Everyone has a default leadership style that they fall back on. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert argues that your default style often isn’t the best choice, especially if it was a style that made you successful in a different role or in a different industry.
I’ve been asked the same question in every interview that I’ve had for the last ten years. Every time, it’s: ‘What’s your leadership style?’ I’ve worked out that in most cases, the interviewer had heard that this was somehow a meaningful question for a managerial role, and was told one or more keywords that indicated ‘good’ or ‘bad’ answers. For example, lots of gormless managers that I’ve encountered told me that they thought the word ‘micromanagement’ (in any of its variations) was inherently toxic. They usually didn’t understand the concept of tactically-focused adaptation, and couldn’t imagine a work environment where a micromanaging style might be the optimal approach – say, in heart surgery or in bomb disposal.
I started to hate that question because I found that it was usually a reliable indicator that the person asking the questions was hopelessly out of their depth. These were people who thought that there was one single ‘magic’ leadership style that was superior to all others, for all employees, in all circumstances. That’s utter bollocks; an effective leader knows that she has to constantly adapt her approach in order to achieve her desired end-state. Since every employee has a unique temperament, a unique background, and a unique worldview, a good leader has to factor the whole person into the equation to work out how best to motivate him or her. People aren’t automatons that can be programmed with a ‘optimal’ instruction set. Any manager that hasn’t reached that level of awareness often isn’t worth their pay packet – and probably won’t work well with me.
A much more pragmatic question to ask is ‘what’s your default leadership style?’ Every leader has one; it’s usually ingrained in them as their least burdensome, most effective way of handling most people. Some managers try to be chummy with their workers, relying on camaraderie to get things done. Other managers try to be aloof, maintaining a constant low level of fear to inspire swift compliance. Some managers prefer to inspire with public praise, others to rebuke with written counselling. I think that it’s darned important to find out during the interview which technique a potential manager tends to fall back on, since he or she is pretty much guaranteed to respond to new situations using their default style first, and to only adapt to their audience after their default method has failed. Therefore, if a new manager’s default leadership style is likely to be incompatible with the needs of the majority of our workers, then the new guy or gal simply isn’t worth hiring.
Case in point: I once worked for a fellow whose default leadership style was so ineffective that he lost his job twice in the same organization. He and I got along fine, and I learned after a fashion how to enjoy working for him… but I agreed with our executives (for once) that Bob wasn’t providing us with sufficient value to justify keeping him on the payroll. He needed to go. Both times.
I first met Bob in the late 90s when I was doing some part time public relations work for a medium-sized company. Bob was the company’s director for its Total Quality Management initiative.  The TQM fad had grown stale with this company and the TQM office had shrunk from dozens of enthusiastic process analysts to one token director with no direct reports. Bob was assigned to the position as a sinecure because his peers in the manufacturing wing (his previous assignment) just couldn’t stand him. So, Bob got a private office with very little responsibility and a hefty pay packet so long as he’d leave the other managers alone. Bob was content.
I ran into Bob entirely by accident one afternoon while I was waiting to present the pre-press proofs of our company in-house magazine to the deputy CEO. As Bob and the big boss were finishing a meeting, the boss saw me, and suggested that Bob get my help with his project. Sure enough, once I left the executive suite, Bob was waiting for me.
After the warm smiles and firm handshakes were over, Bob explained to me that the main office required the company to produce certain TQM artefacts– collections of mission statements, vision statements, quality metrics, production figures, and the like. Bob was under pressure from the head of the local operation to get a guidebook published so that every employee in the company could (supposedly) carry a written copy of the company’s TQM expectations around everywhere they went. If an employee got confused over how their job supported quality, the thinking went, they could whip out their guidebook and look up the guiding principle. Then they’d (somehow) be inspired to work harder for the cosmic glory of big-Q Quality. 
I knew print publishing better than anyone else in the company, so I agreed to do Bob a favour: if he’d give me his content, I’d do the page layout, pre-press, and print order paperwork for him. I asked him to send me all of his raw content via e-mail, and went back to my own job.
A month later, I found a note taped to my office door from Bob asking if I’d finished creating his guidebook. I figured that we’d simply had a miscommunication, so I dashed off an e-mail to him reminding him that I needed his raw content – quotes, numbers, photos, and so on – so that I could build him a printable product. I sent Bob explicit instructions as to what I needed from him in order to help make him successful.
When I came in the next month I found another note taped to my office door saying essentially the same thing: ‘Why haven’t you finished my project yet?’ I began to wonder if Bob was an idiot. I resent him the necessary prerequisites advisory and assumed that he’d get the message.
