Use the Right Product Leadership Styles

Roman Pichler
5 min readJan 16, 2024
Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

We all have ideas about what great leadership looks like. For example, in a product management context, many people — including myself — prefer visionary leadership and are less comfortable with a commanding approach.

While being a visionary leader is great for inspiring and aligning teams, it is not helpful in an emergency, for instance, when you are about to miss a critical release date. Instead, a commanding style may well be required.

Effective leaders therefore don’t use a single approach. Instead, they apply different leadership styles depending on the people they lead and the situation they are in as I explain in the following video:

The following sections share the six leadership styles I discuss in the video. The styles are based on Daniel Goleman’s work.


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 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.


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 similar to servant leadership, an approach that suggests that leaders should 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.


An inclusive 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. Examples are creating a new product strategy and building a product roadmap.

Bear in mind, though, that if applied incorrectly, this leadership style 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 rule and process you want to employ, as I explain in more detail in the video Make Better Product Decisions with Decision Rules.


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 means leading by example. You essentially ask others to do as you do, to follow your lead. 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.


A commanding leader acts in an authoritarian, coercive 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.


So, what can we learn from the discussion of the six leadership styles? Well, first, no single style is always appropriate — there is no one right way to lead. Second, we all tend to gravitate to some of the styles and are usually less comfortable applying others. Third, to choose the right leadership style be aware of the people you lead and the context you are in. A new team that hasn’t jelled yet requires a more hands-on approach compared to one where people trust and respect each other; and an emergency calls for a different leadership style compared to a business-as-usual situation.

Learn More

I hope that you found my advice helpful. To learn more about effectively applying the leadership styles, attend my Product Leadership training and read or listen to my book How to Lead in Product Management.

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Roman Pichler

Product management expert. Author of “Strategize,” “How to Lead in Product Management” and “Agile Product Management with Scrum.”