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What is Pacesetting Leadership? Examples, Pro/Cons, and More - HRDQ

What is Pacesetting Leadership? Examples, Pro/Cons, and More

In a recent post, we took a deep dive into the six leadership styles proposed by Daniel Goleman. While many people assume that each individual will have their own fixed leadership style, this actually isn't the case.

In fact, contrary to popular belief, leadership skills are something you can learn over time rather than a trait you must be born with. According to Goleman, the best leaders don't just utilize one leadership style but rather can swiftly move between styles depending on the circumstance.

This week, we want to take a closer look at the pacesetting leadership style. In certain instances, this style of leadership can create incredible results. However, it can breed resentment in others and lead to burnout among your team.

For this reason, it's essential to understand what it means to be a pacesetter and when it is appropriate to use this leadership style.

What Is Pacesetting Leadership?

Pacesetting is a leadership style where leaders uphold high standards and expectations for their team. As the name implies, the leader sets the pace for their team or organization by putting forward an approach that can be summarized as "Do as I do, now."

Leaders who utilize this style work with the highest level of performance, speed, and quality. The expectation is that the rest of the team will match the example set by the pacesetting leader. When you practice any of Daniel Goleman's leadership styles, you rely on underlying emotional intelligence competencies. For pacesetting leadership, these are initiative, conscientiousness, and the drive to achieve.

This leadership style is results-focused, meaning that the leader expects that their team will meet their high expectations and all stated deadlines. At the same time, the leader doesn't delegate tasks to employees that they cannot handle.

Company Pacesetting Leadership

As you might imagine, there can be some incredible advantages and some serious disadvantages to this leadership style. For pacesetting leadership to work optimally, it requires both a highly skilled manager and team. At the same time, the company culture must be oriented towards constant improvement. This style works best to get fast results from a highly competent and motivated team.

However, according to Goleman, primarily using this leadership style typically results in a net negative impact on the company climate.

It's worth noting that Daniel Goleman proposes that leaders are best served by mastering several different leadership styles and having the flexibility to move between them depending on what a circumstance calls for. Practicing pacesetting leadership alone without calling upon some of the other leadership styles will likely lead to undesirable outcomes except in particularly unique cases.

How to Combine Leadership and Management Skills: Leader Manager Profile

What Are the Necessary Elements of Pacesetting Leadership?

As the term "pacesetting" implies, this leadership style requires that the leader "sets the pace" of work within the team. In a running race, a pacesetter will lead a middle or long-distance running event for the first stretch to provide a quick tempo to ensure that top competitors achieve the fastest times. It also decreases the chance that the race will turn into a slow, tactical exercise.

Pacesetting Leader and Team

In the office, the pacesetter serves a very similar role. You lead by example to show your team the speed, quality, and performance you require. Let's look at the specific elements involved in pacesetting leadership to help you further understand this particular management style.

The Basics of Becoming a Successful Leader: Leadership 101


Pacesetting Leader Taking Initiative

Pacesetting leaders show their team what it means to initiate actions independently and to be the first person to take charge. These leaders set lofty goals and then set out to achieve them. At the same time, they expect the same from their team.

Clearly Communicated Expectations

As part of pacesetting leadership, the leader isn't micromanaging every little task to reach a goal. Instead, they set the pace of expectation and let their team uphold their end of the bargain. As a part of this, clearly communicated requirements are essential.

Clearly Communicating Expectations

Each project must start with very clearly understood expectations and requirements. That being said, they aren't giving out direction on how to deal with every bit of minutiae that appears on the road to achieving the goal. The expectation is that the pacesetting leader outlines the requirements, and the team should have the capability to figure out how to produce the required output without constant direct guidance.


Self Motivated Leader

A leader must be highly self-motivated to be successful when using the pacesetting leadership style. Their desire to succeed is strong and runs deep. Their standards for themselves are just as high as their standards for their team.

Leading By Example

Leading By Example

One of the most essential aspects of being a pacesetting leader is leading by example. If a manager is lazy, constantly cutting corners, and frequently missing deadlines, then they are setting the expectation at the same level for their team. While there are disadvantages to this leadership style as a whole, it simply won't work in any capacity if the leader doesn't display their expectations of work performance through their own actions.

What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Pacesetting Leadership?

Company Pacesetting Leader

This style of leadership is a high-pros, high-cons leadership style. While it can produce incredible results, it can also take a serious toll on company culture. Ultimately, this leadership style should be used selectively and in conjunction with other leadership styles. Otherwise, it's challenging to create a sustainable and healthy working environment for the whole team.


A pacesetting leadership style can be appropriate with the right team, or in the right circumstance. For example, it can be the perfect approach for when your team needs to complete a major project quickly or meet an important deadline.

Allows Your Team to Achieve Business Goals Quickly

Team Achieving Goals

When you have time-sensitive, short-term goals as an organization, pacesetting leadership can get the job done. Focusing on high-quality output and the highest expectations, this style can create the necessary pressure to achieve your goals on time and with maximum efficiency without reducing the expectation of quality.

