What are the Characteristics of a Really Excellent Manager?

It occurred to me that, with decades of study of good (and bad) management behind me, I want to assemble a list of characteristics of really good managers I’ve known, worked for, or otherwise encountered. I don’t intend to discuss skills, experience, or education in particular, but rather the less tangible personal behaviors and traits that I believe are less well understood, but possibly of highest importance to good management. Many of these probably fall under the heading of “emotional intelligence“, but many also stem from introspection, self-awareness, and empathy for others. These managers blended the roles of manager and leader as needed to get great results and raise the performance of everyone associated with them. I will revise and refine the list over time, and welcome your suggestions for additions or changes. Please read further, and leave me a comment or otherwise contact me with your additions, ideas, questions, etc. Thanks in advance. The list follows. – Tim

Jessica Hart, a doctoral candidate in consulting psychology who is writing her dissertation on leadership performance, contacted me after reading this entry. She pointed out that emotional intelligence is a key element of the best leadership behaviors, and such elements include “having a high level of self- knowledge and awareness, knowing one’s shortcomings, understanding that people’s feelings are important, being empathetic, and staying balanced and cool-headed.” She also said “I truly believe this is one of the most important set of skills leaders and managers need in order to be effective.” Jessica also sent me several excellent articles on situational leadership, the term for a line of academic study of leadership that has been developed for decades and relates very closely to my own understanding, but formalizes it nicely. I will list the articles and link to them where possible at the end of this item.

Characteristics of the Excellent Manager

1. A philosophical and strategic leader, provides guidance for tactical actions and is not averse to being directly involved in or carrying out tactical actions personally

2. Committed, willing to do whatever it takes to make the organization successful, even if it means cleaning the toilets

3. Highly principled, uncompromising in those principles, but otherwise very flexible

4. Keeps options open when possible, understands when and how firmly decisions need to be made, and is unafraid to make them, accept reasonable risk, and take the consequences

5. Collaborative and open to suggestion, works together with others whenever possible to achieve better plans and actions

6. Has high level of self-knowledge and is unafraid to ask for help when it is needed; brings together people with complimentary skills and experience

7. Uses positive interactions with others to create powerful teams

8. Enables subordinates and others around them to do their best work; promotes people, products, the organization, and humanity in general

9. Holistically understands the big picture and how the details and smaller pictures fit into it

10. Understands what can and can’t be changed in any situation, and doesn’t waste effort on the unchangeable

11. Thinks long term and short term at the same time, and understands how the latter creates the former

12. Knows people are the most important thing in business, and that people want to do well and contribute positively

13. Knows that people’s feelings are important, and people who feel positive about themselves, their jobs, their organization, and those around them will always perform better.

14. Knows that quality is what satisfies the customer, and repeat customers are the essence of business success

15. Never discounts serendipity – knows, for example, that the custodian could ask a “dumb” question that would suggest or illuminate the “next big thing”

16. Always gives credit where it is due, never tries to take it or hoard it, and understands intellectual property rights

17. Thinks positively, finds the bright side to any situation, “makes lemons into lemonade”

18. Generally cheerful and kind, respectful of all people

19. Genuine and uncomplicated, yet worldly, sophisticated, and refined

20. Honest to a fault (but tactful)

21. Empathetic but understands reasonable limits to what can be done for others

22. Highly creative, understands that tomorrows great idea usually sound crazy today and that failure incites far higher levels of creativity than success, works to stimulate and encourage creativity in others

23. Understands that people learn far more from failure than from success, and that minimizing the pain of failure permits learning that can spawn many future successes

24. Encourages creative and constructive dissonance, yet quickly and decisively acts to stop destructive conflict

25. Understands systems theory and the dynamics of organizations

26. Has a good understanding of human nature and how people respond to perceived expectations

27. Understands how measurement affects people’s behavior and results, the differences between public and private results, and between measuring oneself and being measured by others

28. Understands Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (link) and works to elevate everyone around them including employees, peers, superiors, customers, and suppliers

29. Knows who the stakeholders are in any endeavour and how they differ from participants, understands that, ultimately, all life forms on the planet are stakeholders at some level

30. Understands that risks are always present, and is adept at perceiving and managing them

31. Stays balanced and cool-headed: doesn’t get overwhelmed by tough times, and doesn’t let good times lull them or the organization into complacency or carelessness

32. Always eager to learn, and never stops learning, from everyone and anyone, at every opportunity.  Also encourages these attitudes in others

33. Understands that the good of all supersedes the good of the one or the few, including their own good

34. A visionary and skilled planner, also expert at communicating visions and plans

35. Good at explaining complex matters to people who may not have the background to readily understand them

36. Gives assignments that challenge, but ensures that the assignments are possible, that the right people are chosen for the challenge, and that all involved including the manager collaborate to provide the highest possible probability of success

37. Understands that people want to contribute positively, and enables people to do this at every opportunity.

38. Understands that most jobs have built in “down time” that is unavoidable, but works to help people find ways to contribute when the demands of their work are at a minimum.  (Example: During a recession and sales slump in the 1980’s, Lincoln Electric allowed production line workers to hit the road with the sales force, meet actual customers, and help make sales – an idea with multiple, positive benefits that helped workers with little to do make a meaningful contribution to the company and gain valuable experience and motivation.)

39. Understand the emphasis problem – the idea that the words of a superior are always taken and repeated with added emphasis, so that an off-hand comment by a higher manager may cause serious effort to be expended at lower levels of the organization even though that was not intended.  As my Organizational Behavior professor said, “Nobody understood why a company division had bought a fast food franchise until it was revealed that, the previous week, the CEO said he wanted a hamburger for lunch.”  While this is an extreme and humorous example, the emphasis effect happens a lot.

40. Understands the de-emphasis problem – the idea that, since nobody wants to report bad news to a superior, the worst possible news will become increasingly positive or possibly disappear as it is reported upward from the bottom of the organization.  A smart manager knows that a problem that could be a company-killer may never be reported at a higher level where it could be addressed, and good communications, not filtered through level upon level of the organization, can save a company.

Recommended Reading on Situational Leadership:
“Situational Leadership”, May 2008, Ken Blanchard, Executive Excellence Publishing
“Situational leadership: a model for leading telecommuters”, 2005, Leigh Ann Farmer, Journal of Nursing Management, 483-489
“Situational Leadership Style as a Predictor of Success and Productivity Among Taiwanese Business Organizations”, 2001, Colin Silverthorne and Ting-Hsin Wang, The Journal of Psychology, 135(4), 399-412
“The Role of the Situation in Leadership”, January 2007, Victor H. Vroom and Arthur G. Jago, American Psychologist, vol. 62, No. 1, 17-24
“Special Issue on Leadership Falls Behind”, September 2007, Richard M. Wielkiewicz and Stephen P. Stelzner, American Psychologist, 605-606

Other interesting reading:
Situational Leadership Theory, wikipedia
Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, wikipedia
Managing Up and Down, April 14, 2007, The Legal Soapbox (blog)
Of All the Bard’s Men, May 9, 2008, “Reunny” (blog)


One Response to What are the Characteristics of a Really Excellent Manager?

  1. […] Managers are strategic thinkers. They have to be…or risk mediocrity while morale and productivity flags. They are constantly analyzing their immediate and surrounding environment, identifying inefficiencies and inspiring their employees to excel. In short, management is the art of knowing what’s coming, envisioning how best to respond, and motivating employees to navigate change nimbly, creatively, and proudly. […]

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