Goleman’s Leadership Styles: Emotional Intelligence at the Heart

Is Your Leadership Style Costing You Money?

Goleman’s leadership styles, linked to emotional intelligence, have inspired businesspeople since 2002. Now, the theory has new relevance in our post pandemic world. Today’s leaders and managers must be change agents. They need skill at visioning, enabling and delivering growth and navigating uncertainty.

In any climate, leadership requires emotional intelligence. It’s a core skill in human interaction. But now, as businesses re-set, emotions are running high. Moreover, after months working from home, many people feel they’ve lost connection. And everyone’s unsure about the future.

Journalist turned bestselling author Daniel Goleman has written for decades about leadership styles and emotional intelligence. In this article we explore Goleman’s leadership styles and their impact on businesses. In addition, we look in detail at emotional intelligence and its contribution to effective leadership. Finally, at the end there’s a ‘how not to do it’ example, from an IT legend. Enjoy!

Flex Your Leadership Styles and Win

In the 1990s Daniel Goleman and colleagues Annie McKee and Richard Boyatzis researched nearly 4,000 executives. They assessed these leaders’ impact on their corporate climate and bottom line. From there they identified six leadership styles that motivated people and moved businesses forward. As a result, their 2002 book, Primal Leadership:  Realizing the power of emotional intelligence was published.

So, how do the styles relate?


You’re visionary, creative and charismatic. Visionaries are inspiring to work for because their positive impact delivers results, in almost any situation. And it’s particularly effective when a business is adrift. An authoritative leader charts a new course and sells their people on a long term vision. But on a bad day, they can appear autocratic, pompous or overbearing.


This style is highly effective. Goleman found that some specific coaching was often all people needed in terms of time investment. That’s especially true if you know the required results and how to lead your people towards the goal. Furthermore, you focus on their personal development and upgrading their skills. This works well when colleagues know their limitations and are open to change. Also, it’s good if you need results quickly. But under serious pressure, this approach can seem painfully slow. And it won’t work if employees aren’t open to coaching. Or the leader’s inexperienced.


You have the final say, but can also count on your team’s input. So, the benefit for them is the flexibility to work together to reach the agreed goal. They accept your decisions more readily, because they know they’ve contributed. This is the democratic aspect. And, your people know they can influence the business. But when you need to step in, as leader you retain your authority.

A group of work colleagues having a meeting with the leader at the head of the table


This style places individuals’ wellbeing above company tasks and goals. You put your people first and show great empathy. True affiliative leadership inspires fierce loyalty because it fosters communication and flexibility. High levels of trust result. Moreover, motivating your team like this comes naturally to some leaders, particularly in tough times. But beware. Yes, you promote harmony and heal rifts in your team, but may have problems improving poor performance. For best results you should combine affiliative and authoritative leadership.

Goleman and colleagues concluded that these first four styles build positive cultures, with a lasting, upbeat climate. But the other two styles are a different story:


You set high standards for your team. Pacesetting comes into its own when things are difficult, and can be really effective. But recipients can find it coercive. As a pacesetting leader, in your drive for results, poor communication can cause problems down the line. Morale, flexibility and responsibility can all suffer.


This is also known as commanding. If the business is doing badly, you need to make and follow through tough decisions. You’re the boss, no argument! You kick start change and confront problem employees. But when things calm down, you need to listen more and revert to being more democratic.

There’s no escaping it. Being a pacesetter or coercive is necessary at times to move the business on. But sustained for long, these styles contribute to a negative company culture. Therefore, the best approach is flexibility. Goleman and colleagues concluded the best leaders don’t know just one leadership style. They’re skilled at several, and flex with the circumstances.

Goleman’s Leadership Styles – Some Famous Examples:

  • Authoritative: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs.
  • Affiliative: the Dalai Lama.
  • Democratic: General Dwight Eisenhower, Nelson Mandela.
  • Coaching: Mahatma Gandhi, Mark Zuckerberg.
  • Pacesetting: James Cameron.
  • Coercive/commanding: Sir Winston Churchill.

Remember our point about flexing. These famous leaders wouldn’t have used this style all the time. But that’s how they’re remembered.

