PaceSetterA Forbes article recently identified ‘5 Leadership Styles Good Bosses Avoid Like the Plague’. The list comprised of some fairly obvious culprits, the know-it-all, the micromanager, the absentee boss, the self-server, and the best friend.

I suspect that most leaders aren’t surprised by the list, it’s a fairly common-sense article. In contrast, I often encounter surprise when I talk about negative leadership styles in my workshops, especially when I talk about The Pacesetter.

The Pacesetter is a leader that sets the bar for high performance through their own example. On the surface this doesn’t seem too bad, and is a model that is often used by newly promoted technical leaders. Think of the developer that steps in to a team leader role. In the absence of any real leadership experience or mentoring it’s perhaps natural to determine that putting your head down and leading by example is a fairly good approach.

But actually the pacesetting leader creates several key problems. Consider these:

  1. The Pacesetter really doesn’t have time to work with his team, he’s too busy setting a high bar. This means that many opportunities for things like personal mentoring and team-building are lost. Over time, this individualistic perspective will have a negative impact as a ‘team’ devolves into merely a group of people doing similar things in close proximity
  1. Since the Pacesetter’s style is based on being the best, he must continue to be the best. This becomes a problem when faced with a situation in which he isn’t the best – but feels the need to continue to appear as such. Decision making from the perspective of “I’m the best” is dangerous for any leader, but can be particularly costly when technical decisions are made that dictate architecture of other foundational elements.
  1. Hiring for the Pacesetter is a particularly risky business. He needs good people on his team, but can’t hire people that are so good that they challenge him for his king-of-the-hill position. This is clearly at odds with confident leaders that hires functional experts that are more knowledgeable, skilled, and experienced than themselves.

Typically, the technical leaders I work with tend to agree that the Pacesetter is actually a negative style (and not one of the four positive styles that I teach). But invariably someone in the room is left with the uncomfortable proposition that they have to make some changes. So what can the pacesetting technical leader do to correct things? I’d suggest considering the following steps:

  1. Take some time to explain to your team that you realize you’ve been so busy with XYZ project, that you’ve probably failed to spend as much time with them as you’d like. The schedule some time with each of your team members to just listen to them.
  1. Identify some areas that you want your team members to take some additional responsibility (meaning areas that you are stepping back from ‘the best’ position). Provide some objectives and some coaching, and hold the new best person accountable.
  1. Dedicate some time to both individuals and your team as a whole. Be more mindful of what is happening. Who is struggling? Who is feeling unchallenged? Perhaps this is as formal as a team-based SWOT analysis, or perhaps it’s more of an empathetic process. Use your new awareness to make a list of things that you need to be working on as a leader – both short and long term.
  1. Spend some more time with your boss. Ask questions about the organizational impact of your work, and his or her vision for your team. Getting a bigger picture of your teams’ role will help you to understand where you need to be going.

As you implement these steps, you’ll probably find that you have to fight off the urge to just pace-set. Develop a mechanism for this, perhaps it a dedicated time each day to work on your team, not your work. Or perhaps it’s something more mental, like a catch-phrase or reminder on your desk. The pacesetting habit is likely to take a while to break, but believe me, your team, your boss, and your career will thank you for it.

Share your experience of being, or working with, a pacesetting manager in the comments below.