Cheerleading is NOT a Leadership Style

Sometimes learners leave training experiences with a false impression. Perhaps they were drifting in and out of consciousness during the training itself, perhaps they selectively locked in on a portion of the message that confirmed a personal comfort level, any number of reasons, really, but it happens.

A Case Study

For example, I had a boss a hundred years ago when I was an officer in the Coast Guard that took off for a week to go to leadership training. He was a nice enough guy, tried hard, was smart. And, even though I didn’t know how to categorize him at the time in terms of the interpersonal model of your choice, he was highly analytical.

He comes back from leadership training and slowly starts driving everybody nuts. How? By providing them with recognition. Evidently, the part of the training that resonated with him the most had something to do with the power of high relationship behavior, recognition and catching people doing things right. So, every day at 10 a.m., he would emerge from his office with a coffee cup in his hand and a smile on his face. He would then stop by the workstation of every person that worked for him and engage in some inane conversation. You probably think I’m exaggerating but it quickly became pure torture:

Lt. Jim (10:01 a.m.): “Good morning, Ensign Shriver! How are you doing?”

Me: “Fantastic, sir.”

Lt. Jim: “What does your day look like?”

Me: “Not a whole lot happening out of the ordinary. Getting a haircut at lunch.”

Lt. Jim: “A haircut! Super!”

Me: “… uh … yeah.”

Lt. Jim (10:03 a.m.): “Well, thanks for everything you are doing and have a great haircut!”

Me: “Yes, sir, will do.”

Is Cheerleading A Leadership Style?

Now recognition and high relationship behavior have their place, of course. But like anything else when it is used indiscriminately it defeats your purpose. For instance, let’s say you find yourself working on a high visibility project with a tight timeline. Beyond that you have limited experience with the task at hand and you are literally exhausted. What’s your reaction if your boss sticks her head in with a huge smile on her face and excitedly says something like:

“2 – 4 – 6 – 8! Thanks so much for staying late!”

Recognition and high relationship behavior make complete and total sense—except when they don’t! Cheerleading is not a leadership style! The same goes for empowerment and guidance. There is no approach that is inherently good or, for that matter, bad. It all depends! And, in the absence of context, it is so very difficult to discern exactly what it depends upon. Learning proper leadership qualities is more important today than ever before.


  • What is one thing you can do as a leader to enhance the probability that the approach you are using (with an individual for a task) is aligned with his/her performance-related needs?