< Back to news

Great leaders move us. They ignite our passion and inspire the best in us. When we try to explain why they are so effective, we speak of strategy, vision, or powerful ideas. But the reality is much more primal: Great leadership works through the emotions.”  Daniel Goleman on Leadership.

Being the leader of a family business presents unique challenges. The complex and historic emotional patterns of the family are sometimes in tension with the professional necessities required to run the family business; emotions can spill over the kitchen table and perplex leaders and family members.

Recently, whilst working with a group of family business owners, I was struck by their hunger for more information about different Leadership Styles. “I didn’t realise I could shift my style, I just thought it was fixed,” said one participant; she was hooked. I had only planned to include this subject as a taster at the beginning of the session, as it turned out we could have spent the whole day exploring the subject. I’ll know better next time!

Whether family member or non-family member, all too often leaders in family firms adopt one style of leadership and stick to it, often subconsciously as it’s based on historic relationships. “It’s just how we have always done things around here” is a mantra I often hear. But what, for example, if the younger sister is the M.D. of the firm, but it’s the older sister who has always called the shots in the family, or a C.E.O. whose son is being disruptive and disrespectful to a long standing, non-family board member? How the M.D. and C.E.O. react to these situations can be tricky.

Family business leaders don’t have to stick to one style of leadership. You have a choice on how you lead, depending on the situation and the person you are dealing with. You’ll find that by shifting your leadership style (being flexible) will result in more positive outcomes.

In their 2002 book, ‘Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence’, (Harvard Business School Press), Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzus and Annie McKee identify six emotional leadership styles.  Each style has strengths, weaknesses and different effects on the people you are leading.

  • The Visionary Leader – moves people towards a shared vision, telling them where to go but not how to get there.
  • The Coaching Leader – helps staff connect their own personal wants and needs with the goals of the organisation.
  • The Affiliative Leader – encourages a sense of harmony, using a collaborative style and understanding and valuing the emotional needs of the team.
  • The Democratic Leader – values input from the team and commitment via participation, listening to both the bad and the good news.  They listen more than they direct.
  • The Pace-Setting Leader – focuses on challenge and setting goals. They have high standards and expect excellence.  When things go wrong, they will often look to help rescue the situation themselves, to make sure the goals are met.
  • The Commanding Leader – often autocratic, they give clear directions, which can be perceived as orders. There is a need for full compliance, not agreement.

What style might the MD choose to get the best out of her older sister when they have to make important business decisions? Similarly, what style might the CEO Mum employ when she has that challenging conversation with her son about his disruptive behaviour?

We will explore these questions in subsequent blogs.  For now, reflect on your own preferred leadership style. Which of the six styles most resonate with you?  There may be a couple. How do you tend to react to situations within your family business and what is your default response to a situation? Would a different response have produced a better outcome?

Thinking back over past scenarios can be a useful tool to help you think about how you might best approach future challenges.  Learning the strategies and language associated with each style of leadership is something we’ll cover next time.