Dare to be a Bull in a China Shop

Why it is usefull to adopt different leadership styles.

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My close friend Jane asked me recently: “Which approach to leadership seems better to you: an authoritarian leader who gives “orders” and disapproves of any objections, or somebody like my boss, who is authoritarian by nature, but as a result of coaching, is trying hard to build good relationships leading others to ridicule him for acting like a bull in a china shop?”

Jane suggested that as subordinates of the directive leader in her story respected him, his authoritarian, yet natural, style was better than the friendly, but unnatural, one of her boss. But, was he really respected or did he rather force obedience based on fear? People followed his commands as it was comfortable for them to avoid making their own decisions.

I told Jane a story: An authoritarian CEO of a production company left the company one day and another CEO took over. The new CEO could be called a servant leader. He was dedicated to growing the business by serving others, helping them grow, and empowering them. He expected the same from the “inherited” management team. But after having the authoritarian role model for the past 10 years, most of the managers had the directive leadership style. As the new CEO believed that team diversity and different opinions can move business to the next level, he let most of the management team members go. He hired managers with a similar mindset to his and grew the business much faster in much less time than the previous CEO ever did.

I always tell my clients to be ready to be perceived as a bull in a china shop whenever they are in the process of acquiring new skills as it is in line with the learning curve. One of my daughter’s books has an illustration with two pictures of a guy on a bicycle. In one, he’s in the typical biking position of those who bike Giro d’Italia – the head and back down, legs paddling wildly. In the other, he’s not even sitting on his bike; rather he is flying on it as a ballet dancer, making it clear he struggles and looks very ridiculous. The text above the picture says “The first time is unlike the hundredth time, the hundredth time is unlike the first time“.

When you learn a new language, one of the fastest ways is to learn by doing. Start speaking it, no matter how ridiculous it might sound to a native speaker. It is same with any other skill, leadership included.

The boss who is seen by his subordinates as a bull in a china shop might grow into a great leader able to command different leadership styles. The one who doesn‘t believe in the maturity and competences of his subordinates and feels only he knows best, might get stuck being directive. His personal authoritarian style will limit him as well as the growth of his business because he will tend to surround himself only with people complementary to this style.

A democratic leader can choose to use the authoritarian approach at the beginning of his work with a new team member with limited experience or with those who have low motivation. But a wise and experienced leader does so purposely and does not limit himself to use only this leadership style.

If you lead an army or a firemen team or you just need to fire-fight issues that could have an immediate detrimental effect on your business, you might want to choose a directive leadership style. But when you lead an R&D team in a time of innovations and development of new products, you might let yourself be inspired by the opinions of others in a democratic way. You can also choose to be a servant leader who mainly helps to remove bottle-necks and obstacles for a team of very self-driven individuals who know not only what and how to do their work but are most effective when left to do what they do best.

Situational leadership is a term that was first used by Paul Hersey and Ken Blanchard in the 1970’s. The masters of situational leadership are not only great at applying the right leadership style to the specific situation but also to different people.

The more senior and independent people on your team are, the more you can empower them and rely on their engagement. I slightly changed the graphics that you can find in the book “Leadership and the One Minute Manager” by Blanchard et al:

I added the white arrow to remind you that your goal as a leader is to grow people by helping them to acquire new skills and increase their engagement. It also illustrates that your leadership style should change with a particular person over time as you help them grow.

No matter which leadership style fits your nature, make it a 2018 resolution to do your best to adopt another leadership style, and use it wisely and situationally. And remember:

A bull in china shop might deserve more respect   for trying hard to learn new skills and get better than a “stubborn bull” unwilling to change. 

Dare to be the bull in the china shop!

Originally published at

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