When Leaders Should Demand Extreme Excellence

by Jennifer Miller on February 24, 2014

in Leadership

chili peppers

Leaders, a little bit of heat goes a long way to encouraging teams to perform

Daniel Goleman, pioneering researcher of emotional intelligence, recently poked holes in the common leadership refrain of “excellence at all costs.” In the early 2000’s Goleman identified six leadership styles, one of which was the “Pacesetting” style, characterized as a leader who:

  • Sets high standards for performance and models those standards him or herself
  • Has a high drive to achieve
  • Is obsessive about doing things faster and better and expect others to do the same
  • Quickly pinpoints underperformers and takes action to bring them up to speed

While none of these behaviors on the surface seems negative, Goleman urges caution in a recent LinkedIn article.  Goleman says that Pacesetting leaders wear people out and damage morale. He also points out the shadow side of this interpersonal tendency: unclear expectations, no feedback on performance, lack of trust in team members’ abilities and micromanaging. The LinkedIn article (which is lifted directly from Goleman’s 2000 Harvard Business Review piece and is based on his emotional intelligence research) also says that the pacesetting leadership style should be “used sparingly.” That’s sound advice. Here’s what the article didn’t address: when the heck should a leader use this style if it has the potential to be so damaging? I dug into Goleman’s original HBR article and this style is best if used when a leader needs to get quick results and is working with a highly competent and motivated team accustomed to the pace of this leadership style. Here are the scenarios I envision when it is appropriate for a team leader to set a fast pace and to demand excellence at this unrelenting level:

  • A small team of professionals that are very clear on their objective, are highly self-organized and get along extremely well with one another
  • A group of veteran employees who know their jobs inside and out and need almost no direction to carry out the team’s task
  • A short-term project in which the team will have time to “decompress” after the project is done (such as crisis management)
  • High-stakes projects were errors will cost lives or significant financial damage

As Goleman points out, pacesetting has a place in leadership, but should be used sparingly. I’m thinking it’s a bit like cooking with chili peppers: a little bit of spice goes a long way. Leaders who can identify when to add that extra “zip” to their leadership recipe will provide the added boost needed to get those high-stakes projects delivered on time and within budget, without burning out their people in the process.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jennifer Miller February 24, 2014 at 4:13 pm

Excellent questions, Dan! Both of Goleman’s articles point to a potentially damaging flaw in that bullet statement: the Pacesetting leader often expects people to “just know” what needs to be done. So, there is high skill in identifying what needs to be corrected, but if the pacesetter stays in only that mode, it’s not helpful to the performer. Goleman would advocate that the leader move to the Coaching leadership style to address performance issues. I would offer that tracking and measuring behaviors is important, as long as it’s taken in context. Relying only on “the numbers” to decide whether or not a team member is making the grade isn’t character-based leadership.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: