S2E7 – The Next Best Leadership Style

Show Notes

Even if we don’t know it by name, we all know the attributes of the best leadership style, don’t we? Humble, collaborative, curious, people-centric, etc. But how do we know, and what evidence to we have, for those attributes making up the best style? And what if we’ve been led astray about what the best leadership style is?

Join Andy and Mon-Chaio as they summarize the academic research around leadership styles, apply it to a couple situations from their experience, and reveal impactful tactics around how to think about and use leadership styles in technical organizations.



Mon-Chaio: Thank you all for joining us for another episode of The TTL Podcast. Andy and I thought today that we would talk about leadership, because it is a topic that we very rarely touch on, on this podcast, right?

Andy: We’ve never talked about it, Mon-Chaio. Not even around the edges. We just have completely avoided that topic.

Mon-Chaio: And it’s certainly not in our name or anything. But this is going to be interesting because leadership can be so general and we don’t want to get into this philosophical idea of every culture’s definition of leadership and what it is and all different aspects. We do want to focus it on the technical leadership part, but I think what we’re going to touch on is just real quickly, can we agree to a definition of what leadership is in technical environments?

And then talk about, are there different ways to lead? Are there universally good ways to lead, universally bad ways to lead, and what we can learn from those lessons to take forward to our own organizations. Anything else to add, Andy?

Andy: No, I think that about covers what we’re going to try to cover. And we’ll see where this goes.

Mon-Chaio: Sounds great. Maybe the first thing that we should talk about is … do we need to talk about what is leadership, or is that too pedantic? Everybody knows what it is, and we’re just going to go into semantics and wordplay here.

Andy: I think just to anchor it a little bit, make sure that we agree on what important words mean.

Uh, I think let’s give it a shot and I’m going to start off with an incredibly broad definition: I would just say leadership is the ability to get people to work towards a goal.

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm.

Andy: Very, very high level, I’m just going to throw that out there. What do you think Mon-Chaio?

Mon-Chaio: I think I agree. I think at it’s most basic point, I think that makes a lot of sense. And it’s really close to this article where they tried to make a definition of leadership by breaking up the word, and “lead” means “pioneer” or whatever. And they define leadership as “determining a path that a group will follow, leading a group to reach a goal …”

Andy, that’s exactly your point.

“… and owning the required skillset to mobilize followers with intrinsic motivation.” What do we think about that?

Andy: Hmm. The intrinsic motivation. I think, okay, yeah, that’s great. But that cuts out other forms that you might say are getting people towards that goal.

Mon-Chaio: Uh huh. Exactly. I think if we look at the first two parts, determining a path that group will follow …

Andy: Determining a path. it doesn’t say who determines the path, so it does leave that open. To me, it implies a bit that the leader is the one determining the path. so that starts to close it down. I think the listeners also are going to start getting a little sense of what are the different leadership styles that are coming out of this.

Mon-Chaio: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. That’s right. When you first read it, perhaps there’s not a lot of pushback on this idea of both intrinsic motivation or determining a path. But I think you’re absolutely right, Andy, that when you lock it that way, it does lock out a lot of different leadership styles.

And I think this definition of leadership may be through a big cultural lens here, of a culture that values this idea of intrinsic motivation, values this idea of autonomy and self determination.

Andy: Now, I’m going to ask a question that takes us from our definitions that we’re playing around with to a bit more specific in the tech space. Does this definition, does any nuance of it need to come in, for a tech company, for a company that is primarily about software or software-heavy systems, which is what we would be talking about?

Mon-Chaio: I don’t think so. I think it works pretty well. What do you think?

Andy: Yeah, I’m trying to think, everything I can come up with is kind of contrived and actually narrows that definition again. Because one thing I thought is, to show leadership, you have to have some aspect of skills in the activities that are going to be needed to achieve that goal. Which, personally, I think is somewhat true, but it also starts removing certain approaches to leadership that don’t require that.

Mon-Chaio: They’re very context dependent. I think that there are certainly software activities where, and we haven’t touched on this topic yet, this idea of does a leader need to come from a technical background or have done the hands-on work? There are certainly some software activities where that’s absolutely required. Maybe many, maybe most. I don’t know.

