Four years into his career, "Fabian," the general manager of the Hong Kong office at a European toy company, took a leadership survey. It was conducted by the Hay Group, an international human resources firm, and it compared how he saw himself as a boss with the way his two direct bosses, two peers, and his staff saw him.
The result was surprising. "Reading the report's 'leadership style inventory' for the first time," he wrote on his blog, "I felt somewhat like Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky: I simply looked different than I perceived."
It's a problem that hits all of us. We all like to think of ourselves as fantastic bosses: authoritative, decisive, inspiring, and respected. But we really can't know how the people we manage actually see us. In fact, a survey of 1,214 leaders by the Hay Group found that the more senior a manager is in an organization, the more the person tends to overrate him- or herself.
The survey that the group uses to assess managers is based on work by Harvard researchers George Litwin and Robert Stringer. The psychologists identified what they saw as the six most effective styles of leadership:
Gains immediate compliance from employees. Bosses with this style give orders and take no refusals.
Provides long-term vision and leadership. These bosses inspire their staff by making them understand that their efforts matter.
Creates trust and harmony. Backpatting bosses create a warm atmosphere and close teamwork.
Reaches group consensus and generates new ideas. These bosses listen and discuss so that everyone feels invested in the decisions.
Leads by example and accomplishes tasks to high standards. These bosses set the standard that other staff members have to meet.
Focuses on the professional growth of employees. Mentoring bosses invest in their staff, who appreciate the growth.
None of those characteristics is better or worse than another, and all have downsides as well as upsides. Coercive bosses can create a climate of fear that increases staff turnover. Authoritative bosses look for payoffs that might never materialize. Affiliative bosses can lose their staff's respect. Democratic bosses lead endless meetings.
Pacesetting bosses leave their staff no room to grow. And coaching bosses have to accept lower-quality work while they train their staff up to a higher level.
Nor do managers ever display just one of those characteristics; they all have each of them to different degrees, but they might not have them to the extent that they think they do.
During his test, Fabian gave himself 55 out of 100 for coerciveness and 79 out of 100 for authoritativeness. His raters scored him at just 9 for being coercive and 42 for being authoritative. He was a bit more affiliative than he thought and only a little less of a pacesetter at 92 instead of 99.
"Not only did my staff see me as much less the inspiring leader than I wanted to be, even my own answers gave a different picture from my self-perception," Fabian said. "No doubt: I was a terrible 'pacesetter.'"
Fabian came to the conclusion that managerial success means creating a team that can manage itself, being a boss who isn't missed when he is away for a few days but is missed a lot if he's away for good.
That sounds like exactly the right kind of boss to be.