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How to Choose the Right Product Management Leadership Styles

Published on 12th January 2016 Last Updated on: 18 Dec 2023

Succeeding in product management requires more than having the right product expertise. While creating a valid product strategy, developing an actionable product roadmap, and effectively prioritising features are undoubtedly important, these skills are not enough. You also have to successfully lead others and apply the right leadership styles, as I explain in this article.

There is No One Right Way to Lead 

When you hear the term leadership, you might first and foremost think of a senior manager like the head of product, Director of Product Management, VP of Product, or Chief Product Officer. But leadership is present when an individual guides a group of people to achieve a desired outcome. Product managers and Scrum product owners can therefore also act as leaders: They guide the stakeholders and development teams to create the desired outcomes and achieve product success. See my article Decoding Product Leadership for a more detailed explanation.

How you best lead others depends on the context. While many people, including myself, favour a visionary leadership style in product management—someone who leads through a shared vision—this approach style is not always helpful. Take a product in crisis that is about to miss a critical release date or has stopped working due to a major bug. This is hardly the right time to shine as a visionary leader and guide people by establishing a long-term, aspirational goal.

As leadership is context-dependent, it is helpful to be aware of different leadership behaviours and understand they are appropriate. Goleman’s classification of six leadership styles helps us with this. It distinguishes visionary, affiliative, democratic, coaching, pacesetting, and coercive styles. Every leadership style has its place—none is always right. Instead, they complement each other. If you want to excel as a product professional, then you should be able to apply all of them. Think of the styles as leadership tools that have their unique strengths and weaknesses.

Visionary Leadership Style

A visionary leader leads through shared goals including an inspiring product vision. Such a vision describes the purpose for creating the product and acts as the product’s true north that pulls people in the right direction. A visionary leader says, “come with me”, and lets people work out the details of how to get there.

Being a visionary leader is particularly helpful when you create a new product or a major product update. It encourages shared ownership and responsibility. It provides motivation and direction. But as mentioned before, this leadership style requires that people have the time, expertise, and willingness to figure out how to achieve an overarching goal. This is not always the case, for instance, when the product is in crisis or when people don’t buy into the vision.

Affiliative Leadership Style

An affiliative leader puts people first, creates harmony, and builds strong relationships. This makes people feel appreciated and improves collaboration. What’s more, applying this leadership style helps you establish trustful relationships, and it facilitates building new teams. It is not dissimilar to servant leadership, an approach that suggests that leaders should first and foremost care for the people they lead.

As helpful as it can be to be an affiliative leader, recognise that caring for individuals and teams should facilitate delivering successful products and achieving the desired outcomes. Don’t make the mistake of ignoring issues and avoiding difficult conversations. Instead, tackle them in a candid and empathic way.

Additionally, be aware that helping the development team members bond is the job of the Scrum Master. You should therefore be careful not to take on responsibilities that belong to others and that may overwhelm you.

Democratic Leadership Style

A democratic leader involves people in making decisions and builds agreement through participation. This leadership style increases responsibility and shared ownership, and it leverages the knowledge and ideas of the people you lead. It is ideal for making important product decisions that require strong buy-in and for generating and evaluating new ideas, for example, creating a new product strategy and building a product roadmap.

Bear in mind, though, that if applied incorrectly, democratic leadership can result in long-winded decision-making processes and delayed decisions. In the worst case, decisions are made by committee, and weak compromises are brokered. You should therefore make sure that people involved in the decisions share a common goal or vision. What’s more, carefully decide who to involve and which decision-making rule and process you want to employ, as I explain in more detail in the article Making Effective Product Decisions.

Coaching Leadership Style

While coaching isn’t always seen as the job of product people, it should still be part of your leadership toolkit: It helps you transfer product and domain knowledge to the development team and the stakeholders, and it is very helpful for developing junior product people.

When coaching someone, make sure that the individual is open to being coached and that you provide regular feedback and guidance. Be aware that coaching is a process that requires time and commitment, as people work towards longer-term goals, for example, getting better at making strategic product decisions. If you require immediate improvements or if people aren’t happy to be coached, then the leadership style is not appropriate.

Pacesetting Leadership Style

Pacesetting means leading by example. You essentially ask others to do as you do. This leadership style establishes clear expectations and high standards. It is useful to show people how a job is done, for instance, how to create a product roadmap, write user stories, or prioritise the product backlog. And it delivers results quickly. But there is a dark side to it.

People may feel overwhelmed, and they may worry that they can’t meet your expectations. They may be afraid of making mistakes and not show the necessary ownership of their actions. After all, you determine how things are done. If it doesn’t work out, then people may blame you.

Unfortunately, that’s not all. Pacesetting means that you expect high standards of yourself and that you are never quite satisfied with your work. In the worst case, this can exhaust you and lead to burnout. As pacesetting is a double-edged sword, you should apply the leadership style with great care.

Coercive Leadership Style

A coercive leader acts in an authoritarian way and demands compliance. If you employ this style, then you ask people to do what you tell them. Just like the other leadership styles, it has its benefits and drawbacks. Acing in a commanding way is helpful when swift and decisive action is required, for instance, to address an emergency like the imminent danger of missing a critical release date.

But the leadership style requires that you can correctly identify what has to be done. What’s more, it can lead to a loss of motivation and ownership; making mistakes is not tolerated and learning is limited. As the leadership style can hurt morale, you should only use it in emergencies. Limit the time you use this leadership style to a minimum, though, and revert to a healthier approach as soon as possible.

A big thank you to Geoff Watts for introducing me to Goleman’s leadership styles.

Post a Comment or Ask a Question


  • Gareth Holebrook says:

    Great article, thanks. My experience is that Product ownership tends to be the achilles heel for organisations in their early agile transformation, because it is not the sort of role that can easily be outsourced to external expertise. Internally having the competency, understanding and most importantly leadership and soft skills is always a challenge.

    • Roman Pichler Roman Pichler says:

      Thanks for your comment Gareth. I totally agree: to succeed with an agile / digital transformation it’s crucial to understand and correctly apply the product owner role.

  • SenthilVel Marimuthu says:

    Roman, Very Good Article

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