4 Realizations Great Managers Have


What makes a great leader? Not a good, but a great one. It’s a time-old question that people would ask themselves. We look at the history books, and we look at our leaders in government. Sometimes we look at our leaders in business. Most of the time, people look at what’s right in front of them in a professional environment. Commonly people would ask themselves what the characteristics of a great manager are. Either you are one or (most likely) you must deal with one. And there will be things you like about that person and things that you hate; such is life. 

But why is your manager, your manager? How does this person help you to be more effective in work and grow as a person and professional? What defines a good manager? You could ask 10 people and get 10 different answers, why is that? Here’s an attempt to unravel the question of what a great manager exactly is.

Everyone would like to think they make (or would make) a great manager, but those who have the luxury to observe would note that there are more “bad” managers than there are “good” managers. Why is that? Leadership is diligently taught in the classroom with the classic theories of emergent and servant leadership. You could fill libraries with works that discuss leadership, with most political and business heavyweights giving their 2 cents worth. 

Some seminars and workshops advertise they can teach leadership skills in a quick 2-4-hour session, or at least hand you the tools to assess your leadership practices. With all those tools handed to us, you would expect that we would have armies of great managers, that will get 100% out of their employees, and everyone would be better off. The truth can’t be further away. The adage of “good employees don’t leave companies; they leave bad managers” still holds true. 

There must be something missing, despite all the theory we can get handed by books and courses. The difference between good and bad managers might very well not lie into the amount of theory they know and have learned but in the mindset. And although that sounds quite lofty, you can probably break it down in specific topics. Here are 4 of those topics explained in soul-searching realizations one could have. By no means is this exhaustive, but it makes a great start, or at the very least a good discussion topic.

Managing is a Privilege and Responsibility

The first realization must be that a manager is both a privilege and a responsibility. It’s not a position where you can expect to lean backwards and let your underlings take care of all the work. No, you are doubly responsible for your own work and that of your employees. The privilege lies in the fact that the company has entrusted these people to you, to guide and take care of. Commonly heard is the complaint that “they don’t do what I tell them to do” or “they are too dumb to understand simple instructions” uttered by managers. If you land at this point, before you complain, ask yourself: “is it me?” Of course, there are going to be moments when employees are not fit for the job, but before you get there, as a manager, you need to do everything in your power to keep people on board. As soon as you are willing to self-reflect and show your employees you can absorb their failings as your own, it tells them that it’s not “you and me,” but it’s “us.”

A Social Contract between Manager and Employee

That brings you to the second realization. Although your employees will have a contract with the company and are recipients of a salary for the hours they work, that doesn’t mean that’s the only “agreement” you can engage your employees with. Obviously, humans are money-driven (it pays for all the necessities and nice stuff we have), but only having this as a basis for a human cooperation is extremely flimsy. In most cases, you, as a manager, can barely affect the pay someone receives. The furthest you might get is the ability to submit a request for a salary review or request a promotion for your employee. 

No, the professional relationship you have with your employee could mean more than that. And don’t go down the route of making things to personal, as this can backfire. The basis should be a professional relationship in which a manager and employee make an informal side agreement. This could be the manager committing him or herself to the employee’s development, by ensuring enough time is spent discussing employee improvement. In a way, asking the employee where he or she wants to be in 5 years, regardless of industry or employer, and honestly helping that person to get there is an excellent basis to add depth and sincerity to a professional relationship.

Photo by Randalyn Hill on Unsplash

Become Obsolete to Grow

Discussing ambition with an employee can also be quite confronting. What if the employee’s ambition is to have your seat in 2 years’ time? A position that you might have worked years to achieve. The right reaction is to agree with the ambition. In a more extreme form, you could adopt a mantra of that your goal is “to become obsolete”! It’s a slightly mad position to take as a manager, but think about it, is it really that bad? The whole idea that you manage people to be able to manage others in your stead is both scary and liberating. It’s scary as you will have to move on for them to take your place, and where will you go? 

The liberating part is that it gives you, as a manager, a strong purpose in getting your employees ready to take your seat. It effectively eliminates the most significant immediate barrier for them: you. This is the third realization great managers have, they understand that they themselves can be part of the problem and the only way to fix that is to outgrow it. This means growth comes through your employees, gaining skill and experience, and by their growth, you are forced to grow even further.

Let Go of your Processes (and Ego)

And with growth comes a unique perspective. Great managers can oversee the full picture and recognize issues before they arise. They manage outcomes and no longer on the process. And the latter is one of the most important realizations great managers have. Their process is theirs. It might work for others, but there are many others out there that can be more effective. In a way, it’s the classic “expect a different result by doing exactly the same.” Managers who are hell-bent on making sure their employees do things the same way will never see their employees achieve greater things than they did themselves at the same point in their career. 

So, forget about your process, assume it’s anciently outdated, and embrace new initiatives. Therefore, great managers know their own outcomes in the past and manage better outcomes now. The added benefit of this approach is that employees start owning their own process and will feel an increased responsibility to do well. When all is well, great managers will give credit where credit is due. If things go wrong, step in on time and share the responsibility.

So, there you go, the 4 realizations of great managers. 

If you are aiming to be a great one, explore the following areas: 

  1. the privilege and responsibility of being a manager, 
  2. exploring your own “social contract” with your employees, 
  3. how you prevent being a barrier to your employees, and 
  4. manage on outcomes and not processes. 
Go out there, and be the best manager you can be.