From Feelings to Financial Returns, it’s Down to Leadership Style

Goleman, McKee and Boyatzis’ book ‘Primal Leadership’ proposed that a leader’s usual style creates about 70% of their business’s emotional climate. This in turn, drives around 20%, or even 30%, of a business’s profitability. Companies devote huge resources to increasing profitability just 1%. So the implications are awesome, if leaders contribute 30 times that through their behaviour!

Book cover for Primal Leadership book
Primal Leadership discusses 6 different leadership styles

What is Primal Leadership?

‘Primal Leadership’ was published in 2002, not long after 9/11. Chiming with the era’s raised anxiety, Goleman and colleagues argued that a leader’s primal task involved emotions.  Therefore, Primal leadership’s role was to send a message resonating with their listeners’ emotional reality and sense of purpose. And move them in a positive direction. In an uncertain climate, Goleman said, people need leaders to lend an air of certainty. Or, at least bring conviction.

Goleman maintained this assurance was important because of the neuro science linking emotions, attention and cognition. Therefore, our ability to get work done depends on keeping our emotions under control. Primal leaders must speak to our often unstated fears.

Old school business leadership wasn’t like this! Back in 1939, Dr Kurt Lewin identified three types of leadership, autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire. In the 1930s, effective leaders were largely autocratic, especially big businesses. Therefore, employees were dutiful and obedient.

Today’s leaders, whatever size organisation, are likely to be more flexible in their thinking. They are more likely to take a situational approach. In any case, such an outlook requires self-awareness, knowing your strengths and feelings. And it involves sensitivity to your people, as well as addressing your business needs. This is where emotional intelligencecomes in.

Change Your Culture: Develop Emotional Intelligence

Hand screwing in MBM lightbulb to pole
Developing emotional intelligence is a skill needed for Goleman’s leadership styles

The Benefits of Flexibility

Understanding Goleman’s leadership styles and being flexible brings the following benefits:

  • Confirms you as a strategic leader and an asset to the organisation.
  • Increases employee engagement and retention.
  • Improves communication, teamwork and collaboration.
  • Enhances personal and team effectiveness.
  • Better equips you to develop new leaders.

All this comes down to emotional intelligence.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Having a high IQ and passing exams doesn’t always guarantee business success because in addition, we need soft skills. These help promote success, leadership, fulfilment and happy relationships.

Goleman’s theory

Before his work on leadership styles, Daniel Goleman was influential in developing current thinking about emotional intelligence. His 1995 book Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ argued that IQ was still important. But intellect alone was no guarantee of skill in identifying our emotions, or those of others. It took a special kind of intelligence to process emotional information and utilise it effectively, especially in business. Goleman called this emotional intelligence.

Where Does Emotional Intelligence Come From?

We develop emotional intelligence early in life. It’s linked to the development of the amygdala, the part of our brain where the fight/flight response happens, because the amygdala reacts automatically to threat or challenge. In later life things still make us feel uncomfortable. But as we grow, we develop and control these responses and recognise them. And we get better at managing them.

5 Tools for Emotionally Intelligent Leaders

In his book Goleman identified five elements, now recognised as essential tools for emotionally intelligent leaders:

  • Emotional self-awareness: knowing what you’re feeling at any time and understanding the impact your moods have on others.
  • Self-regulation: controlling or redirecting your emotions and anticipating consequences before acting on impulse.
  • Motivation: using emotional factors to achieve goals, enjoying the learning process and persevering in the face of obstacles.
  • Empathy: sensing others’ emotions.
  • Social skills: managing relationships, inspiring others and inducing desired responses.

Self-Awareness by Numbers

Self-awareness is everything! The organisational psychologist Tasha Eurich carried out some revealing research. 95% of us reckon we’re self-aware, but only 10-15% of us actually are! That can pose problems in business. So, working with leaders or colleagues who aren’t self-aware can cut a team’s success by as much as half.

Are You Up to Speed on Emotional Intelligence?

