Celebrating the Flawed Manager

14 January 2016

What makes a manager effective? The answer awaits you on all kinds of little lists. (Who would take dozens of items seriously?) For example, in replying to “What Makes a Leader?”, a University of Toronto EMBA brochure listed: “The courage to challenge the status quo. To flourish in a demanding environment. To collaborate for the greater good. To set clear direction in a rapidly changing world. To be fearlessly decisive.”

The trouble with these little lists is that they are always incomplete. For example, where on this one is basic intelligence, or being a good listener? Fear not—these appear on other lists. So if we are to trust any of these lists, we shall have to combine all of them.

This, for the sake of a better world, I have done in a table, included at the end of this TWOG. (Read the footnote if you wish to be especially amused.) It lists 52 qualities from various lists that I have found, including a few missing favorites of my own. Be all 52 and you are bound to be a terribly effective manager. Even if not a human one.

The Inevitably Flawed Manager

All of this is part of our romance of leadership, that puts ordinary mortals on pedestals—“Rudolph is the perfect person for the job: he will save us!”—and then allows us to vilify them as they come crashing down—“How could Rudolph have failed us so?” Yet some managers do stay up, if not on that silly pedestal. How so?

The answer is simple: Successful managers are flawed—we are all flawed—but their particular flaws are not fatal under the circumstances. (Superman was flawed, too—remember Kryptonite?). Reasonable human beings find ways to live with each other’s reasonable flaws.  

Fatally flawed are those superman lists of managerial qualities, because they are utopian—and often wrong. For example, who can argue with managers being  “fearlessly decisive”? For starters, anyone who watched George W. Bush lead (but not manage) the American march into Iraq. Or how about Osama Bin Laden, who “had the courage to challenge the status quo”? Ingvar Kamprad, who built IKEA into one of the most successful retail chains ever, needed fifteen years to “set clear direction in a rapidly changing world.” Actually, he succeeded because the furniture world was not changing rapidly; IKEA changed it.

Choosing the Devil you had better get to know

If everyone’s flaws come out sooner or later, then to avoid failed managers, not to mention failed marriages, sooner is better. So managers, like spouses, should be selected for their flaws as much as for their qualities. Unfortunately we have this tendency to ignore the flaws and focus on the qualities, often just one: “Sally’s a great networker” or “Joe’s a visionary,” especially if the failed predecessor was a lousy networker or devoid of strategic vision. (As for marriages, when meeting a possible new mate, the usual refrain is: “Thank goodness he/she is not [fill in whatever was wrong with the last one].” In actual fact, he or she will prove to have some remarkable new flaw that you could never have imagined.)

There are really only two ways to grasp a person’s flaws: marry them or work for them. But who among the people who select managers—board members for chief executives, “superior” managers for “subordinate” ones (what awful terms)—have ever worked for the candidates, let alone been married to them? What can they possibly know about these candidates’ flaws? The consequence is that many of their choices end up as “kiss up and kick down” managers: smooth-talking and overconfident, great at impressing “superiors” but hardly leaders in managing whomever they see as subordinate.

What, then, are these “superiors” to do? That’s easy: get past their superiority, and themselves, to the people who know the candidates best. They can’t exactly ask the candidates’ partners, because spouses will be biased and ex-spouses will be more biased. But they can get the opinions of people who have worked for these candidates.

I’m not one for simple prescriptions in management, but if one change could improve the practice of managing monumentally, it is giving voice in selection processes to those people who know the candidates best, namely the ones who have been managed by them.

As for your personal choices, fear not. Just choose, with great care, your fabulously flawed job, your forbiddingly flawed boss, and your faithfully flawed spouse.

© Henry Mintzberg 2016; first posted, with minor differences, 21 October 2014. This TWOG has been adapted from the last chapter of my book Simply Managing (Berrett-Koehler and Pearson, 2013).

References: Meindel, J.R., Ehrlich, S.B., & Dukerich, J.M. (1985). The Romance of Leadership. Administrative Science Quarterly, 30, 78-102.

Gowin, E.B. (1920). The Executive and His Control of Men: A Study in Personal Efficiency. New York: Macmillan.

Composite List of Basic Qualities for Assured Managerial Success
  • courageous
  • committed
  • curious
  • confident
  • candid
  • reflective
  • insightful
  • open-minded/tolerant (of people, ambiguities, and ideas)
  • innovative
  • communicative (including being a good listener)
  • connected/informed
  • perceptive
  • thoughtful/intelligent/wise
  • analytic/objective
  • pragmatic
  • decisive (action-oriented)
  • proactive
  • charismatic
  • passionate
  • inspiring
  • visionary
  • energetic/enthusiastic
  • upbeat/optimistic
  • ambitious
  • tenacious/persistent/zealous
  • collaborative/participative/cooperative
  • engaging
  • supportive/sympathetic/empathetic
  • stable
  • dependable
  • fair
  • accountable
  • ethical/honest
  • consistent
  • flexible
  • balanced
  • integrative
  • tall*

Source: Compiled from various sources; my own favorites in italics.

*This item appeared on no list that I saw. But it might rank ahead of many of the other items because studies have shown that managers are on average taller than other people. To quote from a 1920 study, entitled The Executive and His Control of Men, based on research done a lot more carefully than much of what we find in the great journals of today, Enoch Burton Gowin addressed the question “Viewing it as a chemical machine, is a larger body able to supply a greater amount of energy?” More specifically, might there be “some connection between an executive’s physique, as measured by height and weight, and the importance of the position he holds?” (1920:22, 31). The answer, in statistic after statistic gathered by the author, is yes. Bishops, for example, averaged greater height than the preachers of small towns; superintendents of school systems were taller than principals of schools. Other data on railroad executives, governors, etc., supported these findings. The “Super-intendents of Street Cleaning” were actually the second tallest of all, after the “Reformers.” (The “Socialist Organizers” were just behind the “police chiefs” but well up there.) Musicians were at the bottom of the list (p. 25).

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