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  • Writer's pictureRobin Rosenberg

Are Leaders Born or Made?

Dear Robin,

I have just been hired to replace the district manager of my firm. I oversee several teams and regional team leaders. I was told the person I replaced (who recently retired) had a very different leadership style than me. He was a bit of a micro-manager and seemed to use an authoritarian approach. I think this has caused many of my subordinates to shy away from being true leaders (some of them had worked under the man I replaced for 20 years.) Why would they lead if they just had someone that was constantly going to correct them and “take-over” the situation? I’m hoping that’s something that can be changed because I need my teams to have leaders other than myself. Do you think it’s possible for me to encourage some of these employees that have never really been true leaders to step up and learn to lead? Or do you think leadership skills are something your born with and at this point in their careers they may never learn, or worse, never want to learn?


You’ve stepped into a challenging situation, but one in which change is possible. It sounds as if some of the leaders and managers have developed a form of learned helplessness. In your context, learned helplessness means that they have learned not to try to lead in the way you want. That is, they’ve given up trying.

Leaders who micromanage can easily create a culture in which people learn that, however they go about their jobs, it isn’t good enough. Micromanaging leaders step in and advise in detail or do it themselves. The message a micromanaging leader communicates is “What you’re doing isn’t right. I know better. I’ll tell you what to do or do it for you.” Imagine how it might be to work under a micromanager. Working under such leaders, employees stop showing initiative because there’s no point. The micromanager will just tell them to do things differently. New ideas are discouraged because the micromanager finds fault with them.

If this is what has happened with your working group, there are several steps you can take to turn things around:

· Explicitly identify and communicate the leadership behaviors that you value and want to see them develop. (Perhaps, explain how they compare with your understanding of those of your predecessor). Acknowledge that this is a change, and you are there to help with their professional development.

· When they come to you with problems, questions, advice, before you answer, ask them what they think should happen. You want to empower them to think for themselves, which is the opposite of what they’re used to with a micromanagement style of leadership.

· Make sure you acknowledge and reinforce any new, desired leadership actions. (“ Hey, Sandeep, I like the way you handled that situation the other day….”) In group meetings with leaders, point out any individual’s successes so they learn that you are paying attention to these desired behaviors.

· Remember that they will need help in developing those skills. Take a breath and be prepared to do a lot of coaching. If possible, see what your organization can provide for either in-house or external leadership development.

· Persistently convey that you know that they can make this change. Your belief in their ability is important, since they have to change their beliefs about their own abilities. Remember, with a micromanaging boss, they likely got the message to discount their own ideas, intuitions, strategies.

· Try not to micromanage them! It will reinforce the message of your predecessor. Accept that they will handle some things differently than you would, and that they will make some mistakes. You can help them see those mistakes as “normal” and part of the learning process.

Good luck.

Disclaimer: This question and response is provided for informational purposes only, and you should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of this content. It is strongly recommended that you immediately seek legal or other professional advice if you believe you are experiencing a problem requiring professional assistance. Robin Rosenberg and Live in Their World, Inc. disclaim all liability for actions you take or fail to take based on Dear Robin content.


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