Why Don’t Leaders Come With An Instruction Manual?

Build trust, remove misunderstanding, and unite the team. 

Reading time: 3 min 20s

  • Does your team understand you?
  • Do they know who you are and how you like to operate?
  • Do you have expectations that you need to clarify and communicate?

All too often a team spends unnecessary time trying to figure out its leader. And the leader has expectations that are not clearly expressed and understood.

This problem is important to avoid.

If left unchecked it can lead to frustration, politics and what is known as the Fundamental Attribution Error.

This is a form of bias that causes us to misjudge people.   

It happens like this …

  • I observe your actions and I judge you – based only on what I can see.
  • What I can’t see and understand are your intentions and the situation you are in.
  • When the tables are turned, I expect you to take these things into account and offer me the benefit of the doubt.

It’s a double standard that causes trouble on a team. 

Stephen R. Covey

The solution is relatively simple.

But it does require a high degree of sincerity, vulnerability, and openness.

This is why it’s difficult.

The solution is the Personal Users Manual.

It’s a tool to make yourself known and understood by the team you lead. Its purpose is to remove the risk of negative interactions occurring through misunderstanding.

Two years ago I worked with a CEO who’d recently been appointed to lead an Executive Team.

He came from the Main Board of the company and was on a mission.

The company had fallen behind its competitors. It had great products but had taken its eye off the customer.

The new CEO had to turn this situation around.

He was a seasoned executive and a tough character. The Executive Team was anxious. Although they did not know him well, they knew of his reputation. This worried them.

He was prejudged before even setting foot in the building!

In our first meeting, he got straight to the point …

The Executive Team had important work to do. He could not afford for it to be wasting energy on office politics and misunderstandings.

Could I help him?

We agreed that at his 1st Team Offsite we would start with the Personal Users Manual. The session would be called, Working With Me.

These are the sections I asked him to prepare.

  1. My style – normally and under pressure?
  2. My values?
  3. What I find hard to tolerate?
  4. When and how best to approach me?
  5. How I view success?
  6. My areas of growth and how you can help me?
  7. What I expect of the people I work with?
  8. How and when to communicate with me?
  9. What makes me stressed?
  10. What people may misunderstand about me?

Working with him beforehand I could tell that he was taking this seriously.

He wanted the team to understand him.

He did not want his reputation to detract from them working well together.

That morning of the offsite was one my most memorable.

To start with he handed each person a copy of his Users Manual and explained its purpose. Then he carefully worked his way through the document.

You could hear a pin drop.

At the end, he asked for questions and discussion.

What followed was 90-minutes of deep, authentic conversation. It was one of those rare moments that took on a life of its own.

Their relief at his approach was palpable. In the process what they discovered was someone they could work with … a genuine human being.

A new energy was released which laid the foundation for a highly productive relationship.

Three months later we revisited the exercise.

  • He asked for feedback.
  • He reinforced what was important to him and why.
  • He asked how he could get better.

The team took up the discussion and again a great session followed.

Implementing it wider in the organisation.

The Executives followed his example and adopted the exercise for use with their teams. Even in those teams with established leaders, the exercise was valuable.

Importantly, at no point was this ever a ‘touchy-feely’ team-building exercise.

Combined with other elements, it was rather about doing the essential work to unlock the full potential of the team. Potential that in many teams is so often ignored and untapped.

… and it took a brave and wise leader to go first.

What is the lesson?

  1. A new CEO (or Team Leader) is a big change. Quickly adjusting and not wasting time on ‘figuring the other person out’ is vital.
  2. When we judge someone else’s behaviour, we are only seeing part of the equation. There is always another side.
  3. The Personal Users Manual helps to reveal that other side. When it’s backed up by consistency and frequent communication, trust is built.
  4. To be authentic this requires careful thought, courage, and vulnerability.

We love to hear from you. Please comment on this blog post below.

We will send you the Personal User Manual Template, a Sample, and a Users Guide.







16 replies
  1. Margie van Rensburg
    Margie van Rensburg says:

    I really appreciated this valuable input Grant. I am coaching 2 new CEO’s currently, and I think this is a powerful reflection on “working with me”. Thanks. Keep up the great work.

    • Grant Ashfield
      Grant Ashfield says:

      Hi Margie – thanks for your comment. It is great to hear from you again. This is an ideal coaching tool and provides lots of opportunities for reflection and vulnerability. We will send you the Template shortly. Best, Grant

  2. Clive Hawkins
    Clive Hawkins says:

    Again a superb read and a wonderful way for any new leader to set the parameters and sharing with his team openly on his expectations. The part i think would have been most valuable is this time they took to discuss the expectations….thanks for sharing….

  3. Andy Johnson
    Andy Johnson says:

    Hi Grant, I have also used this approach with a number of my clients as an introspection tool, but I like the idea of sharing it with the leadership team – what a great way to make a good first impression!

    • Grant Ashfield
      Grant Ashfield says:

      Hi Andy – glad you found the post useful. It’s powerful when shared with the team. Because this allows for vulnerability and feedback to flow back and forth, this sets a great tone for the relationship. We’ll send you the materials.
      best, Grant

  4. Graham Vercueil
    Graham Vercueil says:

    Hi Grant,
    I like this. As a company we have a very definite culture which makes bringing in external leaders difficult. Facing this in one of our teams now, I will use this tool.

    • Grant Ashfield
      Grant Ashfield says:

      Hi Graham – it’s fantastic to hear from you again. Thanks for your comment. You do have a very unique and strong culture … this tool in an adapted sense can also be used in the interview process … to ensure that you are bringing the right leaders on in the first place. We’ll send the info across now. best, Grant

  5. Patrick Armstrong
    Patrick Armstrong says:

    Hi Grant,
    Many thanks for this excellent article.
    Coupled with few specific “instruction manuals”―there seem to be no recognised professional qualifications in so-called “leadership”―almost certainly because of its complexity and subjectivity. So it’s great to receive your quality leadership-related advice.
    I see great synergy in your article with paradoxical but crucial “servant leadership”, plus what I term, “collaborative dialogue”―the essence of focused leadership. The synopsis of your interaction with the new CEO and the resultant “collaborative dialogue” in the executive management team, superbly chaired by the CEO, and laced with refined servant leadership, is outstanding.
    I look forward to receiving your Personal User Manual Template et al.
    Best, Pat

    • Grant Ashfield
      Grant Ashfield says:

      Hi Pat – thank you for your comments, which I have read with great interest. Yes, this was collaborative dialogue at its best, but only made possible by the willingness of the leader to set it in motion. In the process, he met a deep human for understanding and connection. We shall send you the Template soonest. Best, Grant

  6. David Ross
    David Ross says:

    Great tool and a great, concise story Grant. I’m going to start using it and sending it around to the other TTG PC’s.
    Well done!


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