Andy: If you’re going to be the tech lead on a team, I’m betting that you’re going to be an expert in a lot of the techniques you’re going to be using to achieve the goals of that team.

Mon-Chaio: Even if you’re CTO and not a tech lead, it’s often very difficult to justify the actions that you’re taking when you don’t have the same mental model as the people that are thinking below you. And sometimes it’s very difficult to achieve that mental model when you haven’t done the work.

Andy: All right. So we have a definition. I think it’s workable. We’re going to keep it very broad because it lets us talk about these different leadership styles.

Now, Mon-Chaio, I’m gonna raise something, which is that I think a lot of these styles people would not espouse, but they will do. And I think that’s really important to keep in mind, that a lot of these styles, especially when we start talking about what we label the toxic styles, people would not say, “oh yeah, I do that, or I should do that”, but they will do that. And I think that’s one of the reasons to understand what some of these are, because once you understand that espoused thing of leadership, now you can start judging it against what your actual leadership in action is.

That’s the reason to bring this up, is to say that even though you may not espouse these, it may be something that you’re doing. Maybe something I’ve done. I’ve probably done some of these in the past. But I would never espouse it and it’s useful to understand this so that we can still talk about them and can analyze them and think about it and reflect on our own actions and see what can we do about that.

Mon-Chaio: Right. And I think the other part is true as well, which is by talking about it, we can talk about things that may on the surface seem like I would never want to do this and talk about, well, wait a minute, maybe you do, and maybe you do want to do it a little bit more.

Andy: Absolutely!,

Mon-Chaio: So let’s get into it. Types of leadership, where do we want to start here? ,

Andy: I feel like we both have come up with various lists. Should we just go through them? ‘Cause I know you’ve got a list that I haven’t seen in fully, and I think I’ve got a list that you probably haven’t seen fully. And so we can go through that for a little while and see what we come up with.

Mon-Chaio: OK, that sounds good. Why don’t we start with the top, uh, it ends up being the top of a lot of lists, most likely because it’s alphabetical, right? So we have these authoritarian and autocratic leadership styles. And often these are the ones that people would say are universally bad, perhaps. So they’re characterized by keeping control within the leader, by a lot of directive action, do this, do that, by using rewards and penalties in order to get compliance with actions. So that would be a hallmark of these authoritarian or autocratic leadership styles.

Andy: I’m gonna go off of that and step up a level, and say that one source that I have actually lumps those together under what they call heroic leadership style. Heroic is that leadership is based on “superior knowledge and information”, ” fearing failure”, “keeping up appearances at any cost, including blaming others”, and “viewing subordinates as inferior creatures in constant need of assistance and rescue.”

Mon-Chaio: Well that’s certainly true!

Andy: And this is why I wanted to bring up, these are not necessarily what you would espouse, but if you reflect on what you’re doing, you might find yourself thinking that. But I wanted to step up that level, to heroic, because another one that they had was coercive.

Mon-Chaio: Mm

Andy: And that’s that you demand immediate compliance and drive to achieve, initiate, and self control. So it’s a very pushy style.

Mon-Chaio: I like this idea of heroic leadership styles as a bucket. Another one that I ran across which may come into that bucket, or maybe straddles buckets, is this concept of a paternalistic leadership style.

Andy: Hmm.

Mon-Chaio: So paternalistic and autocratic overlap somewhat, as far as I can tell. But the difference is, in the paternalistic leadership styles, the leader really cares for their employees. They feel like they have a guardianship role with their employees. And so there’s a benevolence factor to this. So that’s I think the difference that would characterize paternal versus like an autocratic.

Andy: I actually found a reference to that somewhere, a paternalistic leadership style. And on your thing of this may be a cultural thing, apparently paternalistic leadership is a fairly common style in Mexico and it’s a common style in Turkey.

Mon-Chaio: Mmm hmm.

