Developing Leaders: A Little Frustration Can Help Them Grow

Illustration by Dreamstime.

This week, I’m focusing on leadership lessons from top executives.

Today’s insight comes from Kon Leong, co-founder, president and chief executive of ZL Technologies, in an interview in The New York Times “Corner Office” column.

When asked what it’s like to work for him, Mr. Leong responded:

Certain aspects of my management style are extremely frustrating. There are many, many questions posed to me, many decisions asked of me. I try not to make them. I respond with more questions, because I want them to find the answer. It can be very frustrating to my employees, but I’m trying to get others to scale up and learn. They understand and accept my approach, but many still feel frustrated because they just want the answer.”

From this one paragraph, I see three clear leadership lessons:

1. Avoid the easy path

It’s often more expedient and easier to simply make decisions for others. Indeed, many would describe that as the job of the senior executive – to make the hard decisions.

But wise senior leaders know others will never develop into true leaders themselves unless they learn the process for finding the answers themselves. Yes, you should coach people in how to find the answer, but don’t make the decisions for them. (In fact, it can be quite harmful to do so as making too many decisions leads to decision fatigue and ultimate poorer outcomes.)

2. Create opportunities for others to develop

Most organizations have clearly defined career paths and learning and development programs. And these are good and valuable.

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However, also be sure to take advantage of opportunities in the course of the daily work to help others grow and develop. As mentioned above, let them (or, rather, insist on them) making key business decisions, even as you mentor through the process.

3. Be willing to frustrate people to help them grow

Understand that this management approach won’t always make you popular and may make employees who “just want to get it done” think you’re delaying progress. Be willing to play that role in order to create the opportunities to grow the next generation of leaders in your company.

What management style frustrates you? Can you see ways in which that style could actually be to your benefit?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at


2 Comments on “Developing Leaders: A Little Frustration Can Help Them Grow

  1. Managing the frustration level can be tricky. Frustrate too much an employee may give up, frustrate them too little and they lose growth opportunities. The wise leader understand and develops relationships with his team that allow for optimized growth. Obviously frustration is only one answer and an excellent one at that. Learning opportunities may not be embraced by an employee without the emotional tension the paragraph above implies. We have to provide a subtle wake up call!

    I love the reference that leaders true expertise lies in the ability to know what questions to ask and how to ask them rather than having to have all the answers.

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