A month after that, I ran into Bob in the elevator and confronted him about his repeated failure to get me his raw content. I told him that I couldn’t create a product for him if I had no idea at all what his book was supposed to contain. Bob laid on the charm and promised to get me a copy of the previous year’s TQM report and some updated stats. I thanked him and went on about my day.
When Bob finally got around to sending me his files, I burned up a weekend assembling his pocket-sized book. I went around the campus and took some pictures to fill up the whitespace, and pulled some obvious supporting text from other projects that I’d been involved with. I laid everything out in Adobe PageMaker, ran all the pre-press checks, printed the colour proofs, burned all the files to a CD, and filled out the forms that our publisher needed. I dropped the package off on Bob’s desk and clipped a set of instructions to the folder. All Bob had to do was to sign the purchase order and drop it off at the publisher. They’d take care of the rest.
Six months later, I got called to the CEO’s office. When I got there, I was blasted by the top man because of the stupid TQM guidebook. Bob was over a year late getting the TQM guidebook distributed, and had told the CEO that it was my fault that it was late because I’d failed to get the product printed. Furious, I went to Bob’s office, snatched the untouched publication request package from atop his desk, tromped back to the executive suite, and handed it to the CEO. ‘I bloody well did my part,’ I said. ‘All Bob had to do was deliver this to the publisher. It wasn’t and isn’t my job to run his errands.’ The CEO looked shocked and sent me away.
Two months later, a large parcel was delivered to my office containing two thousand copies of the TQM guidebook. The printers had fouled up the colour registration for the photos and had printed two pages upside down. By our contract, they were required to re-print the batch at their own expense… but the content was, by then, so old that no one cared anymore. The box had been delivered to me because Bob had been ‘invited to pursue other career options’ after botching the guidebook job (he resigned one step ahead of being fired).
Ten years later, I was working full-time as the IT director for the company when Bob showed back up as the senior director over all of the support functions. He’d been in exile out-of-state for the last decade, and had (apparently) been redeemed by his experience wandering in the allegorical desert. Or, rather, that’s what our executive told us had happened. I found out later that our boss was locked in a bitter political fight with the CEO for dominance of the company, and Bob’s return to was a calculated manoeuvre by our boss to undermine the CEO’s position. Bob, meanwhile, couldn’t have cared less; he was back, with a larger pay packet and a nice corner office.
The other directors and senior managers who reported to Bob were infatuated with him at first. They found Bob’s easy-going style, ready empathy, and non-threatening manner to be a welcome change from the sneering abuse we’d been ensuring. My peers weren’t wrong to appreciate Bob’s finer qualities; the man was a genuinely pleasant and friendly person. His warmth wasn’t an act.
I was the only person in the division that had ever worked for Bob in the ‘old days’, so I was the only person watching Bob to see if he was going to fall back on his old bad habits. Sure enough, the bloom came off the rose for Bob’s leadership in less than one fiscal quarter. Managers started to complain that Bob was utterly unresponsive to their requests – if you needed him to make a decision or to approve a request, he simply passed it up to his superior for action. If you needed information from Bob, you’d never get any. Every task that Bob’s boss gave him was immediately passed down to a subordinate to handle. The man didn’t do anything. He simply held meetings, took long lunches, and went home early everyday.
I confronted Bob about his… unusual… leadership approach one winter afternoon. Bob was happy to chat about it. He told me that he fervently believed that a manager’s role was solely to route work to other people – it was never to actually perform work. He considered himself to be a conduit, not a contributor. That idea was diametrically incompatible with everything that our company held sacred. He knew that, seeing as how he’d been quietly kicked out once before for taking this approach.
I discovered that Bob had learned this approach from his mentor back when he’d been an HR manager at a large telecom company. Back in the day, Bob had been ‘responsible’ for distributed HR workers scattered across a half dozen states. He wasn’t expected (or even able) to do any of the personnel processing work himself; he just needed to route work down and route results up. Since he’d been considered a bit of a rock star in that company, he’d decided that the ‘conduit’ leadership style must be universally applicable to all industries and all contexts.
I pointed out that his approach was creating turmoil and resentment among his direct reports, but Bob didn’t care. He felt that his boss was happy with his efforts, and that was all that mattered. I thought about his position and realized that Bob wasn’t necessarily wrong. He wasn’t building a strong team or making the work environment better. He was, however, sustaining his own personal success. That was good enough for him. In his world, it was every man for himself.
