Column: Managers Are Not Leaders – Conclusion … For Now

Column by Elena Yang

How do you spot a “true” leader? By observing and assessing the followers’ opinions and behaviors. 

Robert Townsend put it poignantly, “…the true leader can be recognized because, somehow or other, his people consistently turn in superior performances.” 

If people only talk about how wonderful their leader is, that’s suspect. Such a leader may be charismatic, but like a stellar supernova, its brilliance is limited.

We often confuse charisma with ability to accomplish, especially in an organization, and even more so when the organization is in turmoil.  

Jim Collins’ books, “From Good to Great,” as well as “How the Mighty Fall,” give plenty of examples of how the best managers move companies forward and upward without seeking personal attention from media; if anything, they tend to shy away from it. 

These examples include Nordstrom’s Blake Nordstrom, IBM’s Louis Gerstner, NUCOR’s Daniel DiMicco, names that are not household familiarity. 

Then, there are those CEOs, like Jack Welsh, Lee Iacocca, who might have done great for their respective organizations for a while, but when they left, they didn’t leave a good structure for their organizations to keep growing. 

And finally there are those, such as Carly Fiorina, who became Wall Street’s darling overnight, then used their celebrity status for various high-risk maneuvers that failed. 

Many “quiet” and effective managers share the following mantras:

  • putting company first before personal agenda;
  • insisting on facts;
  • preserving the core of the organization, not unlike “going back to its origin;”
  • grasping the fundamental culture (usually about people);
  • NOT thinking that they are above others and “entitled” to the perks;
  • no pretense, for example, Blake Nordstrom answered his own phone calls;
  • most important, they see themselves as “serving” their people.

I would add that it is precisely because these unassuming managers go about their work diligently – by that I certainly don’t mean attending meetings from morning till night – and methodically that they are the true leaders. 

I think one of the reasons why people are weary of management is that once moving into a “manager” role, they become professional about it; they never leave that role! 

Within any organization, there seems to be only two tracks available for people to develop their careers, managers or not-managers, and somehow, only the manager track is celebrated as the “success” track. 

So, you rarely see a manager voluntarily step off the managerial track and go back to “doing” actual work. One of the reasons is, of course, that one doesn’t want to be perceived as “failure” by stepping “down” from a managerial position. 

he other, I suspect, may be fear of not being able to actually do the work after years in the management mentality. Diversity is healthy for an organization; so it is for individuals. 

Recently, I had written about playful organizations, and the principles and values of bringing in some playful elements. But how? Unfortunately, a lot of “good” things that can and should happen in an organizational have to come from the top.

An interesting example was given by Pfeffer & Sutton in their “Knowing-Doing Gap.” At the conclusion of a workshop they conducted, they were approached by a local manager of Macy’s who was excited about what she had learned, but felt frustrated, because whenever her boss visited her location he never stopped to talk to the staff; he just wanted to be shut in to examine the books. 

Pfeffer and Sutton, while feeling sympathetic, told her there was really little she could do. On their way to the parking lot, the authors next encountered two managers from Trader Joe’s, huddling together and having a discussion. 

When approached one of the fellows said, “see my colleague there? He’s texting back to the HQ about some of the lessons that we can implement immediately.” Which organization do you think will excel? 

So, I am afraid, the best that employees at the staff level — those who actually do the work on the ground – can do is to suggest and push, and push hard and harder…

Manager or leader, it’s really about working with people, and that entails honestly knowing your people, not just your lieutenants and gatekeepers (and why should there be gatekeepers?) but people across all levels. 

As for the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence. 

The next best, the people honor and praise. 

The next, the people fear; and the next, the people hate…

When the best leader’s work is done the people say,

‘We did it ourselves’.”

From Lao-Tsu, “The Way.”

The quote should apply to managers as well. Until such great managers become a commonplace occurrence,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.



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