Good leaders cannot be an enigma to their employees.

Leadership and Organizational Development

Interview with Dr. Christian Abegglen

Those who manage employees and want to them to be enthusiastic need to have one thing above all: a realistic self-image. Without that, managers cannot convincingly uphold the many roles they are required to juggle in today’s world. To strike the proper balance between change and stability, dogmatic discussions are not going to move things forward, according to Dr. Christian Abegglen, former president of the board and former managing director of the St. Galler Business School, and Markus Franz, director of the Staufen Academy.

A fundamental question to get us started: what makes a good leader?

FRANZ: First and foremost, good leaders have to be able to step into different roles and manage business on a situational basis. Sometimes they will need to serve as a change manager, sometimes they have to be a mentor and trainer, and sometimes they have to be a disciplinary supervisor. If you add strategic competence to the mix along with the ability to inspire people, there’s not much else you can wish for.

You speak of disciplinary supervisors, but isn‘t that a role that is disappearing more and more in current management models?

FRANZ: Different new approaches have to be tested in practice before they can be implemented. But if the underlying idea is to get rid of management, you’re practically off on the wrong foot before you even got started. The goal of contemporary leadership is not to create some sort of edgy facade, but to establish a functioning framework where employees can develop, grow and actively apply themselves. At the end of the day, what matters is not whether management is contemporary or traditional: what matters is how effective it is.

Regardless of management styles, what personal characteristics do people need to have?

ABEGGLEN: Good leaders cannot be an enigma to their employees: they have to have a personality that makes sense to other people. Beyond that, they need to engage in self-reflection instead of self-depiction. People who cannot assess themselves realistically will hardly be able to assess their environment properly. In our training programs, we often observe that the ability to reflect about one’s own actions is not always well-developed. Since there are many attitudes which we are born with or have become anchored over the course of several years, change is difficult and can only happen on a gradual basis.

FRANZ: I agree completely. Effective behavior modification can only be attained by a constant process of self-reflection and input from others. The latter can take place by means of a mentor, a coach or another manager.

Visionary goals should be pursued
in a professional setting as well.

Why is it that so many people become managers even though they do not have a natural aptitude for the task?

ABEGGLEN: Actually, this whole process really starts in school kids, whose success is often measured by a kind of logic that is rather trivial. And when you develop a product or create a marketing plan, success is also pretty simple to quantify, and mistakes can be corrected. By contrast, when you manage a group, you are operating within a highly complex system. People’s actions just can’t be predicted easily. Dealing with these highly complex systems does not usually receive the attention it deserves, not to mention the specific training it requires.

But with our system of incentives, are we not pushing people who are not suited for the job into management roles, which are usually remunerated at a much higher rate?

FRANZ: This is a thought-provoking question, which is also interesting from another perspective. Money is not the only thing that has motivated managers for many years now – so have status symbols and prestige. This way of thinking is being questioned with increasing frequency by members of Generations Y and Z. The decision about whether to work for company A or company B is being made more and more often on the basis of which set of corporate values is a better match with that of the employee and how well the person can achieve their goals at a given company — professionally and personally.

Abegglen: Please allow me to add something here. Visionary goals should be pursued in a professional setting as well. Top managers in particular have to make the company the psychological property of its employees and lead by example with goals that people are passionate about.

Turning from the topic of visions back to everyday life: ideally speaking, what should the relationship between employees and their managers look like?

Franz: The best term here is “normal”: managers should not try to be someone they are not. They should be authentic. What we need is a climate of open interactions, appreciation and good faith. Communication is critical in this context: people have to say what they are doing, but they also have to do what they are saying.

But how realistic is it to communicate so openly? Usually supervisors are caught up in constraints which make it hard to do things like admit mistakes.

Franz: This is a fundamental problem. We have to shift from a culture of mistakes to a culture of learning. Creating a learning organization is only possible if there is psychological security. That means that certain things can be attempted, and it’s all right if the desired result is not attained. What is important is learning from those situations, implementing the appropriate improvements and, above all, creating a corporate culture that makes this approach possible. There is no other way to blaze new trails.

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