you lead? It will be very bad for the future if others imitate such behaviors.
3. Underlining performance and time aspects
It is not good to be delayed. It is in the word itself that it is unintended and bad. It is good for your future and the future of the organization if expectations are met. This means fewer internal and external stakeholders will be disappointed. Delays and disappointments are good to avoid in general and a pacesetting leader shows and repeats why this is important. In most businesses, a reminder on adhering to time plans and delivering on expectations is a good thing, and it can help the organization to grow.
After all, as with all leadership styles, you want to maximize the advantages and limit or reduce the disadvantages. For pacesetting leadership, just like so many other leadership styles, it is a matter of using it when it should be used and not all the time that is the key to success.
Let’s make it short and sweet:
Why is pacesetting leadership important?
Pacesetting leadership is important since it sets an example for others to follow, focuses on excellence and underlines the importance of meeting expectations of your stakeholders.
When to use the pacesetting leadership style?
To begin with, it might be easier to start with stating when you should not use the pacesetting leadership. The answer is “not all the time”. Here are a few examples of when you should use the pacesetting leadership style.
Use pacesetting leadership:
- When time urgency is extra high
- When delivery is more important than normal
- When team morale is faltering and belief on success is low – show the team that it is possible
- When the leader needs to set a high performance example
Those are a few examples of situations when you can successfully use a pacesetting leadership. Just remember to switch to another leadership style in the same set when the situation is resolved and dealt with.
Pacesetting leadership, practical examples from my experience
I have substantial experience from pacesetting in two ways: from having a pacesetting leader and being a pacesetting leader.
Having a pacesetting leader
Since I have quite a bit of pacesetting in me I probably have less issues with having a pacesetting leader than many others. I see the urge for performance and on time delivery as a natural ingredient in a business leader, so I do not question the need of my leader to be pace setting. If he or she isn’t, then how are we going to grow and improve our business I sometimes think.
That said, there must be a balance and limit to it. I once had a boss who was pretty much deploying a laissez faire leadership style on me since this person had more urgent issues elsewhere. Since I performed well and continuously improved together with my team, my leader kind of stood back a bit, which makes sense given the situation.
The problem was that during an absolute majority of our interactions, laissez faire was switched out to pacesetting. There was little to no interest in the long term visions, how the team developed, how we did things etc. It was all about the numbers and whether they were meeting expectations. After hearing this, the leader kind of tuned the rest out.
This behavior was a bit demotivating since we spent a lot of time getting all the other things in place. All those activities and plans were necessary to have a sustainable business with growth over time. It was those activities and that work that enabled the short term performance that the pacesetting leader focused on. Sometimes you need to think about the journey as well, not just the destination.
Being a pacesetting leader
Given the description of my old pacesetting leader above, one might wonder how I can become a pacesetting leader myself, right?
Truth is, I was a pacesetting leader even before I met the person in the story above. In a leadership style assessment one of my previous teams answered, I was rated as having stronger pacesetting tendencies than 95% of the leaders in the norm group. What was even worse is that this shocked me, I simply didn’t have the self awareness to foresee that was how they perceived me. I had simply put too high focus on the numbers. For a long time. It was also an indication that some people in that team didn’t care for or understand the importance of the financials as much as they should have. I will get back to that though.
After this epiphany, I set off on a journey to modify my leadership behavior quite a bit. Although I have always been a rather democratic leader, I tried to grow that even further and spend more time on visionary tasks as well as coaching in order to change my ways.
In later teams, I have managed to get the pacesetting down a lot and increased other important aspects of leadership. This has been fed back to me verbally as well as in different types of surveys. My journey will never end and it continues to this day – I will always try to improve as a leader.
Coming back to some members in the former team not recognizing the importance of pacesetting. If you are a senior leader in business, you need to understand that there is a strong financial drive for the existence of the business and those measurements are of a pacesetting nature. This especially applies for publicly owned businesses where quarterly reports affect share prices.
I am not simply trying to blame my high rate of pacesetting on the team, but I do want to underline that those team members as well as later ones have generally stated that they want me to be a pacesetter in order to show the way and safeguard our results. It is just a matter of calibrating the pacesetter in you and letting other aspects come out as well.
Nowadays, I limit my pacesetting to short bursts and only when it is absolutely necessary. No one in my current team questions that, and they appreciate that I can turn my pacesetting on and off a bit. Please note, that you can set high targets in your leadership vision, that is not necessarily pacesetting leadership. Hint: I still set high long term targets and expectations together with my team..
I am frequently using five out of the six leadership styles by Goleman, which means that pacesetting is not dominating too much.
Since I’m a pacesetter, I of course ensure I have the right productivity equipment as well. You can read about the apps and tools I use here: Productivity tools for Managers and Leaders.
