Enough about leadership! It's time to remember how to be a good manager

2013

When we take the time to think about it, management really isn't that complicated. But over recent years, our obsession with 'leadership' has undermined the importance of hands-on management – often to the great detriment of organizations.

That's the starting point for "Becoming a Better Boss", the latest book from London Business School professor, Julian Birkinshaw and one that is unusual in focussing on the nitty-gritty of how to actually get things done in large, complex organizations.

Focusing on management through the eyes of the employee, the book also contains probably the most concise description of the attributes of a good manager you'll find anywhere. They may be familiar, but that doesn't make them any less worth repeating.

A good manager:

  • Gives employees challenging work to do.
  • Creates space for them to do it.
  • Provides support when needed
  • Gives recognition and praise
  • Is not afraid to make tough decisions

None of which is new, or at all surprising, hard to grasp or hard to put into practice. Which leads us to the elephant in the room. If management is this easy, why do we so often end up with managers who:

  • Set confused or unclear objectives
  • Micromanage and meddle
  • Are selfish and focussed on their own agenda
  • Give either limited or negative feedback
  • Dither and avoid difficult decisions.

Exploring this disconnect between theory and practice takes up the bulk of the rest of Birkinshaw's book – a highly recommended read for every manager (or anyone who aspires to be one).

As professor Birkinshaw writes in its conclusion, "managing well is about developing greater awareness if what our employees need, where our own biases and limitations lie, and how our organizations really function.it is about doing what works, rather than what comes naturally, and this requires a considerable amount of self-discipline and personal development."

Why this matters – and ultimately why this management disconnect exists - was explored in a brilliant essay, Rebuilding American Enterprise, by Professor Henry Mintzberg . In it he wrote: "The root cause of the American economic crisis is not economic, and so will not be been resolved by economists. That cause is managerial."

"Americans are obsessed with leadership, probably because they get so little of it," he added. "….too many corporate "leaders" have been trashing their enterprises for quick gains, instead of managing them for sustainability. … Much of leadership in corporate America is just plain corrupt. What its enterprises desperately need is communityship."

Finally, Mintzberg asserts:, "Management is neither a science nor a profession. It is a practice, rooted in the specific context of its industry and its organization. People who believe that they know how to manage everything mostly know how to manage nothing. Managing is learned on the job, although practicing managers can benefit from programs that use their experience to enhance their practice."

As we've said before, the popular obsession with leadership is undermining organisations and society alike. Do we really need any more "leadership development" (beyond ensuring that those who run organizations read and digest Mintzberg's essay)? Probably not, but we certainly need better management.