Andy: And in fact, this paper had a quote of a Turkish worker who had moved to the United States and worked in the United States for a few years. And the quote was along the lines of, when they first moved to the U. S., they thought it was liberating that the paternalistic style was gone. But then over time they actually felt it was very alienating. Because they felt that their manager or their leader had no interest in them as a person. Whereas in the paternalistic style, there was an interest in you as a person.

Mon-Chaio: I want to get into that because I think that I can see myself doing it and maybe I’m just telling on myself to the world now, but that’s why we have a podcast, right? And I have read other things along the same vein, which is, is your empathy for you or for them?

Andy: Mmm.

Mon-Chaio: And the reason that I want to bring this up is because I think a lot of times, I can find myself using this type of caring about employees thing as like a leadership tactic.

I’ve even said it. I’m like, look, the first thing you do when you come in on Mondays, you ask, how was your weekend? It’s a really great lead in. It gets people talking about their day, they feel connected. But the question is, do I really care about how their weekend was? Like really and truly? Do I care about it as much as if my wife had returned from a vacation overseas and be like, “oh, how was it, tell me about it!”

Or is it really just a check the box mechanism where I kind of care, yeah, I do care, but mostly it’s like, okay, I want to give them five minutes to talk about it.

Andy: Yeah. When I lived in Germany, I had many people ask me why Americans were so friendly. Because they would go to the US and they’d go into the supermarket and they’d be checking out, and the cashier would maybe start asking them about their day and what are they doing later tonight? Oh, what are you making for dinner? How are you doing? All that. And they kind of liked it, but it also gave them the sense that Americans were very superficial. Because there was no way that this person was actually interested in their day.

Mon-Chaio: And I think the difference being that paternal leadership, it’s that gradient, but the gradient runs really strongly towards, I really do care about these people because it is a guardianship relationship and it’s different to, you can’t guard if you don’t know what their context is.

And I say that to bring up the next type of leadership that I ran into I thought was interesting, which is something that they call transactional leadership. And transactional leadership is this concept that you as a leader are transacting with the people that are doing work. You’re trading rewards, promotions, assignments, in order for good work.

The goal here is to transact in a way where both people are comfortable. There is no need to motivate necessarily or innovate or really get to know these people on the ground.

Andy: “This is strictly a business relationship.” That’s kind of the thinking going on in those cases.

Mon-Chaio: That’s right. And the funny thing is, I think that when we talk about things like transformational leadership, many people would pin themselves there and say, “oh yeah, of course, I’m a transformational leader.” But I think back to how, especially in my time in Big Tech how things were organized, and I would say that there’s much more transactional leaders than people might realize.

Andy: Yeah, you realize you’re probably in a very transactional relationship when a lot of your discussions end up being about, well, if you ask me to do this, can you make sure that I get a pay raise on the next cycle? Or will this increase my bonus?

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm.

Andy: And if you, as the leader are enabling that in some way you’re setting yourself up as a transactional leader. That’s not necessarily bad. It’s just, know what you’re doing and know what it might do.

Mon-Chaio: Or when your company sets it up in that way, right? When you as a leader and your performance review or promo review has quoteunquote checkboxes around “how many people did you promote from your organization?” That shows you can grow people. “What is the impact that you delivered as a leader?” A lot of times that can get into this transactional state, which is in order to deliver this impact that I need to get promoted, I need my people to execute in a certain way.

Andy: Yeah. The definition I have of transactional is “clear specification of what followers are expected to do, and it is based on a rational exchange relationship between leader and subordinate.”

Mon-Chaio: There you go.

Andy: Yep.. And you already mentioned the next one, which is transformational. And , I think you’ve brought up many times, Mon Chaio, that this is the one that you hear espoused the most. Is that right?

Mon-Chaio: Mmm hmm. And more than that, I ran across some research, which said that in the US this is the most studied leadership style. So there’s a selection bias here as well.

Andy: Interesting! So transformational, the defining feature is it’s concerned with people. You “lead by inspiring and stimulating followers, by creating highly absorbing and motivating visions, and by utilizing behaviors such as charisma and intellectual stimulation to induce performance of subordinates beyond expectations.”

