Two painful lessons in leadership and how they changed my management style

Two painful lessons in leadership and how they changed my management style

Photo by cyano66/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by cyano66/iStock / Getty Images

I thought it would be appropriate to kick off this blog with a topic that reflects the spirit of the Life-Sparring idea fairly well: painful lessons in leadership. Just like in real sparring, the painful hits are often the ones that lead to an improvement.

I’ve had a slightly unusual career. I came to Hong Kong in 2007 to work as general manager at an online retailer founded by friends of mine, just two years after graduating from my university education in Germany.

As awesome it was to be in charge of 20 staff members in my first real job, I was also a management rookie with practically no leadership experience, in a foreign country. The learning curve was pretty steep.


 A low blow that helped me find my “comfortable range”

Just a few months into the job, I had a rather uncomfortable meeting with my boss, the co-founder and co-owner of the company. Some staff members had complained about my attitude, referring to comments I jokingly made over a casual lunch. Even though that episode dates back eight years I still remember myself fighting back tears, asking myself if everyone really hates me and if I am actually cut out for the job. My first existential crisis as young manager.

Being new in Hong Kong, not knowing anybody outside of my job, I had tried to befriend the staff and went out for lunch almost every day. I also added most of my colleagues to Facebook and occasionally joined activities after work.

What I did not expect was that my “private” jokes and comments during lunch were affecting my authority as manager and made it even harder to establish myself as GM. The process was already hampered by the lack of an age difference between my staff and me and by the fact that I was the first general manager in a young company used to the laissez-faire style of the founders.

I realized that I needed to increase the “distance” to my staff to succeed and, in consequence of this experience, I established a set of rules that I’ve followed ever since:

  • I don’t go out for lunch with staff members (unless during travel or for an official function);
  • I don’t meet staff outside of work;
  • I do not add any current staff in Facebook and politely deny all adding requests;
  • I dress slightly more formal than the company staff; and
  • In general I keep my private life and my job fairly separate.

These five basic rules helped me to establish a healthy distance to my staff that made it much easier for them to respect me as their boss.

Eight years and two jobs further into my management career I am still following this rule set, and so far it has been serving me well.

While I’ve never read anything scientific about this, I believe that a manager — just like a boxer — needs to establish his or her “range.” I also think there is no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to “leadership distance”; it simply has to be consistent with the manager’s personality. I have met very different bosses, from charming leaders who were on very friendly terms with their staff, to senior managers who still insisted being formally addressed by their last name by their secretary of 20 years. Both styles worked, because they were consistent with the manager’s character.

For me personally, a “respectful distance” to my staff seems to work best.


A 360-degree feedback that healed me from a horrible pace-setting habit

Equally painful and equally important for my development as manager and leader was a lesson I received four years into my career. At that time I was working as general manager of the Hong Kong office of a European toy company, while simultaneously doing my part-time MBA degree.

The lesson came in the form of a comprehensive leadership analysis based on a 360-degree survey (multiple-choice survey taken by myself, my two direct bosses, two peers and my staff).

Working all my career in small and medium-sized companies, I’d usually had no access to advanced leadership development tools like this. However, an MBA course in co-operation with global HR consultancy Hay Group gave me the chance for an in-depth analysis usually utilized at Fortune 500 companies.

Reading the report’s “leadership style inventory” for the first time, I felt somewhat like Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky: I simply looked different than I perceived.

In their “leadership style inventory,” Hay Group scores subjects on six different leadership styles:

  • Coercive: gaining immediate compliance from employees (and expecting no “No” for an answer)
  • Authoritative: providing long-term vision and leadership (motivating staff by storytelling)
  • Affiliative: creating trust and harmony (by befriending staff members)
  • Democratic: reaching group consensus and generating new ideas (and holding endless meetings)
  • Pacesetting: leading by example and accomplishing tasks to high standards (and leaving no team member a chance to develop)
  • Coaching: focusing on the professional growth of employees (accepting temporarily compromises on quality)

If you would have asked me before conducting the test, I would have told you that I was trying to lead with an authoritative style, explaining the background of all decisions and trying to inspire my staff by painting big pictures. I also would have said I believe in fairly democratic leadership, empowering key employees but also not shying away from being coercive, if the situation required it.

I likely would have admitted, though, that I was not coaching as much as I would love to.

However, my results looked as follows:

Own Perception                                                                                       Raters Judgement        

hays inventory.jpg

Not only did my staff see me as much less the inspiring leader than I wanted to be, even my own answers gave a different picture from my self-perception. No doubt: I was a terrible “pacesetter.”

Hay Group emphasizes that none of the six leadership styles is per se better or worse than the other. Good leaders have several styles at their disposal, which they can employ when the respective environment requires it. Even a democratic leader might want to switch to a coercive style, if an emergency situation requires an immediate decision.

However, all six styles come with side effects, especially when applied unbalanced and over a longer period of time. An overly coercive leader will likely suffer from high staff turnover and rarely benefit from creative staff input.

Similarly devastating are the effects of a pacesetting leadership style. While “leading by example” sounds great in theory, an extreme pacesetter tends to suffocate all opportunities for his staff to grow. If your boss provides all the answers, rewrites every report and handles all the difficult tasks by him/herself, how much effort will you put into your next attempt?

As painful as it was, the report truly opened my eyes. I am fairly confident that today I am much less of a pace setter, even though I have to remind myself still on a regular basis not to fall back into old behavioral patterns. If a staff member now comes to me with a problem and asks me how to solve it, my first reaction is to ask back, “What do you suggest?”

I believe that true managerial success is not being constantly needed, but forming an organization that works smoothly with a minimum of managerial intervention. A great manager is not missed at all when he is a few days absent, but is missed terribly if he leaves the company for good.

What are your most painful leadership lessons? No need to be shy, just hit the comment button or send me an email. The Life-Sparring blog has just been started; likely it’s just the two of us here.

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