Read the Room


In the current edition of the Harvard Business Review (HBR, Nov-Dec 2020), Suzane J. Peterson, Robin Abramson and R.K. Stutman discussed the issue of what is expected of us leaders in the article entitled “How to Develop Your Leadership Style”. Oftentimes, I have also discussed leadership in my blogs and, as I began to read the article, I thought to myself that this is once again a new model which will explain to us how we need to act. But I found something in this article which rarely is found regarding the theme of leadership: The recognition that we all have a set of markers which we apply and nonetheless the context in which we move is of extreme importance. In this case, the discussion was about characteristics which are identified with powerful and other characteristics which are perceived to be attractive. Good leaders utilise characteristics from both worlds and the more context-related that they are utilised, the more successful our leadership style will be. 


The article reminded me a little bit of the time when I learned situational leadership as a young Manager in the 1990s. The model from Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard fascinated me and made it very quickly clear to me how difficult leadership truly is. It pertains to the person in the respective situation and it is my responsibility to rapidly adapt to this situation. I learned about the importance of communication and empathy in leadership because, without any genuine interest in how my employees are doing, it is impossible for me to be able to correctly assess my respective employee’s situation. However, in situational leadership, it is also very important to recognise his own strengths and weaknesses in order to learn that flexibility in order to be able to quickly adapt one’s management style to the situation. Later, I tried in countless seminars to convey this importance of transformability to the young Junior Managers and, unfortunately, I experienced with many colleagues throughout all the years how monotonous they consider leadership to be.


Moreover, our conduct is very often influenced by the situation: We act more powerfully whenever we feel that we are superior in status to the other persons. We utilise more attractive characteristics whenever we perceive that we are inferior in the relationship to others. But precisely this conduct is not goal-oriented or, stated differently, precisely the opposite would be much more efficient. Whenever I cooperate with my juniors, then I don’t consider it to be necessary to emphasise my status. To embrace formalisms or to take up even unnecessarily much space in my actions blocks an efficient cooperation and reciprocal learning. On the other hand, if I act too reserved within a group of executives, then a cooperation on the same eye-level will not occur.


In their article, Peterson, Abramson and Stutman also refer to the cultural dimension in one’s leadership style – a dimension which I consider to be extremely important in the international context. Many leadership models which we learn at universities are subject to a Western European value system. However, we may not forget that our culture is characterised by a high degree of individualism and somewhat minimal power distance (see the Cultural Dimensions from Geert Hofstede). The importance, for example, of eye contact, taking notes or also the seating arrangement during meetings entails cultural aspects, the awareness of which is absolutely necessary for efficient leadership. A lack of awareness of these differences has already destroyed many a business relationship before it was able to even truly begin.


Efficient leadership is no easy task. The knowledge of leadership models alone is not enough (but also not hindering). It concerns having the intention and the willingness to interact with others, to have the genuine interest in learning about them (and not just merely talking about one’s own self) and much experience because we will not always be successful in correctly adapting our style to the respective situation. Throughout all the years, leadership has always remained very exciting to me. It pertains to the question regarding whether I always correctly interpret the people with whom I cooperate and the situations in which we cooperate – namely, whether I possess the ability to read the room.

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