A tale of two bosses: the impact of leadership styles

This is a real example of two bosses I had and their dramatically different approaches to their leadership for the research projects I had been hired to run as a post-doc fellow.  Both projects had been funded to achieve a particular objective and both required a fairly specific methodology to be followed.


In my first fellowship, the boss invited me to a meeting to discuss the project.  He explained how this project was to complete the work started by a PhD student who had left after 2 years research.  My project was to extend the research to a wider geographic area in a way that meant we could make direct comparisons with the PhD student’s research and analyse all the data in a meta-analysis.  He asked me to come up with a plan that would best address these constraints and deliver the outcomes we wanted.

In effect, we both knew that this meant the style and nature of the experiments was already determined as it needed to be exactly the same as the experiments previously conducted by the PhD student, because this was the only way to make the data directly comparable.  However, at no time did my boss mention anything about the details of how to conduct the experiments.  He left it to me to do all the design and details, which we discussed at our next meeting, and agreed the standards and outcomes required.   In our subsequent meetings, he asked me about progress, results and my interpretation and how well (or not) I thought these indicated we were on track to achieve the project outcomes.  

The effect of his approach was to make me feel respected for my knowledge, expertise and professionalism.  It made me feel ownership of the project and responsible for delivering results.  I felt hugely motivated, committed and engaged in my work and I devoted (far too much!) time to ensuring we got great results.



My boss of my second fellowship was very different.  Again this was a project that had been funded to achieve a particular aim.  The boss and a third person had designed the project in order to apply for the funding.  They invited me in for the first meeting to discuss the project, and described in full detail exactly how the experiment was designed and to be delivered.  They hired me, they said, for my expertise in working with the system that was being used but would not listen to any of my concerns around implicit assumptions that were being made but not acknowledged.  These assumptions meant the biology in the system would create too much variability to be able to detect the results being sought.  I felt they were treating me like a technician and wondered why they had hired a postdoc in order to do a technician’s work.  In the end, I never had a real conversation with this boss until I gave up trying to speak with him and just started saying ‘yes’ to doing it his way.  The boss called regular meetings to discuss the details and how I was conducting experiments.  I was extremely demotivated, I didn’t trust my boss and this was the most disappointing job I have ever held. On the other hand, the prospect of potentially getting another boss like this was one of the triggers that spurred me to leave academia, so perhaps he did me a great service after all!



How effective were the two bosses’ leadership styles?

The first boss was effectively managing at a level to manage other people, especially experienced professionals.  His time investment in the project was 1) at the beginning clarifying the overall desired outcomes and standards and 2) in key meetings.  It resulted in the appropriate project design and delivery and a committed and engaged researcher.  Although he could have given me all the details the second boss gave me, he didn’t. He held back and let me sort out the details.  The time invested in creating the detailed structure for this project was all done by me, the professional – which was appropriate.  The style was very much outcome focus, which enhances and can further develop the professional’s expertise and ability to project manage.  It was an ideal style for someone who manages others to still be responsible for outcomes but deliver them through other people by delegating appropriately.  Note delegation is not abdication.  In this project, the outcomes were important to the boss’s reputation, so it was vital to ensure the results were valid.  He shared responsibility, and agreed clear standards and reporting with me, the professional, so we both knew what was required to recognise when we were on track and delivering outcomes at the right level.  Throughout this project, he did not get deeply involved in the operational side.  

He provided strategic direction and support, and at the same time showed respect for my expertise that resulted in commitment and engagement.  This freed up his time to lead a larger number of people and also have time to conduct his own research, which provided his fulfilment to still feel like the ‘expert professional’ that he was.  Note, however, that this style of leadership was not always appropriate at this extent of outcomes focus.  His new PhD students sometimes felt overwhelmed and a few post docs also preferred to have more hands on input and direction.  A little more flexibility to respond to individual needs could have paid dividends.


The second boss was still operating predominantly at the ‘manage self or project’ level, rather than managing other people at the right level.  He invested a lot of time overseeing the details of the work (the how) that could have been better invested in other things more appropriate to his leadership role.  He did not have time for conducting research himself any more.  He was heavily involved in the operational side of this project.   The result was demotivating, disengaging, lack of trust and a struggle to find commitment.  Now I know more about leadership and management I recognise this boss was using the ‘broken record’ technique on me during the first six months of my tenure.  This is hugely demoralising.  He never listened or responded to what I said, just kept repeating what he wanted to tell me.  I highly recommend that you never use this technique if you want to develop good relationships with people and engage your team.

Stepping up to manage and lead other people

Over the last few years in my role as an executive coach, I have subsequently worked with many managers to step up to lead and manage at the right level.  They felt there just wasn’t enough time to do everything they were required to do in their role.  They felt very time-stretched, no matter how well they managed time and scheduled their diaries.  They felt it was unreasonable for one person to be expected to do all this – the role was too big for one person.  Often their work/life balance suffered, they spent too long at work and took work home to finish off in the evenings and weekends.  Their home life suffered and they had too little time for friends and family or sport or other personal interests.  

They were still getting too involved in the operational and technical aspects of their direct reports’ roles.  They were deeply involved in the details and often telling their people how to do their job, in the way that was successful for them.  

They were doing this with the best of intentions, without realising how it could be destructive to their team’s morale, motivation, engagement and productivity.  They felt this was what was needed and expected of them to provide direction for their team, which was their job as the manager.  However, it didn’t leave them enough time to do their own work or focus on the far horizon and plan for longer term future strategy. Also, some found that they were not being seen as a peer by other managers at their level and people would primarily come to them for their expertise rather than strategic thinking.

They were effectively still managing at the ‘managing self or project’ level rather than managing at a level to manage other people and managers.  In effect, they were still ‘being the expert’ rather than the ‘leader of experts’.  Being the expert brings satisfaction and fulfilment, perhaps a sense of identity, and values their knowledge, skills and technical expertise.  Experts, or ‘individual contributers’, spend almost all of their time on work they directly control and value getting results through their own proficiency and delivering high quality work.  This value has brought them success in their career to date but gets in the way of being an effective manager and leader of other people.  Becoming a leader of experts requires a shift in values – to value getting results through others not yourself, to value time spent in developing your people, to feel their success is your success, to value the outcomes and success of your team or unit, to value your managerial work and getting the best out of your people, to value yourself as a manager and leader rather than as a professional expert. 

The key is to getting the right balance of where you spend your time.  The higher your leadership or management level in an organisation, the more your focus must be providing strategic direction and achieving results through others and less time being the expert working as an ‘individual contributer’.

Shifting values doesn’t happen overnight! It takes time to develop awareness of what is most important to you and what motivates you.  It involves developing a real and personal motivation to want to value your contribution in this different way.  Many leaders find this difficult transition is much easier with support from a mentor or coach who they trust to explore their values, thoughts and feelings; plan how to try out new ways of thinking and behaving; and reflect on what’s working well or what could be changed.

If you would like to talk to me about coaching around changing your leadership mindset or being  more confident, please do get in touch.  You can also check out our online coaching programmes on www.aeonacoaching.com or see the Aeona webpage for more information about what I do: www.aeona.co.uk

Sue Mitchell    email: info@aeonacoaching.com  telephone +44 1875 830708  or  use the contact form below – please make sure you spell your email address correctly for me to be able to reply to you.

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