Pacesetting Leadership: Examples, Pros and Cons

Pacesetting Leadership

The pacesetting leadership style is characterized by being very results-oriented, with an emphasis on setting clear goals and achieving high standards of performance. Work teams are expected to function with little oversight and be internally motivated.

When an organization is operating in a highly competitive industry, a pacesetting leadership style can be extremely beneficial. Projects can be accomplished rapidly as the team works steadily and diligently.

Productivity levels are maintained and because employees are motivated, upper management can focus on big-picture concerns.

Probably the most well-known example of the pacesetting leadership style is Jack Welch, the CEO of GE. He is the prototypical pacesetting leader in the modern industrial era.  

Definition of Pacesetting Leadership

The pacesetting style of leadership works best when several conditions exist:

  • The team is highly skilled and intrinsically motivated,
  • The leader is experienced and skilled in the project domain,
  • The team culture is one that strives for constant improvement, and
  • The leader sets the tone by being leading from the front and serving as an example.

The team considers the expectations of meeting high standards and the fast pace of work to be challenging, even invigorating. Demanding projects are seen as challenges to be overcome instead of obstacles that invoke a fear of failure.

Of course, there are possible downsides, including employee burnout, declining loyalty, and a disconnect with organizational values.

Examples of Pacesetting Leadership

1. Military Organizations

A military organization has many characteristics of a pacesetting leadership style. For example, soldiers and personnel at all ranks are expected to perform to the highest standards.

Goals are always clearly defined and project completion schedules regimented, sometimes in excruciating detail. Leaders define themselves as examples of expected performance and lead from the front, subject to just as much scrutiny and criticism as everyone else.

Although there is a thorough training program and all work is heavily supervised, there is still the expectation that personnel can and will function without the need for external motivation.

Everyone is expected to do their job in order to serve a higher organizational purpose. Of course, the supervising leader, whether it be a sergeant or general, has a great deal of experience and expertise in whatever project domain is being tasked.

The military is an example of an organization that implements a pacesetting leadership style throughout its entire structure.

2. Jack Welch, CEO of GE  

Jack Welch ruled GE as the CEO from 1981 to 2001. During that time, the company experienced tremendous growth and expanded its operations worldwide. He’s known as a visionary leader.

Welch took great pride in leading from the front and displaying all of the demanding characteristics that he expected to see in all employees.

Welch despised the need for micro-managing and therefore established clearly defined goals that each department could work towards independently. Productivity expectations were always high and demanding, and sub-par performance was not tolerated.

In fact, Welch is famous for his policy of terminating the least performing employees every year.  The top 20% received bonuses, but the bottom 10% had to seek employment elsewhere.

3. Sales Teams

Sales can be a very lucrative occupation, depending on the industry. Pharmaceutical sales can pay well, and those in the telecommunications infrastructure industry can reap financial benefits off the charts.

It is a profession that utilizes a pacesetting style of leadership in the form of expecting employees to be intrinsically motivated and constantly striving to do better.

Once a member of a sales team has been thoroughly trained, they are well-equipped for success. There is very little need for managerial oversight of how each person performs their duties, as long as the KPIs are met, the company is happy.

4. Lee Kuan Yew, Prime Minister of Singapore  

Lee Kuan Yew was the 1st Prime Minister of Singapore from 1959 to 1990.  He was a strict autocratic leader and is credited with transforming Singapore from an impoverished land to one of the most respected and technologically advanced countries in the world.

To accomplish that in a mere 30-year period was a truly remarkable feat.  

His leadership style was multifaceted, with many government practices reflecting a pacesetting style of leadership. For example, he led from the front and displayed the utmost level of professionalism and commitment to the country.

He attracted the most talented professionals available to civil service by offering salaries that were substantially higher than the private sector. This ensured the best and brightest worked for the government, which in turn placed high demands on their performance and expectations of unwavering commitment.

Yew established a pacesetting leadership culture that allowed anyone with the right characteristics and motivation to prosper.

5. School Principal

The school setting is a prime example of a pacesetting leadership environment. Every teacher has a clear set of learning objectives that each and every student in their class must achieve.

There is a clear expectation that teachers are intrinsically motivated to perform their duties to their highest abilities. They do not need to be supervised closely because each teachers strives to fulfill their responsibilities.

The school principal is a bureaucratic leader that has reached their position because they have already demonstrated success as a teacher. They are expected to lead by example and constantly display professionalism to its highest standards.  

Transformational Leadership Strengths and Weaknesses

Pro: Provides Clearly Defined Goals

One of the biggest strengths of the pacesetting leadership style is that everyone knows what to expect.