Famous Examples of Pacesetting Leaders?
Jack Welch – Former CEO of General Electric – (Born 1935 – Died 2020)
Jack Welch is best known as the leader of General Electric (GE) who made the company one of the biggest success stories of the 20th century. His no nonsense approach meant that he rewarded the top 20 percent of performers in the company and fired the bottom 10 percent. Therefore, his GE team was constantly kept on their toes to ensure consistently high standards.
Welch also deeply believed in getting involved in the daily work of competent and capable employees to keep them on track. Additionally, he believed that business leaders should intervene when they “bring unique expertise to a situation, or can expedite things by dint of their authority, or both.” Here’s a link to Welch’s book so you can learn directly from this famous pacesetter: Winning. A very pacesetting title by the way.
Virat Kohili- Captain of the National Cricket Team of India – (Born 1988)
Virat Kohili’s pacesetting leadership style aptly portrays how this type of leader can be a trendsetter. Cricket is a sport that requires agility, focus and teamwork. However, Kohili began his international cricket career being slightly overweight. His team members also had similar physical characteristics.
Poor fitness led to the team’s demise on several occasions. Kohili knew that something had to be done. He embarked on a rigorous fitness regime and expected his teammates to follow suit. Those who didn’t and ultimately remained unfit were excluded from the playing squad. Kohili’s approach inevitably led to India’s cricket team becoming an indomitable force. They even won the 2011 Cricket World Cup.
Which are the Goleman leadership styles?
The complete set of leadership styles as presented by Daniel Goleman is:
- Coercive leadership style (Directive leadership style)
- Authoritative leadership style (Visionary leadership style)
- Affiliative leadership style
- Democratic leadership style (Participative leadership style)
- Pacesetting leadership style
- Coaching leadership style
The whole concept builds on using as many of the Goleman leadership styles as possible depending on the circumstances such as situation, people involved, the topic at hand, and other factors. In brief, here is a summary of the different styles for overview purposes. I really think you should read our article on the Goleman leadership styles based on Emotional Intelligence to understand how they fit together and how you can build resonant leadership with them.
For a truly great read on leadership, check out Goleman’s book Primal Leadership on Amazon. For a quick intro to each style, keep reading below this overview image.
1. Coercive Leadership Style
This style is also known as commanding or directive leadership.
In directive leadership, the leader makes all the decisions and gives orders to his or her team. Tight control and follow-up combined with high clarity in rules, roles, and expectations are core parts of this leadership style. Directive leadership can be efficient in low skilled teams and when decisions must be made very quickly. However, it can lead to micromanagement, which is negative for employee engagement, especially in teams with high skills that work in complex environments.
This summary is an excerpt from our in depth article on directive leadership.
2. Authoritative Leadership Style
Since the authoritative style is built on long term vision and it is often referred to as the visionary leadership style. (Do not mix up authoritative leadership with authoritarian leadership since there is a world of difference between them.) A visionary leader truly understands the big picture and sets a long-term path for the organization. When applying a visionary leadership style, the long-term vision is also properly communicated and explained to the members of the organization. A great visionary leader manages to communicate and market the vision in such a way that members of the organization feel inspired and understand how they will benefit from its realization. This is often much more difficult than it sounds, especially if there are many layers in the organization where the vision can be misconstrued, diluted or misunderstood while cascaded downwards.
This summary is an excerpt from our in depth article about visionary leadership.
3. Affiliative Leadership Style
Affiliative leadership focuses on relationships and people. While focusing on keeping all team members happy, the affiliative leader builds strong relationship and bonds to the team members. This style leads to trust and harmony in the team, which can take team work to the next level. Feedback, recognition and rewards are central concepts in affiliative leadership. Check out our deep dive article on Affiliative leadership.
4. Democratic leadership style
Democratic leadership is when an empowered team takes full part in the decision-making process. Ideas and suggestions can be brought forward by any team member, and there is a strive for consensus in decision making. In the end, the democratic leader approves or makes the decision. Democratic leadership is an effective leadership style but can sometimes be too slow when fast decisions are needed.
The above is a brief description taken from our article on Democratic Leadership.
5. Pacesetting leadership style
This style needs no further introduction since it is the topic of this article and there is plenty of in depth information on it further above.
6. Coaching leadership style
Coaching Leadership is when the leader coaches team members to develop themselves in the long term to become better individuals and professionals. Coaching leadership is time consuming and requires a lot of skill on the part of the leader. It will only work if the individual being coached is motivated and open for feedback.
This summary is an excerpt from our in depth article about coaching leadership.
Now read the entire article on the six leadership styles by Daniel Goleman. It will help you take your leadership to a totally different level!