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Leadership Lessons: How Hard Can it Be?

What's the difference between a good manager and a bad one? Would you believe it has to do with willingness to take risks?

By Mary T. O’Sullivan

The management guru, Abraham Zelnick theorized that there was a good reason that managers managed and leaders led. It all has to do with which one is willing to take a risk.

“For those who become managers, a survival instinct dominates the need for risk, and with the instinct comes an ability to tolerate mundane, practical work.” – Zelnick.

Jake is a manager who survived much reorganization and always seems to land some position with a fair amount of power. Evidently, the key to his survival is to ensure some level of attention from those at the next level up. His stated goal was to “be the chief of staff” for either a VP or President of the company. Jake ensured that he had some part, no matter how small in senior level meetings, even if it meant his only function was advancing the slides. He actually grew in this role, and soon he was scouting out venues for upper management’s monthly retreats. He arranged for a major award  from Special Olympics for the President of the company by working the internal finance system, as the award was given in exchange for a $10,000 corporate donation. And, he was in charge of the invitation list, with all the rising stars of the company in attendance. Jake made it a point to let everyone know that he is the President’s (always using his first name) right hand man.

Others may have overlooked this behavior, except that Jake was responsible for a sizable organization of his own. To ward off failure, he surrounded himself with a group of marginally competent sycophants, not unlike himself, who executed his business obligations. Projects underway were handled with a check in the box mentality, always perfunctory and under the radar. A person working for Jake, with no new business experience, led a major review of new business failures. She conjured up an action item list for everyone else in the department to complete. Acceptable responses consisted of only the bare minimum amount of effort.  Instead of showing how we could do things differently or better, people resurrected the last paper or policy created for similar issues. The project was considered completed in the specified amount of time, and Jake’s whole internal team received an achievement award, permitting Jake to be free do master yet another mundane skill he perceived to be needed by upper management. (Purchasing a Tom-Tom for a new VP by using company funds.) Jake’s major talent was to perform the most ordinary and commonplace work. He knew in order to rise in the eyes of upper management; he had to make himself indispensable. Jake endured some level of derision in his role: names such as lapdog, lackey, water boy, etc. were applied. But he seemed to take it all in good cheer. The quote “somebody has to do it” became his mantra.

“The manager plays for time.”

Prior to Jake becoming my manager, I was on track for a promotion. Every year, at raise time, Jake would state his commitment to promoting me. He would assign me tasks that he felt would show me worthy to move to the next level. Most of the tasks were long term efforts, lasting several months or more. His method was to assign me to work with a team made up of people who were less knowledgeable on the topic than I was. This placed me in the position of having to teach and instruct as well as move the project along. A few people resented that I insisted on certain methods of performing the tasks, as I was experienced and trained, and had successfully performed the same tasks in another company. As can be predicted, the tasks created a measure of conflict within the group. Year after year, Jake assigned these types of activities. After about 4 years, I was assigned to a new manager (also reporting to Jake) who realized the need to move more quickly on the promotion. However, when the moment actually came for action, Jake had played for time again. Jake had not submitted the papers on the appointed due date. As it turns out, the VP was unhappy with Jake’s delaying tactics and personally quickly shepherded the papers through the promotion process. It seemed, in this case, time was not on Jake’s side. Within a few months, Jake was moved to another organization.

Jake’s management style seems to defy definition. He has the qualities of Administrative, in that he believes in a strong chain of command, and unity of command principal, but lacks the elements of fairness and equity that characterize Administrative style. It would seem that Jake is really not managerial material, but more of an individual contributor, even though he relies on a certain number of direct reports to ensure his feeling of power and importance.

Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, , International Coaching Federation Professional Certified Coach, Society of Human Resource Management, “Senior Certified Professional. Graduate  Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM.Mary O’Sullivan has over 30 years’ experience in the aerospace and defense industry. In each of her roles, she acted as a change agent, moving teams and individuals from status quo to new ways of thinking, through offering solutions focused on changing behaviors and fostering growth. In additional, Mary holds a permanent teaching certificate in the State of New York for secondary education and taught high school English for 10 years in the Syracuse, NY area. Today, she dedicates herself to helping good leaders get even better through positive behavior change

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