Barely managing

I think it's about time we got rid of the term "manager." The word is so full of passivity that it can barely stand upright on its own. It implies a lack of ownership, a sense of "just keeping an eye on things," of making sure nothing goes wrong while not really doing anything right, either. I mean, look at this:

"He managed to get through the day without breaking anything."

"How are you today?"
"I’m managing. You?"

"The morphine will help us to manage the pain as you go through the treatment, Mrs. Clark."

Inspired yet?

By definition, managing is just keeping things from spinning out of control:


  1. To direct or control the use of; handle: manage a complex machine tool.

  2. To exert control over: "Managing the news... is the oldest game in town" (James Reston). "A major crisis to be managed loomed on the horizon" (Time).

  3. To make submissive to one's authority, discipline, or persuasion.

  4. To direct the affairs or interests of: manage a company; an agency that manages performers.

  5. To succeed in accomplishing or achieving, especially with difficulty; contrive or arrange: managed to get a promotion.

"Managing" is, in fact, the essence of everything that is wrong with most companies today. In good times and bad, most companies are full of people who are just trying to get by, keeping things under control and hoping no one screws up in too visible a fashion. It’s not the economy that has made scared little rabbits out of most managers; it just shrank the size of the rabbit hole and flushed more of them out into the open.

I don't want a company full of managers. Instead, give me a company full of leaders. Give me men and women who will inspire people to follow them, whether into a brave new world of technology or another day of outstanding customer service. Give me people who take responsibility for the assets and people under their care, who talk about "my team" and mean it with all of their hearts. Give me people with the basic courage to make a decision and act upon it without seeking coverage from someone higher up. With a handful of these, I could beat the pants off of a room full of managers.

Somewhere along the line, though, we decided that leaders were too dangerous to have around. They're headstrong, full of their own ideas, unwilling to build consensus before rushing off. Managers are much safer. They keep everyone informed, they gather everyone’s opinions before they act, and they are always polite and open to new data. The fact that they rarely accomplish anything of import is strangely comforting, too, since that keeps them from ever being a threat to their managers. They keep everything calm and on an even keel. They don’t rock the boat.

Leaders, now, they make everyone nervous, especially their managers, because, by definition, people will follow them. And if people start following the leaders, who will be left to attend the managers’ meetings? And leaders definitely don’t keep things smooth and unruffled. They hate the restriction of comfort zones, and keep pulling people out of them. And if you have more than one in a room, they will inevitably bump into each other, sometimes with loud results. That can be frightening to people who prefer everything comfortable and quiet. A good leader, though, knows when to follow someone else with better ideas, even if it takes a few discussions before realizing the value of those ideas. He recognizes leadership in someone else and, rather than seeing it as a threat, sees it as an opportunity to learn or to teach. He knows that, if he follows someone else, that soon he will have a chance to make a piece of the vision his own, and lead others in making it come true.

Someone who can’t follow, who sees every spark of leadership in another as a threat to be crushed, isn’t a leader; he’s an egomaniac. Unfortunately, even egomaniacs can be charismatic, so some of them have gathered enough followers to be seen as leaders. Don’t be misled, though: the egomaniac is wholly wrapped up in himself, and self is always finite. The egomaniac will flame out eventually, usually spectacularly, and his fall is often hastened by his own followers. A leader, on the other hand, harnesses the collective power of the whole group, which is infinite, since success will cause the group to grow. He values every opinion, nurtures every other person’s ability to lead, so that he doesn’t have to do it all himself. He finds strength in numbers, and gives strength to others.

Can everyone be a leader? I think so, if they want to be. Some prefer to follow, and some of those will always do so. They like the comfort of knowing someone else is making the big decisions and taking the risk of being wrong. They prefer “I told you so,” to, “Let’s see what happens.” As long as they follow willingly, and provide what help they can, they serve a purpose. Many, though, may find themselves inspired by leadership, and think, “I could do that.” These can become leaders in their own areas, taking on as much responsibility as they can handle and eventually, if their own leaders are good, maybe a little more than they can handle, and they will grow. They will make mistakes, but if they are encouraged to keep trying, they will learn from them and become even better. And when they are ready, hopefully, they will teach others to lead as well, and the process continues, and the team grows.

Enough of managers. Give me leaders.

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