Lets You Address Issues Immediately

Addressing Team Issues

While the pacesetting leadership isn't micromanaging, they are ensuring that critical milestones are being met along the way. That means that any issues that crop up are put on the table right away, ensuring that they can be addressed and resolved quickly.

Allows Your Highly Skilled Team to Shine

As mentioned earlier, this leadership style works best when working with a highly experienced and skilled team. They are confident in their abilities and can pursue their piece of the task without much oversight.

Highly Skilled Team

When you lead with this style, your world-class team has the opportunity to really showcase their abilities. It can also help you identify the competencies of each team member to best position your organization for success in the future.

It Can Help Your Team Grow and Improve

Team Growing and Improving

In a best-case scenario, pacesetting leadership allows your team to push themselves past their comfort zone, learn new vital skills, and improve their work performance as a whole. When done right and used in the right setting, setting the pace for your team can help take your organization and each team member to new heights.

How to Best Lead in a Collaborative Environment: Matrix Manager Inventory


If you don't use the pacesetting leadership style carefully, it can produce seriously undesirable results for your organization. Let's explore the disadvantages of setting the pace for your team to ensure that you understand the risks and the potential benefits.

It Can Breed Resentment

Resentment Among Team Members

Setting such a high bar for excellence can easily backfire in the wrong environment or when it is too heavy-handed. It can also breed resentment among your team, as a pacesetting leader might quickly take over a task at the slightest sign of hesitancy, lack of confidence, or inadequacy. Ultimately, it's not uncommon for employees to feel overwhelmed by this leadership style.

It Can Reduce Trust

Reduced Trust in Team

When leaders set incredibly high expectations for their team, employees can lose trust and confidence in their work. They might start to second-guess their work and fear the consequences if it doesn't meet the standards of the pacesetting leader. Team members might be left feeling like there is no room for them to ask questions, bring up concerns, or display weakness.

It Can Lead to Stress and Burnout

One of the major concerns related to the pacesetting leadership style is that it can put your whole team on the road to burnout. Working under a leader using this style can feel incredibly stressful. Employees might lose sight of their work-life balance to keep up with their manager, and feeling incapable of meeting the leader's high expectations can lead to low-self esteem and feelings of inadequacy.

Stressed and Burnt Out Employee

Of course, this can take a toll on the company culture. Beyond that, employee burnout can reduce productivity, decrease the quality of work produced, negatively impact the company financially, and impact customer satisfaction. It also leads to higher absenteeism and higher employee turnover.

Are you looking for ways to improve employee productivity? Learn more about time management activities and how they can boost productivity in this article.

It Can Reduce Employee Engagement

Reduced Employee Engagement

Pacesetting leadership used in the wrong ways can also negatively impact employee engagement. When your team feels like they have to sprint as fast as possible to stay in the same place, you'll likely find that morale and engagement are low. Such a fast-paced, high-stress environment can mean that there is no energy put towards building team morale or establishing relationships.

It Can Make Work Repetitive and Reduce Innovation

Unsatisfied Employee

When you create an environment where everything is results-oriented, you do so at a cost. Not only can it leave your employees unsatisfied because their work becomes repetitive and monotonous, but it can also take a negative toll on the overall success of your company. If you are 100% focused on results all the time, you'll find that there isn't any time or headspace left over for creativity or innovation.

It Only Works With the Right Team

Team of Employees

If you start with a team that lacks the necessary skills to keep up with your set pace, this leadership style will most likely backfire and lead to high employee turnover.

Examples of Pacesetting Leadership

One of the most well-known examples of pacesetting leadership is Jack Welch, the CEO of GE from 1981 to 2001. He created a highly successful and equally intense work environment at General Electric. As an example, he was one of the pioneers of the practice of forced ranking, where he let go of the bottom 10% of performers at the company and rewarded the top 20% of performers annually.

Jack Welch

Some other well-known leaders that have been known to use this style are the filmmaker James Cameron and the Indian Cricket Team captain Virat Kohli.

When Should You Use the Pacesetting Leadership Style?

This leadership style is best used when you have a highly skilled and motivated team from whom you desire short-term results. For this leadership style to be effective, your team must be prepared for the demands you will make of them.

Using Pacesetting Leadership Style

As a long-term leadership style, pacesetting leadership falls short due to its tendency to lead to burnout and other issues in company culture. However, in the right setting (think short-term, high-demand projects), it can be precisely what the situation demands. This leadership style works best when the manager actively sets the pace for their team and stands alongside them when they sprint towards the finish.

What's Your Leadership Style?

One of the first and most important steps in improving one's leadership skills is understanding where their strengths and weak spots lie. With this type of self-awareness, leaders can better learn which skills they already have in their arsenal and which skills need a little work to become the most effective leader.

Effective Team Leader

That's why we've created What's My Leadership Style. This management development tool, training workshop, and style assessment is specifically designed to help you understand your leadership preferences by measuring behavioral patterns based on expressiveness and assertiveness.

Do you have any questions about pacesetting leadership, or are you wondering if it would be effective at your company? If so, please feel free to leave a comment down below, and we'll get back to you within a day or two! We make it a point to reply to every comment and question we receive, and we'd be more than happy to assist you however we possibly can!

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About our author

Bradford R. Glaser

Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.