In Praise of the Mere Manager

When I type the word ‘leadership’ into Google, within a nanosecond my screen is full of blue headlines like:

“Study for a High Impact Leadership Course”

“Leadership Development”

“Future Leaders Get Ahead Now!”

“Authentic Leadership …”

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Captain Mainwaring from Dads’ Army – one of TVs most famous managers!

If I just search for, ‘good leader’, Google nearly explodes.  But if I type in, ‘good manager’ then very little comes up, with the exception of the rather dismissive, “7 Things Great Leaders Always Do (but Mere Managers Always Fear)” – mere managers, eh?

Even when I studied for my MA, I spent a whole semester studying and writing about ‘leadership’ – though my actual degree was in ‘management’.

Why are we so obsessed with turning managers into leaders and when did this happen?  

Many people are perfectly good, effective, managers in the sense that they oversee the workload, get the job done efficiently and on time, and make sure the team are content on a day to day basis.  But it’s not enough any more. During one of my last forays into corporate life I recall attending a meeting about staff development, and listening to the dazzling array of short courses on to which I could send my team members.   Nearly all of these courses purported to turn them into inspiring authentic leaders who would bring passion, positivity and innovation, back to the office after a three hour workshop on the leadership.

But why would they need to be able to do this?  Who would they be inspiring? And really, how much passion and innovation is actually possible for most office work?

Now I’m not for a moment knocking the concept of ‘leadership’.  It is very important.

I wrote a blog piece last summer about how taken we all were with Gareth Southgate’s leadership of the England team, and how refreshing it was to see.  Southgate in fact took England further into the World Cup than they had been for many years.  Incidentally, as an aside, while business managers are always leaders, the Head Coach of any football team, even when it’s someone like Sir Alex Feguson (ex-Manchester United – current value $4.9b) or Pep Guardiola (Manchester City – current value $22b) is a (mere) manager.  We don’t talk about, ‘football leaders’, do we?

And it’s very obvious when leadership is bereft; I suspect a lot of the UK would agree that our government (across all of the parties) has been woefully lacking in leadership in relation to the Brexit negotiations over the last few years.

My point is more that leadership and management are two quite distinct skills.  At a very basic level, leaders take the army into battle, and managers make sure the guns are loaded and they all have enough to eat.  They are two separate disciplines and one cannot function without the other.

A very good manager may well find themselves completely out of their depth in a leadership role, and a dynamic leader probably won’t have the focus to deal with the routine and minutiae of management.   We are generally accepting of the latter, but the former is usually accused of being somewhat lacking.

I do wonder if, in our Instagram filled lives today, we have become so imbued with reaching for the stars and having it all, that #LivingMyBestLife can only be defined in images of power and greatness, rather than efficiency and just quietly getting on with things.  It used to be said that behind every great man there was a great woman. I think the modern version of this would be that behind every great leader, is a great manager. Nelson Mandela couldn’t have published The Long Walk to Freedom without the help of his office management team!

Perhaps it’s time to return to showing some respect for the unsung heroes of working life, the day to day managers who get the job done, look after the team, communicate the Leader’s vision, and create the space to make it happen.

And if you have a really good manager, appreciate them. After all, while staff will often stick with a weak leader, they very rarely stay with a poor manager even when the Leader is great.

Author: marydonne

Training, Coaching, and HR Specialist.

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