How to be a better leader

What’s your default setting? Are you an encourager, a teller, or a teacher? All leaders have one of those default settings. It’s the behaviour they automatically go to.

Why? Because it comes naturally to them. Because it’s worked for them in the past, so they keep doing it. Because it’s the way their leaders led them. Because it’s become a habit. And sometimes, because they’re not very good at the two other types of leading.

So what do you automatically do? Do you encourage people to have confidence in their abilities more than you tell them what to do or show them how to do it? Perhaps you spend most of your time telling people what to do: Do this, Do that, Have it finished by Wednesday. Or maybe you excel at helping people learn by coaching and showing.

Each of these three styles is useful – at the right time. But like any skill, when you over-use it, it means you’re, for example, encouraging when you should be telling, or showing when you should be encouraging. Too much of one means too little of the others.

When you get that balance right, people won’t be learning by trial and error or making mistakes because you’ll show them what to do when they need to learn or coach them when they need to polish their skills. They won’t be holding back because they lack confidence or think you don’t care because you’ll be offering them the right amount of encouragement.

And they won’t resent you because you won’t be telling them what to do when they already know what to do, thank you very much. You won’t lose their respect because they see you as an empty cheerleader because you’ll coach and teach and tell when you need to, rather than telling them how much faith you have in them – You can do it!! You’ll be fine!!

To be a better leader, expand your repertoire beyond your default setting. Develop a wider range of ways to encourage your team members and look for occasions to do so. Become better at seeing when you need to tell people clearly what to do and become more comfortable giving direct, explicit instructions. Be alert to opportunities to help people hone their skills and develop your own coaching skills so you can coach effectively when coaching is called for.

Discussion questions

What’s your default style? What steps can you take to include the others when it’s appropriate to do so? How can you recognise whether a team member needs encouraging, telling or teaching at a particular time?

How to think through a decision

One way of looking at how we make decisions is called the ‘story model’, or ‘explanation-based decision making’. When we face a situation that calls for a decision, we recognise some of its elements from similar past experiences and we create a story, or explanation, about what’s going on and what will happen. We do this intuitively, without really thinking about what we’re doing, and based on our story and how things worked out in those similar past situations, we make our decision. This can happen quite quickly.

The trouble with that is twofold: sometimes our stories are less complete than we realise and sometimes we overlook differences between our ‘previous experience stories’ and the situation we’re currently facing. Then we make a poor decision.

To avoid that, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What other information do I need?
  • Does any of my evidence or information conflict with other evidence or information or not make sense?
  • What other ways of looking at the information or evidence are there?
  • What could a different story, or way of looking at this situation, be? How does that compare with my first story?
  • What decision am I leaning towards and why?
  • What are the likely consequences of this decision?

Then it’s a good idea to write down why the decision you’re leaning towards is the best one, compared with your other options, along the lines of: Why is this a smart decision? (Yes, write it down.) This further helps you build a more complete picture of the situation and look at it from different angles and on top of that, it gives you more confidence in your decision.

When you think things through deliberately and thoughtfully like this, you generally make a better decision. Which, of course, saves time and tears in the long run.

Discussion questions

How does this compare with the way you usually make decisions?

Beginning a long-haul project

This week, I start work on the next edition, number 6, of Management Theory and Practice. Its new publishers have already started work on it, doing the mysterious preliminary work that publishers do. My bit starts today, in about an hour’s time, in fact, although I’ve already done my pre-planning (more on that below).

The entire project will be completed in 21 months, which is when you’ll see the final result. If that sounds like a long time, it isn’t; that’s how long big text books take to write, so nothing has changed in that regard from earlier editions! A project of this length can seem pretty daunting, to say the least. I thought I’d share how I’ve planned my contribution to it.

In a way, I started work on this next edition the day the current edition was finished, when I began researching, collecting and filing information, facts and figures for the upcoming edition that I’m about to start working on today. That is an endless task, a bit like Sisyphus pushing his boulder, but thankfully, far from a thankless task, although rather tedious at times.