So it’s idealized influence, inspirational motivation, charismatic and intellectual stimulation, and individual consideration. So our episode about storytelling, this is what a transformational leader would be all the time. They would be thinking about, what’s the story? Is that the thing that’s inspiring, that will motivate, will it influence people?

They’ll be very conscious of their own image so that they can have that charisma that people will look towards. And that image, it may not be, like, that they have an excellent haircut and an amazing three piece suit. It may be that they are very consciously that tech guru, and they know that they need to know the ins and outs of the Java garbage collector, and that’s what will give them that charismatic and intellectual stimulation that they can give to people.

Mon-Chaio: Mmm hmm..

And you can see why that this is, at least in the United States, a very researched phenomenon. I think researchers have found early on that transformational leaders tend to have a boost on organizational performance. And so they then studied what makes a transformational leader, what are the attributes, can they quantify it? That sort of thing.

And it makes sense, right? In the United States, where you have a very individualistic culture, there’s a lot of tech companies, especially now, who espouse bottoms up, you want your employees and engineers to be able to raise ideas anytime, the rise of the agile movement, this idea that anybody can stop the line at any time.

That fits very well with a transformational leader. It’s very difficult now to tell those people just what to do and become autocratic. You have to inspire them with things like storytelling, and culture building, and all of the things that are, ugh, so difficult and such a waste of time, Andy, because you can just tell people what do, right?

Andy: What I think is interesting is that even in places where the traditional view is that it’s a technical meritocracy, this kind of influence-based storytelling, guiding people towards something, approach to getting into a leadership position, happens.

So I found a study on open source software. They looked at thousands of repositories and commits and pull requests and comments and all of that spanning multiple years on GitHub. And what they were doing was they were testing for, is it purely the number of pull requests that the person gets merged and that the quality of their changes and that kind of thing that gets them into that leadership position, or is it something else?

And what they found was that the transition to being a leader was about one third technical and about one third inspiring, which was shown as they were taking part in conversations and they were espousing negative or positive sentiment and getting people to move along with a vision. They have various ways of measuring these.

So even an open source, where you might have this idea that it’s just people turn towards the great maintainer … No, because in open source, the big thing you always have to be conscious of is how do you get more people to join?

Mon-Chaio: Mmm hmm.

Andy: And one very small way is you have technically interesting code, but a much bigger way is you give people a vision and you give them a thing to drive towards because they’re only going to do it if they find it compelling enough to spend their free time working on it.

Mon-Chaio: Well, yeah, people have choice there, right? It’s almost a recruitment tactic.

Andy: Mm hmm.

Mon-Chaio: And you find that in a lot of tech companies too, especially the larger ones that espouse a desire for people to be able to move between organizations and teams freely, sort of have an internal marketplace of engineers. You get that as well, people have choice. And so, as soon as people have choice, the inspiration and storytelling becomes a much bigger deal.

Andy: I was going to ask, can we get into a few of your toxic ones that you found? I think those are going to be fun.

Mon-Chaio: Yeah, I don’t want to spend too much time on these because unlike the other ones that we’ve talked about which had uses as you’ve heard, these ones mostly have no use but we should get into some of them.

Let’s see, there’s a big long list here. How about I start with this term called insincere leadership. So that occurs when leaders “use a diverse set of leadership behaviors to achieve personal goals at the expense of others without direct confrontation, but rather in the form of clandestine and deceitful tactics and strategies.”

Andy: Mmm. I just pulled up your list and I have another one that caught my eye. Leader Narcissism. Leaders behaviors are principally motivated by their own egomaniacal needs and beliefs superseding the needs and interests of the constituents and institutions they lead.

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm.

Andy: I think that’s the common thread I’m seeing through this whole list achieving your private goal at the expense of organizational goal, or at the expense of subordinates, or the expense of something else.

Mon-Chaio: Mmm hmm. But personal goals, I think, are so difficult, right? I think it’s very difficult to say that you are 100 percent always leaned into your people and your organization. I think companies would like to say that. They say, hey, if you lean 100 percent into your organization and your people, your professional success will be guaranteed, quote-unquote, by the company.

