How to become a post-heroic leader
Trying to run a seasoned group with a traditional type-A style is doomed to fail
Bossy boss: workers want a leader who can modulate their style as needed from authoritative to collaborative
-management group of a global healthcare corporation when the director suddenly departed. Having managed a small team of bio-statisticians successfully over three years, promoting him to director seemed like a no-brainer. Yet within six months, he had managed to alienate just about everyone.
As a team leader, he had proven himself effective – delivering results, improving processes and directing junior staff. So why, when given the chance to manage a larger, more diverse group of top performers, would he flame out so spectacularly?
The answer was simple: Mark was bossy.
By the time a coach was brought in, there was an alarming downward trajectory of morale and productivity.
As Mark painfully discovered, trying to run a seasoned, highly-skilled group with the traditional type-A, command-and-control style is doomed to fail. Today’s knowledge workers demand what leadership experts call a “post-heroic leader”: one who is emotionally and intellectually agile, able to modulate their style as needed from authoritative to collaborative – and back again – in order to optimise team performance.
Post-heroic leaders recognise that the key to success is not adhering to hierarchy or position power, but mastering a complex set of seemingly contradictory organisational dynamics – autonomy and shared decision-making, individuality and teamwork.
Mark’s situation called for a change in mindset about what it means to be a good manager. To help him, Mark’s coach refocused the same deep desire to excel that had made him a great statistician on adjusting his style and provided a framework for change, suggesting several shifts that Mark must undertake:
– From self-awareness to social awareness. This shift occurs when a manager realises that effective leadership calls for more than just knowing one’s own strengths and weaknesses. Social awareness calls for a heightened sensitivity to how one’s behaviour, in words and deeds, impacts others.
To help build this awareness, Mark’s coach asked him questions such as: What is the impact of your management style on others? How do you know what others are thinking or feeling?
– From directive to inquisitive. When seeking to improve processes or engender creativity from an expert group, the manager needs to shift from a stance of declaration to one of curiosity. Questions that help managers make this shift include: How much time do you spend listening rather than speaking? How do you know if you are truly listening to your people?
– From power over to power with. When a manager lauds authority over subordinates, A-players tend to shut down (and look for the exit), while B-players tend to acquiesce, hide out and fail to grow. As a result, the potential of the entire team is lost. To facilitate this important shift, a coach might ask: How do you stimulate the best thinking from your team? What is the role of your subordinates in making decisions?
– From teamwork to teaming. Traditional managers tend to rely on static definitions of who is “in” and who is “out”, fostering a culture of conformity and internal competitiveness. Adaptive managers evoke commitment through common values and aspirational goals, not structure. Good coaching questions include: How do you create a sense of belonging when the boundaries of a team are porous? How do you leverage diverse talents, skills, and perspectives, getting the best from everyone?
This framework gave Mark tangible guidelines to work with – not just generic admonishments to be more democratic. Coaching provided the space to acknowledge his fear of “losing his edge” and his hard-earned respect from the C-suite while exploring a different possibility: that he could have both – remaining directive when needed, but “flexing” to accommodate a variety of work styles. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2015
Jeffrey Hull is the director of education and business development at the Institute of Coaching (a Harvard Medical School affiliate), a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and an adjunct professor of leadership at NYU.