A few of weeks ago, with the arrival of my 2014 calendar, I wrote in when I am to begin revising each chapter and when each chapter is to be completed. While I was in planning mode, I went through my file of ideas for the next edition, tossed some, fleshed out others, and filed them in the appropriate places.

Top of today’s To Do list is to go through the pile of Competencies for the Certificate, Diploma and Advanced Diploma of Management with a fine-tooth comb. There are some very big changes and lots of little ones and armed with these details, I can map out the book so that it captures all the Units and Elements.

Then the writing starts. Once the chapters are written, a copy editor goes through them—yes, folks, chapter by chapter, word by word—and fixes up grammar, spelling, punctuation, incorrect facts, silly statements and absolute balderdash. Then I get it all back again, read through it, make any more changes. It’s all very time-consuming, as you can see.

During this time, our illustrious illustrator does his thing, with faxes and scans flying backwards and forwards between us to get everything exactly right.

Meanwhile, just like in the Gantt and PERT charts in Chapter 17, the publishers will be designing the book, literally from cover to cover. Colours, fonts, layout, everything you can imagine. Technical wizards work on the website to support the text and other technical wizards work on the e-text, all very tricky technically, never mind the actual content.

Early-ish in 2015, I’ll receive the ‘page proofs’ to check over and a copy editor at the publisher will check over the publisher’s page proofs; these are exactly what the pages of the text itself will look like. The object is to spot typos and other errors and have one last chance to update statistics; the errors we spot are then fixed and updates added, while an indexer reads the page proofs to prepare the index. Then the text can actually go to the printer.

That’s when I get back to work on the next big chunk of the project, this time on the portions I provide for the website, for the general section and the teachers’ and readers’ sections.

By the time the text is out, many brains and many pairs of eyes and hands have worked on it, all pulled together by the acquisitions editor. Teachers should start seeing the 6th edition towards the end of September 2015 and everyone else will see it in early October, when it hits the shops. At that point, I think I’ll have a Becks and a lie down. And start researching for the 7th edition.

Discussion questions

How do you go about tackling long-term projects?

How to use models

Models are representations of the real world. They help you better understand the real world by breaking it into pieces, making them good when you need to assess a risk or make a decision. But as Kevin Madigan points out, in an article on Property Casualty 360, a National Underwiriter’s website, no model can cater for every contingency and some models are better than others at helping us assess information about a risk or decision. The main thing is not to use models unquestioningly, for two reasons:

  1. Models are based on underlying assumptions.
  2. Models work on probabilities.

That means you need to understand both the assumptions models make and how they calculate probabilities.

First, ask yourself what your model’s underlying assumptions are and how correct and relevant are they to your organisation or decision. What contingencies are built into and left out of the model? Are the missing pieces important and if so, how can you incorporate them into your decision-making or risk management?

Next, find out how the model calculates probabilities. There are two ways: ‘classical’ probabilities and ‘subjective’ probabilities. You can be reasonably confident in classical probabilities because they are based on observation and experimentation; for example, flipping a coin or testing a drug on a target group and a control group. (Why not call them objective probabilities? Good question; too logical maybe.)

But you can’t experiment or observe elements of decisions about unusual events or problems or of catastrophic risks. That’s when subjective probabilities are used. Either you or the model need to estimate probabilities, perhaps based on observations about the past, informed assumptions about the future, and your ‘best guess’. That’s a long way away from classical probabilities.

So use models to help you make decisions and calculate risks but use them all with care, a questioning mind, and common sense:

  • Don’t take any model at face value.
  • Don’t interpret any model, especially those using subjective probabilities, as factual.

The statistician George EO Box put it well:

‘All models are wrong but some are useful.’

P.S. When you’re working with models, here’s a phrase guaranteed to impress: Don’t get caught up in delusional exactitude. In other words, be wary of models that claim to have a high degree of precision.

Discussion questions

What models do you use in your work? How accurately do they break information into pieces and represent the real world? What are their underlying assumptions and how relevant are they to the situation you’re applying them to? What type of probabilities do they use? In what ways might the models you use be wrong?

