The Pacesetting Leadership Style Summarized


a black game piece symbolizing a pacesetting leader standing apart from 6 red game pieces symbolizing the followers

Understanding pacesetting


One of the images that typically forms in the mind of someone thinking about leadership is that of the leader, in one way or another, standing in front of those that follow them. Leading from the front, setting the tone, carrying the torch/banner/flag. All of these expressions seem to point to a particular style of leadership, pacesetting. While these expressions or words might be true, the pacesetting leadership style is more nuanced than that.


The dictionary defines the word pacesetting as a person or thing that sets the pace. Pacesetting from a team management context is similar. The leader must set the pace that the team needs to perform at to achieve the desired result on time.


When to use pacesetting


Pacesetting is best used with a team that is already either high performing, highly skilled, highly experienced or a blend of all of it. Typically, these types of employees or team members already have a high level of functioning talent. They simply need a goal to work towards. That's where a pacesetting leader can come in handy in your organization. It is the leader's job to set a demanding goal and then 'unleash' the power and energy that already exists within the team itself. Proper management of this power and energy is the primary goal for pacesetting leaders.


You often find teams built for pacesetting in organizations or business units that have longer tenured staff or are a highly specialized work group. These folks know their jobs and their business well and don't need to be actively 'managed.' In fact, too much oversight of these teams will crush their drive, motivation and creativity. Your role as their leader is to recognize the organizational, technical or other 'built in' strengths that already exist within the team and simply stay out of the way.


This is certainly not to say that you should be totally hands off. Rather, simply think of the team like a loaded cannon. You have to point it in the right direction, see where it hits once fired and adjust as necessary. You do not however, need to stand in front of the cannon and show it where to go once aimed and follow the cannonball around making sure it goes where you told it. It won't end well for you with the cannon, or with these types of teams.


Use of the pacesetting leadership style is great in the company's entrepreneurial phase of growth and development. Even if the people you have to work with don't necessarily fit the mold as described above, this phase in a company's life cycle is so dynamic that the leader must set the pace. This is an instance where a highly competent leader is critically important to the team. A practical application of pacesetting can usually be found in tech startups where the founder is very technically competent in the product or service they are trying to turn into a business.


Frequent use of the pacesetting leadership style is often found in sales environments. Sales, regardless of the company, team or product, is a high pressure, results driven position. The leadership style that best fits this environment might not always be pacesetting but as it is the most natural fit, you often see it employed regularly. It can be great for getting desired results in a very short amount of time.


Drawbacks to pacesetting


While this style has many uses, like anything else, it has drawbacks as well. Of all the leadership styles, pacesetting is actually the second most harmful to a work environment behind only the coercive style. Use of this style often comes with burnout, tension and high stress.


Unless your workforce is used to and comfortable with high stress and high stakes, employees are often overwhelmed by the shear pace. This can have a devastating impact on team or company morale. No where near as much as the directive leadership style but pacesetting can come close if used improperly.


To summarize, leaders must be extremely judicious when discerning the need to use pacesetting. While it may be tempting to ramp up the pressure to achieve a needed result in time, remember the human element involved. Great leaders know their people and when they can push them and when they cannot.


Real world examples of pacesetting leadership


You will find the pacesetting leadership style in certain industries more commonly than others. Notably this style is best suited for the fast paced environments of the real estate, insurance and information technology industries. Their sales departments in particular will be full too bursting with leaders executing this style of leadership frequently.


These industries rely heavily on high powered sales teams and individuals that carry tremendous weight and pressure around every day. The individual sales people are the real talent and it is the leader's role in these organizations to keep them focused and fine tuned. However, it is also their role to stay out of the way and not interfere.


Another common example of the pacesetting leadership style is the military. While in basic training, the commanders take a much more directive approach. Their job is to turn raw recruits into soldiers. After completing their required training however, the individual soldiers are often more highly trained than their commanders, especially if they specialize in certain tactics, weaponry or skills.


Much like in the sales environment, it is the leaders role to keep them trained to a fine edge and point them in the right direction. Once that is done though, when pacesetting, stay out of the way so they can do their jobs properly without being hindered by oversight.


Six styles of leadership

Science journalist Daniel Goleman first came up with the concept of the styles of leadership in the early 2000's. Since then, they have become extremely popular when discussing the topic of situational leadership.


The six styles are as follows:

  • Visionary — mobilize people toward a vision. Works best when a clear direction or change is needed.

  • Coaching — develop people for the future. Works best when helping people and building long-term strength.

  • Affiliative — create emotional bonds and harmony. Works best to heal rifts in teams or motivate people in stressful times.

  • Democratic — build consensus through participation. Works best to create consensus or get input.

  • Pacesetting — expect excellence and self-direction. Works best to get quick results from a highly competent team.

  • Commanding — demand immediate compliance. Works best in crisis or with problematic people.


If you want to go way more in depth on these leadership styles, check out Daniel Goleman's book!


Leave a comment below and tell us about a time that you have used the pacesetting leadership style!


Want a handy picture of the pros and cons? Feel free to save this one!



A list of Pacesetting Pros written in black set against a green background on the left and a list of cons of pacesetting written in black set against a red background


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