‘I was a bad manager’: how being more human makes you a better leader

By David Donaldson

Tuesday June 30, 2020


Which management type are you: the robot? The superhuman? Consultant Mark LeBusque on the importance of really knowing your colleagues — and yourself.

Mark LeBusque
Mark LeBusque

When Mark LeBusque was younger, he was a bad manager.

“I call him Bad Mark,” he laughs.

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“Bad Mark had a title in mind, and the title was state manager. Bad Mark did everything he could to make sure he got that title. My people were just outputs to me, they were there for me to hit my targets so I’d be seen as successful and would be promoted.”

But he eventually realised the micromanaging and stealing credit wasn’t a good way to work.

“I asked myself, what would happen if I treated my people more like human beings?” the management consultant and author tells The Mandarin.

“I did that for a couple of years and saw some amazing outcomes in employee engagement and happiness, and ultimately in our business results, which were significantly higher than I’d seen before.”

LeBusque, who spent 25 years in the corporate world before starting his own consultancy, is a big advocate of what he calls the ‘human’ approach to managing: recognising that we crave social connection and a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves.

“The human manager spends a bit more time getting to know people as human beings early on, connecting with them about things they like to do outside work — family, hobbies, those sorts of things — as well as at work.”

Building that sense of trust allows “people to be more engaged, more motivated, and ultimately spend a bit more discretionary effort and get better business results.”

It’s about more than just being friends with your colleagues, he adds.

“With my last team, we were very direct and honest with each other, because we built a level of connection that gave us permission to do that. In fact there would be times when people who worked with my team thought we weren’t getting along all that well because we were just brutally honest with each other.

“It’s about practicing the art of duality, which is the ability to hug someone and kick them in the arse at the same time.”

Even if you work in a formal and hierarchical setting, just asking a few questions can help.

“Every now and then the person who’s working for you might like you to ask, what do you expect of me? How do you do your very best work?”

“What’s your work style preference? No-one ever told me they wanted to be micromanaged, but we’re very good at that.”

The structures around us don’t always make it easy to shift to a more human style of management.

“It sounds a bit kumbayah-ish but it’s not, it’s actually really hard to do because we are in some respects institutionalised in the workplace to look straight at results and KPIs.”

The six manager styles

There are six main managerial archetypes, LeBusque believes. While everyone tends to have a default, a good manager is able to move between them when needed.

The human. The manager who asks you how you’re feeling, not just what you’re working on.

The superhuman. “That’s like 24/7, it’s go-go-go, there’s a crisis, people are looking for direction and order, you’re working ultra-long hours,” he says. This is useful in short bursts — and no doubt is how many public servants will have been working during the pandemic — but there’s a fine line between working hard and burning out.

The pushover. The manager who avoids conflict, who likes being liked, who does things that tend to make them popular rather than what needs to be done. “When I do my program, we take people through this process, and at least 70% of them come up as the pushover. They don’t like that, but that’s what they come up as,” LeBusque says.

“The other thing they do really well is let people off the hook, because they don’t want to have that difficult conversation. So they let deadlines drift out. If deadlines keep drifting, they say ‘give it to me, I’ll do it’. They can’t say no, in case they upset someone. They end up in the superhuman category because they take on too much work.”

The robot. The rule-enforcer — a useful quality in a lawyer or chief medical officer. “Someone who is really useful when we need to follow procedure. It could be in defence, mining, places where there’s high risk to human life. It could also be in legal, where there’s high risk of litigation. They may not be popular but they do the job,” he explains. But be careful — “the downside is if you’re overly robotic all the time, you end up with people who are demotivated, disengaged. They’re not allowed to try anything new.”

The tyrant. This approach can be useful when a new leader comes into an organisation that needs a shakeup and can “rule with an iron fist” for a while. But again, be careful: “if you do it for too long, people just end up in the corner of the room sucking their thumb in the foetal position because they’re in fear.”

The sub-human. This is the one no-one should be: “this is from back in the days in the 80s and 90s — homophobic and racial slurs, sexist comments. All that stuff that there’s no place for. If you see that, call it out.”

Self awareness is key

There are plenty of barriers to working better.

Often people see soft skills as a ‘nice to do’ after their real work, believing that being technically good is enough.

It doesn’t help that many senior managers fail to lead by example.

“We look up and see the people above us most likely aren’t behaving in that human way. People will just mirror what they see. A lot of the time senior leaders are sending people off to training programs that they should be attending themselves, but they don’t go because they’ve already made it.”

But the biggest prerequisite to becoming a better manager is self-awareness.

LeBusque says many people have an unrealistic self-image, which gets in the way of growth.

“We tell ourselves so many stories.”

Those stories might be about how a certain style has gotten you to where you are, or that you manage a certain way because that’s how your profession or your department works. But often it’s an excuse to avoid making difficult changes.

“There’s a bit of a myth that where I work determines the sort of manager I need to be.”

When he works with managers, “we spend half to 60% of the time delving into what’s going on for you. What are the stories you’re carrying about your leadership style?”

The critical ingredient is feedback.

“Get someone who will tell you what you need to hear he urges.” It might be your manager, it might be a peer you have a good relationship with, or it might be a direct report. Ask them to observe your management style and give feedback.

It’s not easy, but inviting feedback and being open to it is the best way to gain a better understanding of how you manage.

“If you’re not prepared to step into that experiment, then you’re going to find it really hard to tap into the things that are going to help you to be more aware and come across as genuine and authentic to your people.”

He recommends regular time for self-reflection, perhaps at the end of each week.

“Even if it’s 10 minutes a week, just stop and reflect on the feedback you got, when you caught yourself managing in a style that wasn’t useful at that point in time, and just make that mental note about making that change.”

And be conscious about how you work with others.

“As you’re walking through the door to your next meeting, ask yourself, who do I need to be right now?”

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