Are you leading or managing?

Are you leading or managing?

2023. February 20.

Leading companies have now clearly recognized that a team-oriented, empowered organizational culture can be far more effective than a micromanaged one. In the last 10-15 years, every company worth its salt has moved in this direction.

However, the changing labor market and the pressures on management have left many leaders feeling discouraged. As a result of the increased stress, they tend to revert temporarily or permanently to old ‘tried and tested’ methods, and instead of focusing on strategic leadership and people development, they tend to micromanage at an operational level. This is humanly understandable, but its impact can be disastrous.

„Every organization grows from the head” is a well-known saying, slightly rephrased. Today’s senior managers are expected to be so resilient and up-to-date that it is not uncommon to find them at the kitchen table on a Saturday night trying to catch up with their backlog. They know it’s unsustainable, that they should delegate – but they dare not let go of control because they feel their necks are constantly under the axe.

What would be strange, then, is if middle managers and their subordinates presented a very different picture. At most, their lot is made easier by the fact that they know who to scold for the operational pressure they are under.

Focus on stress management

To sum up in one word what the most effective antidote to stress is, the answer is control. If not consciously, most managers act in this spirit: as pressure mounts, they increase control. Of course, this means closer supervision, more reporting and more frequent briefings, so ultimately they add to their own stress as well as that of their colleagues, even if unintentionally.

To this we can add the effect that while a calm leader takes a helicopter view and chooses the most appropriate course of action in a given situation with care and deliberation, under stress our perspective narrows; we simplify and give routine responses on gut instinct, significantly narrowing our managerial toolbox (see our box).

Do you recognize some of your fellow managers?

When we lead by autopilot rather than by deliberation, the following leadership styles typically come to the fore:

The Dictator

He only cares about getting the job done – never mind the cost. If not, he increases the pressure, cracks the whip and threatens.

In doing so, he increases stress beyond all limits and blocks team spirit, creativity and quality decision-making. But he ignores this, so that intelligent people sooner or later run out from under him. But one thing is a fact: it can be very effective in the short term! So convincing a dictator that his style is not right for every situation is next to impossible.

The Rescuer

He is the one who „rescues his colleagues from work”: he takes on the more important matters and difficult tasks because he feels safe doing so. His colleagues also benefit from this, as they can go home to their families while it’s still light out. The boss can breathe a sigh of relief: I can finally work in peace! He turns on the light and tries to catch up on his hopeless backlog.

If you ask why he doesn’t train his staff to delegate more, the answer is the same: „I don’t have time! Besides, it’s easier to do it than to explain it.”

The seagull

This one is usually out of sight because he never has time. But when he spots a mistake, he swoops down, squawks loudly for a few minutes, and then hurries away again. In short, it alternates between „leave it alone – zap” modes. From his point of view, this is certainly justified – except that he can destroy an entire organization in the process.

SLII® Powering Inspired Leaders

According to Dr Kenneth Blanchard, a key figure in the science of leadership development: there is no one best leadership style – it depends on the situation. But while the logic of the statement is hard to argue with, Blanchard’s research shows that 54% of leaders react the same way in every situation: they handle situations by autopilot, always following the same template. 

This 54% is divided into two groups. One half of them tried to find out what a good leadership style was when they were first starting out as managers, and once they thought they had found it, they have been using it ever since, whether it works or not. The other half have some inkling that it may not be very effective – but because of the stress, they simply don’t have the patience to work out what the best approach would be in a given situation, and rely on habit to survive


Transitions are important

Employees rarely go from beginner to pro right away. While beginners have a strong enthusiasm and confidence (which comes from not knowing what they don’t know), the failures and setbacks that are inevitable as a learner can easily erode this momentum – and even lead to giving up. To get them beyond this, in addition to strong initial direction, we need to involve them in decisions, listen to their suggestions and concerns, and break down their barriers.

As they become more skillful, but their commitment is still wavering, because success is still mixed with failure, we need to encourage and reassure them, affirming their success and their belief in themselves. In this way, they can become the confident professionals to whom we can delegate with confidence.

However, because their development level depends on the goal and task at hand, managerial flexibility also means that we may need to treat the same person differently depending on whether they are a beginner, a learner, an advanced or a pro in a particular field.

How can we become more efficient?

The main obstacle to leadership effectiveness is that we act out of habit, especially under stress, rather than consciously thinking about what is best in a given situation. In terms of day-to-day management, even a few seconds can be enough (if we have some routine) to decide: what level of direction, support and supervision is needed to ensure that our employee is successful in the task at hand? Under pressure, those few seconds can seem like a lot: as Einstein said, everything is relative – a few hours with your loved one is a few seconds, a few seconds on a hot stove is several hours.

But there’s no other way: if we don’t want to get sucked into the maelstrom of managing day-to-day operational tasks, we need to develop the habit of thinking: for this particular employee, in this particular task, what style of leadership do they need?

We don’t have to strive for perfection – no one expects us to. Rather, it’s about listening to our colleagues as they go about their work and noticing when we’re not on the same page – when they’re not getting what they need to succeed. That way, we can correct on the fly.

And as more and more of our staff reach the development level of self-reliant achievers, more and more of our time and energy is freed up to focus on the really important issues – like strategic leadership.

According to Blanchard, the truth of the SLII model has not been changed by crises – it’s just that greater stress makes it easier to lose sight of it.

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