But how often have we ever seen that to be true? You can’t always have the company’s needs aligned to the personal needs of people. Or the personal interests.

Andy: And I think that’s a good point, none of these things are hard and fast, and it’s not like if it happens once, then suddenly you’re a toxic leader.

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm.

Andy: In fact, I think you even said in here that somewhere in this paper, they talked about that these are traits that are toxic if they happen repeatedly and over time.

Mon-Chaio: Yep. Yeah, you’re absolutely right, a lot of these definitions end up being, if they happen repeatedly or over time, or if it’s a primacy in your leadership style, then they can become toxic. But I think it’s very difficult to get away from all of these. Things like insincere leadership or some of these others, especially in organizations where they tell you you’re supposed to look out for yourself.

When I was at a large, a Big Tech company, my manager famously said, you are the one looking out for your career. And how can you do that if you are a hundred percent in transformational leadership? You’re not focused on your personal goals at all. You’re not saying, oh, well, I have a thing between two different ways I could take the organization strategically, I think they’re both reasonable, but man, you know, it’s going to look so much better for me if I take it in strategic direction A.

Andy: Mmm mmm hmm..

Mon-Chaio: Or, ooh, they want me to hire five engineers in the UK or 30 engineers in India. Uh, kind of the same, like, but kind of nice to have like a larger group, right? And I can learn some more things about how to manage through people better if I have a larger group.

Let’s go with the India side.

Andy: Yep. Yeah. That is the tension of rewards in the world.

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm.

Andy: So, uh, let’s move on to a couple other things that are not as toxic and might also act as the counterbalance to some of these.

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm.

Andy: And that is in the paper that I had, it called them post-heroic. Post-heroic is “the leader wants others to take responsibility and gain knowledge”, “encourages innovation and participation, even in ambiguous situations”, “seeks input and aims for consensus and decision making”, and “wants others to grow and learn, even at the expense of becoming dispensable herself.”

And then one that I think a lot of us would be familiar with, at least in an espoused form …

Mon-Chaio: Mmm hmm.

Andy: … maybe not necessarily in actually seeing it happen, is democratic post-heroic, which is “high group participation, discussion, group decisions based on consensus encouraged by the leader.”

Mon-Chaio: Mmm hmm.

Andy: And I would say that that’s the one that I would espouse the most. And I hope is what people that I’ve led have experienced the most.

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm.

Andy: And the other one is shared leadership, which is you have devolved the aspect of leaders so far that everyone is a leader. And that’s “all members of a team are fully engaged in leadership of the team and are not hesitant to influence and guide their fellow team members in an effort to maximize the potential of the team as a whole.”

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm.

Andy: In my mind, that’s what I’m always aiming for. That’s that vision on the hill we’re trying to get to, but there’s situations and things in the way that I need to go to other styles or other things to compensate because we just can’t get there yet.

Mon-Chaio: Yeah, I don’t know if laissez faire leadership also fits into that post-heroic bucket. This idea of low touch leadership. You wanna basically let people do what they do, you want to have as little touch as possible. Don’t do any intervention or as little intervention as possible.

Andy: It is. Now I have a reference for laissez faire, and it only came up in this one place for me, and this is in the book The Psychology of Executive Coaching that we mentioned in our last episode. And this is a summarization of an analysis of three different leadership styles and how effective they were in this group setting.

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm.

Andy: And Laissez Faire leader was the least productive group of the three. The boys were unable to work independently, tended not to cooperate, and their work efforts tended to be disorganized.

So, as much as I say that’s kind of like where I want to go, that’s not the outcome I want.

Mon-Chaio: Right.

Andy: And basically I see that as like that unattainable vision because it takes so much skill on each individual’s part to really get there. That the best we can really do is an approximation and I think it would be bad leadership to just laissez faire, leave everyone to it and expect that magically it happens.

Mon-Chaio: Yeah, I agree.

Andy: The other two that were studied were autocratic and democratic. So the autocratic style, it said productivity in this group tended to be higher, but less creative in quality. And the democratic, followers in this group tended to be more self-motivated and then they continued to work on task when the leader was not physically present. This group was less productive, but the quality of work was higher and more creative.