Management study tips

The person who knows ‘how’ will always have a job. The person who knows ‘why’ will always be his boss.
Diane Ravitch (1938 – ), research professor at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education and former US Assistant Secretary of Education

Your short-term, or working, memory lasts a mere 5 to 20 seconds. At the end of those few seconds, when you don’t do something with the information you’ve just put into that short-term memory, it’s lost forever. So don’t slog on reading through the text — stop frequently to:

    • think about what you’ve just read and link it to what you already know


  • think about what it means to you personally (or better still) see yourself using it
  • think about how you can use the information you’ve just read
  • think about how you could explain this to someone unfamiliar with the subject
  • repeat the key points to yourself (the more you repeat information, the more it ‘sticks’).


Take brief, key point notes to help send new information into your long-term memory. (Reviewing and discussing the material with a study partner or study group helps embed information in your long-term memory, too.)

Concentrate while you’re reading; when there is too much interference from your environment (conversation, music, TV …) it’s more difficult to retain new information.

  • Read ‘mindfully’. As you read through the text and case studies, look for general management principles as well as ‘exceptions to the rule’. A management principle is something that most managers have found to be true in most situations, which means that it can usefully guide your actions and decisions. Keep a list of these lasting management principles; some examples to start you off might be:

  • Build a a strong and diverse team where people have the information and resources they need to excel.
  • Build a strong culture that emphasises high performance, risk and safety awareness, innovation, and quality.
  • Continually find ways to work faster, more efficiently and more economically.
  • Identify and solve problems systematically.
  • Keep updating your skills and your team’s and team member’s skills.
  • Keep your work priorities and goals at the forefront of your mind and devote enough time to achieve them.
  • Provide plenty of formal and informal feedback on performance to your work team and team members.
  • Put the right person in the right job so everyone can work to their strengths and find job satisfaction.
  • Treat people with respect.

Refer to and draw on these management principles when writing essays and answering end-of-chapter and case study questions, and look for the various ways the principles apply in everyday life—at work, in your studies and in your personal life.

It’s also a good idea to keep a vocabulary list, too. There is a full glossary at the end of the book where you can check terms you’re not sure about and you can also keep your own list of ‘new’ or confusing terms that you come across, as well as words that have a special meaning in the field of management. In order to become familiar with them, begin using these words in your discussions and essays straight away.

Note down any questions and information you’re not quite sure about, so you can go back later and check to see whether you now understand them; when you don’t, ask your teacher or study team to explain them.

Make the most of feedback

Sometimes you just have to grit your teeth and bear it because sometimes criticism is just the truth you need to hear to help you improve your performance, improve your image and move forward.

Of course, not all criticism is useful. Some is just hurtful and some is mean-spirited. Unless you can find a grain of truth in criticism like this and unless you consistently receive similar criticism from a variety of sources, it’s probably safe to let unkind and spiteful comments wash over you.

Most of the time, though, criticism is worth considering. So instead of plugging your ears and humming to yourself, here’s what to do the next time someone criticises you:

  • Think of the criticism as potentially useful information, conveyed to you in the spirit of helping.
  • Put up a mental ‘serene screen’ to sift out any aggressive or hurtful intent.
  • Think about the information from your critic’s perspective.
  • Think about your critic’s motivation and any possible bias or your critic may have.

When you’re consistently receiving similar messages and similar themes, there is probably more than a grain of truth in them. Pick one or two areas to concentrate on improving before moving onto to improving other areas. Here are three ways to prioritise your efforts:

  • Rather than electing to improve in an area in which you have little or no natural aptitude or interest, consider strengthening areas you enjoy and have a natural flair for.
  • Work on areas that could potentially derail your career; these are often the way you approach problems or other people—lack of empathy, lack of sensitivity, or overconfidence, for example. You may need to ‘listen between the lines’ for this type of information since people often back away from telling you home truths like this. In fact, you may have to ask people bluntly for their assessment of you in these areas.
  • Think about building skills for your next role.

Discussion questions

What are your current self-development plans? Do you need to work on any possible ‘career derailers’? What do you need to do to prepare yourself for your next role?