The Pacesetting Style

by Christian Haller on April 22, 2011

At first blush, the Pacesetting (Drill Instructor) leadership style seems like win-win.  The foundation of the pacesetting style sound great – the leader sets extremely high performance stan­dards and exemplifies them himself. He is obses­sive about doing things better and faster (never satisfied with the status quo), and he asks the same of everyone around him. He is intolerant of poor performers and demanding more from them – and if improvements are not forthcoming, terminates them.  Who wouldn’t want constantly improving performance from a highly skilled team?
The Pacesetter/Drill Instructor approach can work when all followers are self-motivated, highly competent, and need little direction or coordination— and it a common approach with a team of technical leaders and lawyers.  When intent and empathy are in place, the Pacesetter will achieve seriously impressive results in a short period of time.  The intent of the drill instructor must be to bring out the best in the team members – for them to achieve to their full potential, as opposed to the leaders obsessive drive with perfection or a monetary reward.  The internal versus external intent will continue to play a role in the effectiveness of each leadership style. As for the empathy element, an effective pacesetter leader must have a connection with each team member to understand their goals and passions to bring out the best in them – or else risks the perception of attempting to mold others into his own vision of himself – or what he believes the followers should be. The empathy-less pacesetter also fails to ignore – and react – to team stress from increasingly rising demands.
In my experience, the pacesetter more often than not destroys the team climate and the individuals rarely rise to the occasion.  Employees often feel overwhelmed by the paceset­ter’s demands for excellence, and their morale drops. If the follower is not in their ideal job, pushing them to rise to an occasion just isn’t going to work.  Likewise, driving them to rise to the pacesetters dreams, will also fail. Pacesetting will not work unless the leader has established alignment around a common goal – and pacesetters are not good at getting alignment. 
Another common negative trend of pacesetters is that they have all the guidelines and plan in their head, but fail to communicate them clearly.  They expect others to know what to do and how to do it.  I often see pacesetters state,  “If I have to tell them what to do, they are not qualified for the job.”  In this case, followers of the pacesetter must guess the path forward and cannot expect much help or coaching from their leader.  One result is that followers often feel that the pacesetter doesn’t trust them to work in their own way or to take initiative. Flexibility and responsibility evaporate; work becomes so task fo­cused and routinized it’s boring and the stress to perform destroys morale.
Worse, the pacesetter either gives no feedback on how people are doing or jumps in to take over when he thinks they’re lagging. You’ll see pacesetters working late into the night, every night, complaining they have to first do everyone else’s work, and then do their own work at night.
ELT, of course, has roots in the pacesetter/drill instructor style. Survival strategies of the past, such as the proverbial attack from a rival tribe or the neighborhood lion, required a well trained group of individuals to survive.  And so, tribes that included a pacesetting approach were more likely to live for another day.


Steve C April 22, 2011 at 09:29

This is the style of leadership I naturally fall into, although I have learned to temper it over the years. A key element to making this style work is having the right set of people working under you. This rarely happens as finding good people who are motivated by their job are hard to find. Most people simply do enough to get by and this style of leadership results in an extremely unhappy and dysfunctional organization.

Steve C

Dewayne Chriswell April 22, 2011 at 09:36

To me, the pacesetter style of leadership seems less an effective leadership style and more of a cooperative agreement. I like the way you identify it as a drill instructor leadership style. In the beginnings, (boot camp), it is a fast-and-furious style of getting everyone working towards a common goal (getting out of there alive). But, after (boot camp/basic training), there is little or no need for this style of leadership.
Dewayne Chriswell

Trisha April 22, 2011 at 12:37

What Steve said! Great Post!

Reading Body Language April 22, 2011 at 13:02

Even if you are impatient it’s important to stay strategic and focus on the end goal. The only thing that counts is results.

Kevin Bettencourt April 22, 2011 at 14:52

Great observation. Unfortunately I think you may have been talking about me. Fortunately I now know what I’m doing wrong. Thank you.

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Sonya Lenzo April 22, 2011 at 15:26

The more you go on, the more obvious it becomes that a really good leader MUST blend these styles to get the best results!
Sonya LEnzo

Kevin Hogan April 22, 2011 at 16:48

I’ve learned a lot about management styles here. It now appears that there is no “best” but the ability to match the style to the period (crisis vs. stable, etc. etc.)


Michael April 22, 2011 at 23:12

The true leaders are motivated by more than money and they combine may styles to meet their personality.

Clare Delaney-Young April 22, 2011 at 23:52

It sounds as though the followers are as much to blame for the problems wth this leadership style, as the leader! I agree with Steve, many employees (especially in a large corporate environment) are not the most highly motivated of people.

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Scott Sylvan Bell April 23, 2011 at 01:58

Christain, The paces setter style of leadership can be feared by some people becasue they are not used to it, it may rub those people the wrong way. I wouldnt say that my leadership style oges this far.
Scott Sylvan Bell
Now go implement!

Kevin Bettencourt April 23, 2011 at 12:27

It’s great you point out the how to act and the not how to act.

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Shy Guy Dating Tips April 23, 2011 at 13:16

Hi Christian,

I think many people are most familiar with the model of the pacesetting leadership style from Lou Gossett, Jr’s portrayal of the Drill Sgt in the movie, “An Officer and a Gentleman.” Do you see other good examples of leadership in movies or television?

Happy Dating and Relationships,

April Braswell
Single Christian Dating Tips

Neil Dhawan April 23, 2011 at 13:17

Thank you for pointing out the pros and cons of this particular style. I can see how it can be of great benefit to highly motivated people who thrive under these conditions and I can see how detrimental it can be to those who might crumble under high-stress conditions.

Best, Neil

bryan April 24, 2011 at 15:43

I have worked for people in thsi catagory…they are hard to read and don’t deliver results..

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Michael D Walker April 24, 2011 at 21:54

Terrific information as usual. I’ve worked for this type of leader and you can get great results for short periods of time but if you are in a high tech environment, where the technology is ALWAYS changing, this type of leader crashes and burns fast because they make no accommodations for their team to learn & assimilate the constantly evolving changes they are having to deal with on a regular basis.


Eva Palmer April 25, 2011 at 18:25

I think this kind of leadership can be one of the hardest to follow for most people…

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