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm.

So we can already see, just based on that statement, without even going to the other research, that there are good things to take from both of those top two leadership styles anyway. Maybe even the laissez faire one.

But I’ve also found research that says autocratic leadership styles are really important when stress is high, and that in highly stressful environments, an autocratic leadership style delivers better outcomes than things like transformational leadership.

Andy: Yeah.

So should we move on to a little bit of a story and a situation that we can think about the leadership styles and how they might’ve played out differently? And I think it will get us to autocratic and democratic styles, and we can think about this because the story will involve both of them.

Mon-Chaio: OK

Andy: So a few years ago, team I had, that I was working with, they had been running their system on premise on VMs for years, had built up a ton of automation around being able to manage these VMs: being able to provision, reprovision, change the configuration, all incredibly automated to the point that a physical server could be shut down, completely wiped, brought back up, and everything re-provisioned back onto it, with a single, well I shouldn’t say a single command, maybe two commands.

However, a thing that happens with automation of that caliber is that it becomes very tightly tied to the infrastructure that it’s built on. And the operating system that it had targeted was coming end of life. The new version of the operating system, I’m looking at you Ubuntu, completely changed how it managed, almost everything really, which meant that all of that automation would have to be pretty much rewritten to continue supporting everything that we did. Which meant that we had a decision to make. Do we do that rewrite, continue targeting the VMs? Or do we say that this is a good point to do a rewrite to target something else?

As I just said the thing I usually go for is more of that democratic style. We approached that as, all right, this is our question. How do we answer this? And the group thought about different approaches. They debated it. They went through, what would this one look like? What would that one look like? What would be the cost of this? What would be the cost of that? One of the things we brought up was could we just transfer all of this just straight to AWS?

And what we ended up with was let’s keep portions of our automation tooling, rewrite all of that VM infrastructure onto Kubernetes. Which means we would have to learn Kubernetes. We’d have to learn how to run it on prem because we still wouldn’t be able to migrate into the cloud.

The role of the leader in this case was to start teasing out, and this is what I was doing, start teasing out what is this narrative? What’s this inspirational story that we can use? And feed that back into the democratic process.

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm. Okay.

Andy: So we started coming up with, and I started telling the story of, we can do this, we can use it as a stepping stone to getting us off of our own hardware, off of managing the network directly, managing the internet connection, all of that, and give us a stepping stone into AWS, and we can do this piecemeal, because once we’re in Kubernetes, transition to the cloud where you’ve got EKS, for instance, isn’t as big of a deal anymore.

And as we do this transformation, aspects of our infrastructure that we’ll have to rewrite, we can move to cloud services a piece at a time. So we’ll be in kind of a hybrid setup. And it gives us that experience with running the cloud services as well as all these other things. And so, it was this transformational, in terms of telling the story, but it was also entirely democratic.

In the end, it came down to just a meeting where we sat there and we said, okay, what do we do? and we said, okay, let’s pull the trigger on this Kubernetes migration. How are we going to do it? Well, we’ll start working on this and we’ll start working on that. And we’ll start rewriting this part of our automation and we’ll do that.

This turned out to be incredibly important because this high participation, this discussion, this base on consensus was really important because this transformation took years. This wasn’t like it’s done in a couple months and we’re gonna move on. It took years and there were multiple times when we’re like why are we doing this? This is so difficult!

But because it had been come to by consensus, everyone knew the story of why we were doing this

Mon-Chaio: That makes sense. And it sounds like sort of a perfect use for this democratic slash transformational style, right? The timelines were long, it’s kind of a very creative thing that has to happen and that there was a lot of explore to be done and so there was a lot of innovation that needed to happen,

Those I think are the attributes that made me think that it played well to this sort of style. Can you think of others that made this style the right thing to do at that point in time?

