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Dave Conrad: Beware of the manipulating leader

December 1, 2017 GMT

Dear Dave: I just came back from a leadership retreat hosted by my company. I would rate the training as just “OK.” I am not sure what I was looking for, but I feel as if I should have learned more about myself and how I lead. One thing I did learn is many of my peers wanted to learn how to manipulate people more to achieve goals. It was as if they did not care about how they made progress — they just wanted to hit targets and look good to their bosses no matter what it took. If this is the way I am supposed to lead, then I might not be a good fit for leadership. What recommendations do you have? — T


Dear T: I teach leadership in the Augsburg MBA program and I have done so for the past 11 years. I see all kinds of motivations people have for earning their MBA. Some want to run their own business; some want to climb the ranks at their place of work; and some want to learn and grow as individuals because they have a burning desire to become more effective as business people. I also have had many students who do not currently have “business-related” jobs and they just want to broaden their skills base and learn how to think and solve problems better.

Another thing I spot in quite a few students is a desire to do whatever it takes to get ahead, and they are learning more about business to become better “manipulators” of people, and are getting their wings to become better self-promoters, and less so to become better team and relationship builders. They are looking for “ammunition” to self-promote and to work their employees to death — sometimes, knowledge can be a dangerous thing when the motives are devious.

I can hear it in their language and I can see it when they are working with others on team projects. They try to dominate the discussion and they do not build on what others have to say. It is all about their thinking, because their thinking is — of course — the only way to think.

I feel bad some possess these attitudes, and I try as hard as I can to encourage all students to truly listen to each other, think as teams and collaborate to come up with the best answers and solutions. In many ways, I feel as if the self-promoting students have been aggressive self-promoters all of their lives, and that I am given the task to try to change them in an eight-week course — without the ability to apply electroshock therapy.

Living with the bullies

One thing I know about business is, you need to learn how to take it between the eyes. What I mean is, business often becomes quite challenging, competitive and often humbling. Even in a hyper-competitive environment, I believe the best way to handle yourself and make progress is to be and stay honest, above-board and sincere and authentic in all of your dealings. I believe those who make the greatest progress, and are true leaders who move up the ranks of the organization, are those who put people first and choose to inspire and grow their staff, rather than manipulate and wear them out.


However, you must realize there always will be a number of nonperformers, who take advantage of the system and do as little as possible. If these folks are given all the training and motivation a leader possibly can provide them, and they still are slackers, I think it is time for the leader to toughen up and do the right thing — remove them from the team and not just pass them off to some poor, unsuspecting leader who has just inherited the problem.

Make sure you are working for the best company you can find. Those aspiring to leadership — such as yourself — must check the culture and the management styles of a department or company before taking a job. The money might attract you, but it is the people you work for, or lead, who will determine if you can thrive within the company, or if your talent will be ignored and your ideas will die a quick death.

I, as a professor, cannot throw everyone out of the MBA program who possesses a wild eye for dominating and manipulating people. But I can try to change them and at least warn others about their motivations and practices.