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Don’t Be Overly Domineering By Seni Adetu


On the back of last week’s discussion relating to the maturity and authenticity a leader manifests in declaring his weakness(es), thus testifying to the fact he is also human, I am today calling out a common development area for most leaders – dealing with the “disease” of being an over-bearing leader. I had made passing comments on a similar subject in the past, but I have been encouraged by feedback from readers to say a little more. Before getting into that, I suspect that my consistent readers in this column have by now figured out my own weaknesses too while “growing up.”

I was quick to make judgements about people, often harsh in my reaction to poor performances, and at some point, had a somewhat domineering presence. Fortunately, I have largely scaled those hurdles in the course of my leadership journey.

There is no denying the fact that a leader needs to be strong and charismatic and have the presence that inspires confidence in the team. He must constantly be a source of positive energy to the team. But that is where it all ends. If he crosses the line to a domineering or an overbearing space, the result is negative energy. What makes a leader to be genuinely loved by his team, is his ability to engage and build a strong working relationship with them, not necessarily how “big” a personality he is.

The truth is, if a leader is overly domineering he makes it difficult for his employees to offer their opinions in his presence, let alone oppose his views. That way, they are unable to own and be accountable for performance delivery with him. He disempowers them so much there is very little initiative on their part. They wait on him for decisions even on the smallest of issues and consequently slow down the orchestration of key deliverables in the organisation. They are eager to avoid a confrontation possibly leading to the brash “my way or the high way” tongue-lashing.

When I was at Coca-Cola, there was the use of “level 1” decisions, which implied – “end of story, that’s what the leader says – just go do it”. But then, “level 1” decisions were applied infrequently to avoid the potential dilution of the potency of a genuine “level 1” decision when it was truly required.

As I have said repeatedly, there is no such thing as a superhuman leader. The fact that a man is designated “foreman” in a construction company does not imply he can do four men’s tasks simultaneously. An inspirational leader not only encourages his staff to express their opinions, but is respectful of such opinions even when he disagrees.

It is not uncommon for two people to see things differently. In my mind there’s a difference between “fact” and “truth”, to the extent that a person may interpret the same fact differently from another to establish “his own truth.” Sir Alex Ferguson and Mr. Pep Guardiola are perhaps two of the best football managers of all time — so they know football like the “back of their hands”. I was thus surprised when a few weeks ago, I read an article where Sir Alex claimed Christiano Ronaldo was a better footballer than Lionel Messi; and then a few days ago, read Pep Guardiola’s view which was the reverse of that. They were probably looking at the same facts but seeing things differently.

One thing that many leaders seem to ignore is that a leader of a team does not need to be the most technically competent in the team. Not at all.

His ability to harness the resources at his disposal to maximum impact is the manifestation of his leadership strength. Through my CEO roles, I never tried to be more adept at financial management than my Finance Director, or be a better marketer than my Marketing Director, ditto the Supply Chain. On the contrary, that wasn’t my priority (don’t think I could have achieved that either). My ambition was to be sufficiently knowledgeable and competent in each function such that when the need arose, I was more than comfortable having quality conversations in any functional area. I was never ashamed to learn from my subordinates.

Some line managers are so domineering there is little room for their staff to learn and grow. Some intentionally block the growth of their staff, so the company becomes overly dependent on them. They then become some sort of tin-gods; intoxicated by their perceived indispensability such that they sometimes hold the company to ransom. That is why the culture of overbearing leadership must be nipped in the bud soon as it shows its face.

When I took over the Diageo business in East Africa, I observed within a few weeks that our manufacturing cost profile had worsened terribly. I invited the Head of Supply Operations to my office and asked him why the cost numbers were breaking all known bands negatively. His response was rather arrogant and somewhat dismissive. He gave the “I am in charge” cold shoulders. I had heard of how the whole department depended on him for “every” decision. He had been in role for 15 years, and seemingly made everyone believe he was indispensable. I was ready to bite the bullet – so I took him out of the role the following week (I think). I appointed a new (and perhaps the first female) Head of Operations (in the company’s history) as replacement. People were concerned the company would suffer but amazingly, the cost numbers improved materially. This powerful female leader outperformed her predecessor and her growth outpaced the script I had written in my head about her. The point was made – no one, not even the CEO, should be bigger than the organisation.

To wrap up, the fact that you are the leader already makes you dominant – much more noticeable than the rest. There is no need to extend that dominance to a domineering level.

Have a wonderful week!


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