The Signs of an Emotionally Intelligent Leader

  • Adaptability: Ability to react quickly to new and changing information.
  • Optimism: The vision to see the bigger picture in a difficult situation. Getting perspective and keeping moving forward, and encouraging team members to do the same.
  • Initiative: The facility and eagerness to take initiative, and help team members take initiative too. Being able to identify and cultivate these strengths in others.
  • Conflict resolution: Providing team members with opportunities to talk and resolve issues. Airing challenges before things get worse.
  • Professional development: Encouraging team members to learn and cultivate new skills. Identifying strengths and areas for improvement.
  • Empathy: Not just listening to team members. Making them feel heard and understood too. Seeking to understand team members’ perspective, in order to communicate effectively.
  • Trustworthiness: Not just good at keeping secrets or confidences. Creating an environment of mutual trust, where team members feel supported and comfortable.
  • Self-reflection: Analysing your performance and setting regular reviewed goals. Doing this while encouraging your team to pause and reflect on themselves.

Focusing on these traits will help leaders cultivate team members’ emotional intelligence and help them maximise their productivity. Furthermore, it will also help team members develop their own leadership skills.

Are Emotionally Intelligent Leaders ‘Servant Leaders’?

Strictly, no, they’re not. Emotionally intelligent leaders use their gifts to motivate people and achieve their ends. This includes the leaders’ own advancement in the business. But they may prioritise the development of new leaders over their personal ambitions, to build the best possible team. In this way they have similarities with servant leaders.  

Your Jedi Mind Tricks Don’t work on Me

The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence

We hope this won’t happen to you, but… There are some ‘cons’ to watch out for, with people abusing  their emotional intelligence skills:

  • Emotional intelligence can be used to manipulate people.
  • Emotion prevents others from using their critical thinking skills. For instance, think of bullying and hate speech.
  • It can be used for personal gain.
  • Unscrupulous people can exploit others’ emotional intelligence. This can make the victims vulnerable to situations that are morally dodgy.
  • Emotional Intelligence takes time to develop. People may not wish to confront their fears and habits or other negative emotions, to help them look outwards.
  • Emotional intelligence isn’t a skill everyone takes seriously. And society often separates emotions from words. That’s especially true with social media.

Thankfully there are also plenty of benefits:

The Pros

  • Emotional intelligence is something anyone can learn.
  • It can help reduce bullying and being conned. It helps us stay in control of our emotions, while recognising our effect on others.
  • Emotional intelligence improves a person’s social effectiveness and enables them to relate to others at a core level.
  • It reduces our likelihood of engaging in personally destructive behaviour. This is because we’re aware of the negative impact on others.
  • Our decision making becomes a lot faster because we can examine more data in terms of our emotional response than by logic
  • You can use emotional intelligence in any situation.

How Do I Become a Better Emotional Leader?

Do Better written in white neon on black background
Become a better leader with these 6 steps

Keen to develop your emotional leadership abilities? Scroll back to Goleman’s leadership styles, then try these six steps:

  1. Recognise your default leadership style.
  2. Identify and develop your leadership strengths.
  3. Work on your weaknesses.
  4. Ask for feedback.
  5. Assess your ability to delegate: identify the skills your colleagues have, which could complement yours.
  6. Observe your leaders’ leadership styles.

Now it’s homework time. Search for the excellent NHS questionnaire on Goleman’s leadership styles and emotional intelligence. There’s a pdf you can download. Or do you prefer a more light hearted approach? Try one of the numerous quizzes online.

AND FINALLY: If You Can Keep Your Head When All Around You Are Losing Theirs…

Many famous entrepreneurs use unconventional methods in their careers, and have notoriously idiosyncratic leadership styles. Here are some accepted start-up principles. One such legend didn’t follow them. But they should be part of your leadership style:

  • Delegate sufficiently: Taking on excessive individual responsibility can be detrimental to your health and wellbeing. And the business can suffer.
  • Train and invest in staff: Most people will thrive and develop under training.
  • Nurture your business relationships: Develop relationships with potential partners.
  • Communicate expectations: Spend time with your team. Share what you’re trying to accomplish.
  • Be realistic: Of course ambition is important. But so is accepting reality in making business decisions.
  • Don’t be a perfectionist: Yes, go for your big vision. Though it can be costly if it means you miss other opportunities that come along in the meantime.
  • Encourage individual initiative: Bring people on, to hand over to.
  • Stay balanced and down to earth: Stay firmly grounded in the real world.

This list is based on the alleged failings of A Very Famous IT Tycoon. Sadly, they’re no longer with us. They supposedly didn’t do any of these things, because in the end they fell out with their business partners. But follow these rules, and you’ll be sure to do brilliantly.

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