Why Some Managers Fail to Step Up as Leaders

Sayeed Ahmed
4 min readJul 10, 2021

The answer lies in deep-rooted culture and mindsets

Image courtesy of IMDb.com. In Shaun the Sheep story, the manager is the sheepdog, while the leader is Shaun the sheep although he doesn’t have any title.

“Dear Mia (not her real name), we are sorry that we can’t offer you any other role at the moment. As a manager, you understand the company’s position and the current market situation.”

Mia, a mid-level manager at a publishing company somewhere in Asia, looked in disbelief at the email from HR. She had recently been diagnosed with a life-altering medical condition and sent an email to the CEO requesting a role more suited to her changed daily routine. The CEO wasn’t her report, but she thought the situation adequately justified her reaching out to him. In response, this email came as a second blow, the diagnosis being the first. She had expected a call from the CEO, asking what he could do to help or something similar. But he had got HR to respond. She was utterly disappointed.

Mia’s CEO could have got back directly, earning a leader’s respect and stature, but he didn’t. He was an excellent manager, though. He had been in that position for a couple of years, and the company’s financial performance had improved ever since. But he didn’t have the traits to become a leader, despite the multiple leadership development programs he had attended. What was the problem?

Western companies spend fortunes in leadership development programs with the expectation of developing new leaders. Many Asian companies have adopted the same model and invited celebrity coaches from North America or Europe to conduct similar programs for their managers. However, as a McKinsey study has pointed out, such programs often fail due to various reasons, both for Western and Asian companies. One such reason is the assumption that one size fits all, regardless of, among other things, the prevalent company culture. Another mistake is underestimating the need for changing mindsets. Both these aspects are crucial for Asian companies because their management and leadership styles are rooted in traditions and culture. A Harvard Business School professor has explained it in the article “Asian and American Leadership Styles: How Are They Unique?” Despite the global spread of managerial techniques, leadership is still different in different cultures. Leadership development programs cannot usually address such idiosyncrasies and often fail to produce the expected results.

What’s more, due to the organizations’ over-reliance on managerial skills, they often promote the most successful manager to leadership roles. But leadership requires much more, such as a broad mindset, inclusive philosophy, and liberal worldview. A good leader is more attuned to staff needs, while a manager’s prime focus is work output. The great Russian philosopher-writer Leo Tolstoy explained it many years ago in ‘The Three Questions.’

The story goes like this. Once a king had three questions to which he was seeking answers. The questions were: 1) What was the right time for every action? 2) Who were the right people to be with? and 3) What was the most important thing to do? He decided to visit a sage in the forest for the answers. But a would-be assassin was waiting for the king there. After a fight with the royal guards, he was seriously wounded and ran to the same sage for help. The sage and the king nursed the man and saved his life. The man asked for the king’s forgiveness and became loyal to him. The sage used this event to answer the king’s questions. He said: 1) Now is the time to do every action because now is the only time that we have power (the quick action to save the would-be assassin’s life), 2) The right person is who you are with (the would-be assassin), and 3) The most important thing to do is to do good for the person you are with (nursing the wounded person). Tolstoy summarized all the essential qualities of leadership, which are wisdom, knowledge, awareness, kindness, forgiveness, and acceptance.

Mia’s CEO failed in all these aspects of a leader that Tolstoy pointed out. His co-worker was in a crisis requiring immediate support. But he was unable and unwilling to act on time and in a manner appropriate to the need. He refused to realize the point Mia wanted to make with that email and forwarded it to HR as a standard administrative procedure. Finally, he utterly failed to recognize Mia as the most important person at that moment.

Soon after the saga, Mia left, taking away the long experience and skills she had acquired with the company. But there was more significant damage — the wrong message it sent to others.

#manager #leader #theThreeQuestions #tolstoy #leadershipTraining



Sayeed Ahmed

Travels and writes as a hobby on history, culture, politics, and contemporary issues.