Knowledge Center: Article

Chief Executive Officer & Board of Directors

What's your leadership signature?

Subscribe to Chief Executive Officer & Board of Directors 12/12/2015 Karen Rosa West

Why do some business leaders thrive while others flounder? Professional qualifications and technical competencies (the whats of leadership) play an important role, of course, but far more often we’ve observed that success or failure depends on how leaders lead — specifically, how leaders’ styles mesh with their teams and the cultures of their organizations.

An empirical research project we conducted to better understand these dynamics, and the behavioral patterns that underpin them, identified eight leadership styles, or archetypes. Taken together, they suggest implications for senior executives looking to better understand — and improve — their leadership skills, for teams seeking to improve their dynamics, and for organizations striving to improve the overall effectiveness of their leaders.


To learn more about the leadership styles, and to take a brief assessment, see our article in Harvard Business Review. The assessment provides immediate feedback about your style — potential strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots — and pinpoints the settings where you’ll be most and least effective.


What we did

To better understand how leaders lead and what contributes to effective leadership, we created a psychometric survey to measure three interrelated facets of leadership that our experience suggests are important differentiators. Specifically, we wanted to see to what degree leaders possessed 1) a “thriving mind-set”[1] (including a clear sense of purpose, deep commitment to learning, and conveyed sense of optimism); 2) a combination of social, self, and situational awareness; and 3) essential leadership values such as a performance orientation, ethical integrity, ability to collaborate, and openness to change, among others.

The survey included 1,006 largely US-based executives of director level and above at companies with 250 or more employees. The respondents represented a broad range of industries and functions. Importantly, our survey questions were designed to highlight the ambiguity and fluidity of the kinds of real-life situations that senior executives face. We did this by asking respondents to rate themselves on a continuum between sets of opposing, yet equally “right,” choices (for example, “I prefer a changing environment” versus “I prefer a stable environment,” or “I love to win” versus “I hate to lose”). Factor analysis allowed us to isolate the dozen or so survey questions (from the original 72) that together accounted for the vast majority of the variance we observed in the responses.

What we learned

When we looked at the patterns in the data and conducted further statistical analyses on them, including cluster analysis, we discovered something interesting: eight statistically distinct leadership styles distributed among respondents. Moreover, while the characteristics of each signature style, or archetype, were quantitatively unique, they also resonated deeply with our own experience of conducting executive assessments. In short, we all know leaders like these — and the strengths and weaknesses they exhibit are at once intuitively recognizable and instructive.

The eight archetypes of leadership:

  1. Collaborator: Empathetic, team-building, talent-spotting, coaching oriented
  2. Energizer: Charismatic, inspiring, connects emotionally, provides meaning
  3. Pilot: Strategic, visionary, adroit at managing complexity, open to input, team oriented
  4. Provider: Action oriented, confident in their path or methodology, loyal to colleagues, driven to provide for others
  5. Harmonizer: Reliable, quality-driven, execution focused, creates positive and stable environments, inspires loyalty
  6. Forecaster: Learning oriented, deeply knowledgeable, visionary, cautious in decision making
  7. Producer: Task focused, results oriented, linear thinker, loyal to tradition
  8. Composer: Independent, creative, problem solving, decisive, self-reliant

To learn more about the leadership styles, and to take a brief assessment, see our article in Harvard Business Review. The assessment provides immediate feedback about your style — potential strengths, weaknesses, and blind spots — and pinpoints the settings where you’ll be most and least effective. 


What it means for leaders

It’s important to note that there is no such thing as a “right” or “wrong” leadership style, and in fact individuals are likely to have access to every style to a varying degree. That said, our experience and this research both suggest that leaders are likely to gravitate to a much smaller set of default styles they find comfortable or familiar — and particularly so when they are under stress or aren’t consciously managing the impressions they leave on others.

What might this mean for leaders? For senior executives, recognizing their “go-to” style or styles could help them better understand and articulate the focus of their leadership (be it relationships, ideas, problem solving, execution, and so on) and thus better play to their strengths when leading teams or operating in complex environments. Moreover, it can help individuals understand the other leadership styles to which they have access, thus potentially broadening the range of situations and environments where they might be successful.

It could also help leaders recognize potential pitfalls and areas for heightened vigilance. For example, a “collaborator” whose empathetic, consensus-driven style is a strength when interacting with his or her C-suite peers could find it ineffective (or even counterproductive) when interacting with subordinates who crave clarity and direction. Similarly, a learning-oriented “forecaster” who uses his or her ability to gather information and think conceptually to help generate great ideas may not consider formulating a deeper buy-in strategy that appeals to people’s hearts as well as their heads.

Similarly, a better understanding of the archetypes and how they interact with one another could help inform the talent management approaches taken by companies, including:

  • Understanding how leaders are likely to react to and deal with ambiguity
  • Identifying situations and contexts in which up-and-coming leaders are likely to be most successful and where they may find their leadership skills stretched
  • Seeking to understand — and balance — team leadership dynamics in order to align leadership styles with organizational objectives (for example, leading a change initiative)

While our research into these leadership archetypes is in its early stages, some things are already quite clear. Human motivations and behaviors are complex, and therefore any model attempting to explain them (including this one) will always have limited power as a predictive tool. Moreover, change is constant as leaders evolve throughout their careers and accumulate experience. Nonetheless, by developing an enhanced understanding of how leaders behave and interact with one another, we might better seek to harness that ability to change in service of expanding leadership potential.


For further insight about the research, contact:

Karen West, PhD, Partner

Elliott Stixrud, Associate

Brian Reger, Senior Vice President, Measurement, Senn Delaney

 [1] For more, see Carol S. Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Ballantine Books, 2007; and “How companies can profit from a 'growth mindset,'” Harvard Business Review, November 2014.


Karen Rosa West Partner +1 312 4961000

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