Brilliant Man – Miserable Manager

ManagementI just read a fascinating article about how the supervisory general on the Missile Defense Agency was a poor manager. I don’t want to spend time talking about this particular case, the missile defense system, military leaders, or the military as a whole. I want to discuss what makes a good manager and why.

This is an incredibly important topic because it is through leadership or management that a group of people comes together and completes a project. Good leadership can change the world whereas poor management can squander potential genius.

The concepts of management are not firmly set and there are different ideas about the appropriate way to lead a team but there are some general ideas that seem to be tested and true. I’d recommend a thorough perusal of the Wiki Article on the topic but I’ll try to tie it together quickly here.

In history a management style that saw much popularity was proposed by Niccolò Machiavelli who wrote the The PrinceHe recommends fear as a way to maintain control. I think this view is essentially wrong but the popularity of it remains today. One of the main reasons I think it is wrong is that in a free society people are not enslaved to their jobs. When trying to motivate slaves, serfs, or a people otherwise under complete domination; fear is incredibly important in maintaining control. But, for most of the western world, this system is not applicable.

A more modern, and better, look at the idea of management comes from Adam Smith and his book The Wealth of Nations. Here the idea is proper use of resources, using best processes, quality control, and things of this nature.

In the 21st Century the concept has changed even more in that even at the lowest level of employment people have the ability to communicate their ideas effectively. We have instant communication from blogs, tweets, instant messages, email, phone communication, etc. Modern businesses are taking advantage of these tools to listen to their employees from the bottom up. This empowers the employee in meaningful ways and changes the dynamics of the management situation irreversibly.

This topic is insanely complex but I want to stress some ideas that I think can help with management situations like those mentioned in the article. The general in question clearly subscribed to the Machiavellian philosophy. Bring out the best in your team by berating them. Tear them down and build them back up. It’s a philosophy that is not without merit but I think in modern society it’s bad idea. People are too empowered now.

I’m not saying that the boss should be everyone’s friend, or shouldn’t berate someone for poor effort, but I am saying that it’s a bad managerial philosophy.

I’ve had long discussions with my friends in management, Bob and Jeff primarily but others as well, and the idea of a manager is relatively simple. A manager needs to find a way to put each member of his or her team in the best position to succeed. It’s not easy. There are strongly motivated, highly talented people, and those with less motivation and talent. The manager needs to identify each team member and find a way to maximize their effort. Some employees respond well to negative feedback while others only respond to encouragement.

The topic is way too complex to get into real details but I’d like to lay out what I think makes a good manager.

  • A good manager understands the motivations and skills of each team member.
  • A good manager includes everyone on the team and encourages an open atmosphere where all feel able to contribute. This open atmosphere of equal contribution is at odds with the Machiavellian style.
  • A good manager knows the limits of each team member and tempers expectations accordingly.
  • A good manager understands the goal of the project.
  • A good manager sets forth processes from the beginning although is willing to alter them in accordance with actual results.
  • A good manager listens to all ideas but isn’t afraid to make a decision even if someone loses out.
  • A good manager must reward good work and not reward bad. When the bad workers gets the same reward as good workers moral drops. I’m not a huge fan of “punishing” bad work. If you have to fire someone, then fire them.

That’s a simple list I suppose but I think good management is absolutely essential from the simplest to the most complex projects. I have had some great managers over the years and did my best work in environments they created.

In the article they list a lot of quotes from disgruntled people who worked under the general in question but one really stood out for me.

Not the command climate I would have set

What I love about this comment is that it clearly comes from an employee who understands loyalty. They express dissatisfaction without personal insults. The person who said this understands management and leadership. I hope whoever it was finds themselves in a command position soon.

Do you have any great boss stories? I’d like to focus on good bosses rather than bad ones. Tell your story in the comments below.

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
New Release: The Hammer of Fire

P.S. To my United States audience, Happy Independence Day! Barbecue anyone?