Bob only lasted another year with us after that conversation. He was passed over for promotion when an executive billet came open. He was furious when a lesser-qualified junior manager leapfrogged over him as the new division executive. To his credit, he quickly came to grips with the situation and gave the new boss the same loyal (if ineffective) support that he’d given to his old boss. Then he quit to take an executive billet out of state and we never saw him again.
A few years later, I heard that Bob was a top executive in his new company and was doing quite well there… in a sense. I ran into a peer from Bob’s new division and asked how he was getting along. The harried IT man winced, and confided that the work environment was rapidly falling apart thanks to Bob’s indifference and disengagement. ‘He doesn’t do a damned thing,’ the bloke complained. ‘The only difference between Bob at work and Bob on holiday is that his office lights aren’t on when he’s holiday.’
I’ve often told this Bob’s story to my junior managers as a cautionary tale. Bob wasn’t a bad person – far from it. He was a kind and decent fellow. That being said, he was useless as a senior director. He didn’t contribute anything to the organisation or to the team. He never improved the operation, save by creating a more pleasant vibe during staff meetings. He wasn’t personally invested in the success of his people. The best thing that you could say about him as a leader was that he was benign. He was, to be as charitable as possible, a noble gas. He occupied space, and he didn’t react to his surroundings.
So… was Bob successful? That depends. If you look solely at his pay packet, then he was a smash success. He was making well over 100,000 quid a year when he worked for us. He had a charming and happy family. His kids were well-adjusted, and went to good schools. He was happy. By all rights, he’d achieved the American dream.
On the other hand, it was pretty clear that his success had only come about through sheer dumb luck. I went through his work history and noticed that he always filled a general management role in organisations that were suffering turmoil. His non-confrontational leadership approach was valued at that time, because it was perceived as a better alternative to the status quo. As soon as the organisation’s culture improved (that is, once the more controversial jack-wagons burned themselves out), Bob’s ineffective performance as a placeholder was no longer considered acceptable, and he was pushed out. His saving grace was always that he was a nice enough fellow that his bosses usually gave him a stellar recommendation… in order to get rid of him as swiftly as possible.
I’m not knocking the value of luck; most success in the business world only comes about because of it. Bob had luck in spades; he was always in the right place at the right time. That being said, Bob had no actual leadership skill or ability to fall back on. Further, Bob’s indifference to his people’s needs meant that his own staff wouldn’t lift a finger to help him when things went pear-shaped. Bob never built anything; he was just marking time, avoiding stress and waiting to retire. That’s a great plan… assuming that Bob can achieve a fully-funded pension before his luck runs out. Wise businessmen appreciate that luck always runs out, and prepare accordingly. Not Bob.
Everyone has a default leadership style. You have one, whether you appreciate it or not. It’s usually an approach that you learned during a period in your work history when you considered yourself to be your most successful. It’s tempting to fall back on that learned and treasured behaviour as often as you can get away with it. That’s understandable.
I beg you, though, to remember the story of Xenon Bob and don’t fall into the trap that he did. Take a hard look at yourself and address your shortcomings. By all means, have a favourite leadership style… just make sure to engineer one that actually makes a tangible, measureable difference in your people and in your work environment. Always default to an approach that creates positive change. Make your default something pragmatic, not something comfortable or easy.
More importantly, do your utmost to avoid falling back on your default leadership style if there’s any way to avoid it. Instead, strive to adapt your approach to your people and to your environment every time a new situation occurs. Put in the effort to get the best possible results for your people by addressing them as unique, valued, and worthwhile individuals. They’ll give you better results, and will appreciate your interest in them. That dedication usually pays off for leaders over the long run. Your people will be more likely to take risks in order to support you when the chips are down.
Given a choice between relying on lucky breaks to get ahead and relying on people that respect and appreciate you, I recommend the latter. Be someone worth making an effort to keep around.
 TQM was a management fad that started in the late 1980s. It was supposed to be a process control methodology, whereby a company measured its essential functions and then made logical improvements to how it functioned in order to increase its ‘quality’. It fell out of favour after organisations who applied it found themselves wasting more resources conducting ‘quality improvement’ activities (mostly meetings) than they gained in actual improvements. By the mid-90s, TQM was widely considered to be a terrible waste of time because so many well-meaning companies implemented it so poorly.
 I found it quite amusing that a stridently anti-communist company decided that their best approach to becoming a successful capitalist enterprise was to demand that every worker carry and quote from what was essentially a business-themed interpretation of Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The irony was utterly lost on upper management.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.