Andy: I think also to this one of the democratic leader style had a higher quality. The quality of what came out of that, I think was also incredibly high. I actually was talking to one of the people who had been working on that. And he said the part that’s running on Kubernetes is the most stable part of the system now. That it just sits there and it runs and it works. And transition of applications from the VMs into the Kubernetes system usually was completely straightforward and everyone kind of was on board about what are the risks involved and we’d analyze those risks.

And so that very democratic approach also led into the migrations of things, which meant that the quality of a migration was very high.

Mon-Chaio: Mhm. So, it all worked out for the best, right?

Andy: I do think that it worked out very well, but on to the next story …

Mon-Chaio: Mmm hmm.

Andy: … which is that before we were able to finish this entire thing company bought, all that, we were told by the new company that we needed to reduce costs. And one way of reducing costs was to put all of our systems into a data center that the company already had. Completely sensible. The thing was, that takes a lot of work. It’s very difficult and it has a lot of risks involved.

This decision was not come to through a democratic consensus process. This one came to us in an email saying by this date, you will move all of your infrastructure to this new system.

Mon-Chaio: Mhm.

Andy: it also didn’t come from a place where we could say that we really were following a leader, that we understood their judgment and felt that their reasoning was something that we would follow, because it was coming from the cost optimization department.

Mon-Chaio: Of the new company, which I’m guessing trust had not been built yet.

Andy: Yeah, and that was one where the discussions leading up to it, it was everyone in the group was openly saying, why are we doing this? This is incredibly difficult. It removes various safeguards that we have in place about how our systems run. And what we needed to do in that case, me, what I needed to do was now take on transformational again, work out what is the story that we can tell ourselves so that we can at least get behind what we’re doing.

Not necessarily that we like it or that we want to do it, but we can get through it. And in that one, it was, once we moved to this new data center, there is a team that exists that can take on some of the hardware maintenance duties that we’ve been doing. And that takes a burden off of us.

That was the best story I could come up with.

Mon-Chaio: So that’s a, that’s transformational again. We got transformational and we transformational and then we got democratic.

Andy: But the outside decision making was autocratic. It was very much a separate person simply sending a decision down and saying, “thou shalt do this.”

Mon-Chaio: Right. The challenge that I have there is I don’t really know enough of the context of that autocratic leader to be able to judge to say that was the thing that was necessary to do at that time for them, or that they should have engaged in more transformative or democratic leadership because I just don’t know the context from their side, right?

It could be that they were bleeding millions of dollars and this needed to get done tomorrow, or it could have been something where they could have been more participative in coming up with a plan.

Andy: The extra context is, I’m a biased witness here, I believe they could have been more participative because later on they stopped the process after an outage showed that exactly what we’d been saying, which is that this migration reduced our redundancy and could create major outages.

And they just stopped it and they said, okay, everyone stay where you are.

Mon-Chaio: Wow. That seems like a big waste of time.

I don’t know, where, do we take it from here? I … it now seems like that we’re just espousing transformational leadership for everything.

Andy: No, no, I think it’s transformational leadership is a key ingredient in a lot of things …

Mon-Chaio: Mm-Hmm.

Andy: … but democratic, or shared, or even autocratic sometimes. I think if that autocratic style had been combined with a bit of transformational style from the people that were sending the decision, it could have been a very different thing.

But they would have had a very hard time because, as you said, there was no trust relationship. That charisma that is really important in transformational was completely lacking. And so , I think those kinds of things are very useful and you need to pay attention to the context and what’s going on to decide which of these approaches is appropriate at this time.

I’ll give you another case where autocratic actually can be very useful. And this goes back to that study, they said an autocratic leadership style may be preferable when quick, decisive action is required, but less preferable when creative or sustained effort is desired.

Mon-Chaio: Mm-Hmm.

Andy: Outages. So that team also had a process for when our site went down.

We would call what’s called a war room. People would get in there and one of the first things you did was appoint a leader. Now that leader basically was an autocrat, and so only certain people could do it well. Because one of the things was, that autocrat had to make good decisions, but they had to make them fast.

Mon-Chaio: And I think why does it work well there? Because immediate action is needed.

Andy: Immediate action is needed. Context is limited and fairly fixed.

Mon-Chaio: Mm hmm.

