Interview with Prof. Dr. Ron Meyer
Professor Meyer, what is the essence of leadership for you?
Well, in my lecture I am also going to start with this question, because before you start with talking about agility and much more complex things. So, it is good to start with the basics: what leadership is all about? There is a big mix-up: people think that leadership has something to do with the chair you sit in. Therefore, the higher you are in the hierarchy that makes you a leader. That is a total misunderstanding. You are a leader if other people follow. It is that simple in terms of a definition. It is in the word itself – I can only tell whether I am leading if there is anyone following me. In addition, how do you get people to follow you? This all has to do with your ability to influence other people to move.
Therefore, in essence leadership is about influencing others, engaging others that they are willing to come along on a journey. Now, sometimes you can use some of your formal position to influence people, but most of the influence actually has to do with you, not the position or the chair that you are sitting in. Therefore, leadership is really about your ability as a person to convince the other, to win hearts and minds, to get people moving.
Thank you. What are the qualities and abilities the leader must have?
I am very objective. Many people write books about leadership, they are like “You have to be like Nelson Mandela, you must be like Abraham Lincoln, you must be like…” However, all of these people are just projecting their preference and saying, “My preference should be the preference of everyone”. For me it is very simple: different people are going to look for something different in a leader. If I want to follow somebody, I will have a different reason to follow than somebody else. That makes being a leader very difficult, because there are many different people with different needs and different demands and I still want to appeal to all of them. That gets tricky. That is why you need to be agile.
For me the effective leader, I just look at what does this leader do, that leader is able to connect with a variety of different people and sometimes they connect very much on an emotional level, sometimes they connect on an intellectual level and there are very many different ways of connecting. For me the effective leader is somebody who can do it in many different ways, depending on the others. I think that is what the essence is: leadership is not about me, it is about the person that I am trying to lead. It should not be about egoists and narcissists. I think, “Oh, look at me being fantastic!” I want to connect to somebody else.
Thank you. At the end of your book, you stated that the ultimate test of leadership agility is combining leadership and followership. How can one combine this essentially opposite things?
Well, I get one of the big mistakes is that we very often talk of the leader as if there is only one person who is doing the leading. That is why the book is not about the leader, but it is about leadership. It is something that you do. Sometimes you are leading and sometimes you are following. What you actually want in most situations is an organization, in which people know when to lead and know when to follow. So, if I am in a team, suddenly “Now is the moment that I should start leading”. However, there are other moments when you go, “Oh, the most effective is if I actually now follow somebody else”.
So, you have to play with these two, maybe opposite ways of being effective, but you, as a person, can do many things at the same time. You can be a husband, you can be an employee, you can be a father, you can be a football fanatic, you can be… They are very different things but you can bring them together in you. Being a follower actually helps you really understand how it is for other followers. A little bit of humility helps by following sometimes.
Thank you. In your book, you covered ten opposite pairs of leadership. Is this a complete list of leadership styles or it can be further extended in the future?
It can definitely be further extended. I picked these ten – partially I looked at all of them, leadership literature of the last 50 years to find out what does science think is important, but also worked with people in organizations for more than 30 years. I looked at what are the things they are struggling with. From practice and from theory I tried to make a short list of what are some of the biggest challenges that the people have. This is how I came up with these ten. Could I come up with 11 or 12? Yes, probably. However, if you master these ten, that already makes you quite good.
In your book, you said that leaders have to switch between leadership styles. How can leader make this constant change of styles comfortable to his followers?
Well, the very last dimension is actually sometimes you do not want to switch. If I may draw an analogy with children, if sometimes your children require something very different, sometimes the one child need this and the other child need that, and then you want to treat them very different. Then I adjust my style to different children. Nevertheless, sometimes, if I do the one thing to the one and another to the other – “Hey, that’s not fair! You have to be consistent!” Sometimes I also, even though I can be different, I want to be consistent. I have to feel when from their perspective it is only fair if you are the same or you are predictable if you always react the same way. In other moments, I have to understand “Yeah, but she’s different” or “he’s different”, and then I have to adjust.
Аgain, it’s about really understanding the person and what they need. If it feels to that person that what I am doing is just, it feels good, and then it is good. If they feel manipulated, then it is not good. Then you are manipulating. It is very easy to find out when you are manipulating: if a person feels not fair, then you are manipulating. In that way they do not have to get used to me, because that is all about me: I have to get used to them.
What can you recommend to future leaders who study on RANEPA and IBS-RANEPAbusiness programs? How to develop leadership skills and is it possible in fact?
Oh, it is definitely something… because these leadership styles are behaviors, and we are very intelligent people, so we can learn new behaviors. I sometimes joke that if you are a talented football player, you can probably become a better football player than many others, but we can all learn to play football. It is not difficult: you have to kick a ball and, by the way, you need two different styles, because sometimes you need to kick with right and sometimes you need to kick with left, and the one leg will be better than the other will, but you can really learn to kick with both feet. It is something that we can learn. You just need to have a lot of practicing.
However, of course, you realize that you have some talents and some styles will come more easily. If you are a talented football player, you are going to get better. If you have a talented right leg, it is going to get better. You have to realize that some things you are going to be good at, some things you are going to be less good at. However, it is not only about being intelligent. It is about persevering, practicing, trying out, and being modest; trying again. This is how you will learn to have this type of skills. It is not only being a smart person, reading a book and doing a test. Once you understand things, then you still have to do it. That is the most important thing. It is great what you learnt at the MBA but after the MBA, that is the most important – learning in practice.
Thank you very much for the interview.