Goals are very clearly defined, task assignments are unambiguous, and milestones to project completion are identified well in advance.

This creates an atmosphere of clear expectations and provides employees a certain comfort in knowing what each project entails, from start to finish.

Pro: Gives Motivated Teams Freedom to Perform

The pacesetting style works exceptionally well when the team is motivated and capable. This is exactly the kind of team that does not need someone constantly looking over their shoulder or checking the quality of their work.

The leader has confidence in the team’s ability and knows they are responsible. Because the leader does not need to spend a lot of time following-up on assignments and monitoring performance, they can accomplish other tasks involving higher-level objectives.

Pro: Respects Employee Skills

Because managers do not need to supervise their staff diligently, the employees feel respected and appreciated.

They can be trusted to get the work done, on schedule and efficiently. Because they are motivated to do well, the quality of the work will be to expected standards as well.

This is a very satisfying atmosphere for this type of employee. It gives them a sense that they are respected and trusted to perform, which improves their morale and job satisfaction.  

Pro: Rapid Growth  

The pacesetting style is great for getting valuable projects off the ground. The team is able to take the ball and run with it.

Over time, this has a cumulative effect throughout the organization, which helps it experience rapid growth. There is very little inefficiency because the work teams are so skilled and motivated.

This allows upper management to focus on higher-level objectives such as strategic management and innovation.

Con: Decline in Employee Loyalty   

Although employees are motivated and can be trusted to do quality work, over time they may also start to feel less loyal to the organization.

They lack a sense of empowerment and may become less committed because they fail to see how their work fits with the bigger picture.

The emphasis on output can create an impersonal environment and can lead to employees “feeling used”. Over time they begin to lose a sense of connection with the company and experience a decline in loyalty.

Con: Can Lead to Employee Burnout     

The pace of work in the pacesetting style of leadership can be quite intense. Deadlines take on a life of their own and there is a constant push to reach each milestone as it approaches.

This is great for productivity, but after a while employees can become exhausted.

The pressure can accumulate over time and as the demands do not cease, eventually this can lead to employee burnout. When employees reach the point of burnout, then their performance drops significantly and mistakes start to create other problems for the organization.  

Con: Less Emphasis on Innovation

The primary objective of the pacesetting leader is to get things done efficiently and to a high standard.

The constant push towards achieving objectives is great for productivity, but is completely the opposite of what is needed for innovation. Innovation happens when the minds of individuals are free to dream and explore.

They need to be in an environment where that process can unfold naturally.

That doesn’t happen on a predetermined schedule. Creativity cannot be manufactured according to a timeline. It is something that occurs unexpectedly.

Unfortunately, the pressure-packed environment the pacesetting leader prefers does not foster creativity and innovation. In the long run, this is detrimental to the organization’s level of competitiveness.

Con: Needs the Right Team to be Effective    

The pacesetting style of leadership only works with a certain kind of team. The individuals must be highly motivated, self-disciplined, and skilled.

This is a combination of characteristics that is not commonly found throughout an entire workforce. There may be just a small percentage of employees that actually have all of those attributes.

This means that most of the organization will not benefit from a pacesetting style. In fact, this style may actually cause more harm than good when applied to workers that do not fit the profile. Unfortunately, this is a severe limitation of the pacesetting style of leadership.

More Leadership Models

Conclusion

The pacesetting leadership style requires a variety of conditions to be met in order for it to be successful. First and foremost, employees have to be skilled and motivated, and the leader needs to set the tone by example.

School settings and sales teams usually possess these conditions. Teachers know what their students need to learn and are given the freedom to accomplish those objectives as they see fit. People that work in sales spend a lot of time out in the field, meeting clients and closing deals. Other than tracking of KPIs, it is impractical for their leader to actually supervise their day-to-day behavior.

Although the pacesetting style works well in these occupations, it can lead to a disconnect between employees and organizational values, or be so pressure-packed that staff experience burnout and low morale.

References

Goleman, D. (2017). Leadership that gets results. In Leadership Perspectives (pp. 85-96). Routledge.

Hadjithoma‐Garstka, C. (2011). The role of the principal’s leadership style in the implementation of ICT policy. British journal of educational technology, 42(2), 311-326. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.01014.x

Kraus, M. (2017). Comparing generation X and generation Y on their preferred emotional leadership style. Journal of applied leadership and management, 5, 62-75. Rani, S., & Prasad, U. D. (2017). Impact of leadership styles on teacher effectiveness. JIMS8M: The Journal of Indian Management & Strategy, 22(2), 50-57.

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