Andy: Because you don’t have the long time span. You just need to know what’s going on right now.

Mon-Chaio: And probably highly stressful if it’s an outage

Andy: All right, Mon-Chaio, let’s move on to some tactics. I think from the story we’ve got one tactic, which is decide whether or not you’re in a highly stressed, time sensitive situation, or if you’re in a more exploratory, longer term situation.

If you’re more highly stressed you might veer more towards autocratic, and if you have more time, but you want more creativity, move towards democratic.

Mon-Chaio: I think the tactic that I’ll give is broader than that, but it’s along the same lines, which are that there are different leadership styles. I’m going to read a quick quote from a paper. It says: ” Moreover, researchers should focus on leaders’ ability to change the degree of authority in their leadership styles, depending on the specific conditions of their workgroups. Therefore, the discussion about authoritarian leadership styles still makes sense, but it should be ascribed to a viewpoint inspired by complexity.”

So combing that, I think it’s really important for one, for people to know that there are these other leadership styles but two, to be able to identify the time to flex to them and to be willing to flex to them instead of saying this is the style that I’m comfortable with and I’m going to be in this style 100 percent of the time.

Andy: Right. Yeah. And I’m going to do one last one. This is more of a consideration: do you want to be setting up a situation that is purely about a transaction , an exchange of goods of some sort, or do you want to set up something that is more values based? Your selection of leadership style, your use of different things, sets that cultural context of what is the way that we approach decision making and who gets to tell the story in this group. And sometimes you may want to say, this kind of thing is a transactional one. But other times you may want to be saying, this is something based on our values.

Mon-Chaio: And I think this gets also back to the espoused versus theory and use type thing. Many, many companies, if I were to dig into the internal details, would say, yes, we are all about transformational leadership. We’re all about innovation from the bottoms up. And I think they have the best intentions with that.

But some of these companies that I see, what they really are trying to do is get product out to market as fast as possible, probably before their funding runs out, as an example. That ends up being a pretty highly stressful environment … where, debate takes time, right? And so, is your espoused theory versus your theory in use actually true?

It’s great to say one thing, but maybe in the specific time that you have in this year, maybe you really need to be saying something else and being truthful to yourself.

Andy: Yeah.

Mon-Chaio: And then my last one will just be real quick. We didn’t touch on this a lot, but with global organizations, I want to point back to the thing that Andy said about there being high paternalistic values in places like Mexico or Turkey or China.

In that same article, the researchers wrote: “Western scholars and practitioners tend to have an aversion to the concept of paternalistic leadership … Indeed, paternalistic leadership is unlikely to be a desirable leadership trait in cultures with loose social norms, which prize independence, creativity, and risk taking. In such cultures, such as the United States, the type of hierarchical relationship prized by paternalistic leadership will be perceived as an outdated, inequitable, and constraining.”

But the other is also true, where if you have teams in some of these other locations saying that, look, our company is based on transformational leadership styles, where it clashes with their country culture, is going to make it very difficult for you to collaborate effectively.

Andy: Yeah. It is one of the things that I’ve heard about ever since I was an undergrad and we were going through our first waves of offshoring and there was all the discussion about how do you work with the people in these different countries? And the answer was always, yeah, it’s difficult because you’re going to have to behave in ways that aren’t ingrained in you.

Mon-Chaio: Yeah, absolutely. And I think there’s much more that we could talk about around how do you actually build global teams? What are the things that you need to think about to be successful and what aren’t most people thinking about?

Andy: I think so, Mon-Chaio. And that’s why we like talking about what most people don’t think about. At least that’s what we like telling ourselves. That’s what we’re doing.

Mon-Chaio: That’s right. So hopefully you all have enjoyed this episode on leadership styles. What are your thoughts? Do you have leadership styles that you like to use? And what are the ones that you wish you could practice more of, that you’ve overlooked?

Or any other comments, let us know at hosts@thettlpodcast.com. Similarly, we would love it if you would give us a like, a comment, or a follow on any of your favorite podcatching platforms.

So that’s this episode, and until next time, be kind and stay curious.


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