Most Managers Are Not Leaders
My friend Jon Fazarro recently shared a post from the OG influencer and author Tim Denning called “Your Boss Doesn’t Care About Your Career, Personal Development, or Income.” Honestly, it’s a notion I’ve been contemplating a lot this year, as I have transitioned to a different role and organization altogether. Not that your boss doesn’t care about you, but that people management or leadership is an underrepresented and frankly underappreciated facet of many managerial and executive roles. Let’s delve into that a bit.
I have often proposed that organizations need more Agilist Leaders. By this, I mean individuals who embody the principles and values defined in the Agile Manifesto (not necessarily confined to specific roles like Scrum Masters or Agile Coaches). Agile represents a learning culture (as I detailed in my first presentation, “The Alchemy of Agile”), and cultures are established from the top. In essence, your organization’s CEO should also be its CCO, Chief Culture Officer. We desperately need more Agile minded leaders to ascend the corporate ladder if there’s any hope for lasting adoption and a paradigm shift across the industry.
However, what I have observed from my own experience and heard anecdotally from others is that agile leaders often struggle in their roles due to entrenched norms of selfism, convoluted political systems, and legacy Tayloristic ideals (I hesitate to label it as “Scientific Management” because it gives science a bad name). Many leaders in these roles express feeling stuck, unacknowledged, and overlooked for promotions or new opportunities. They become exhausted and beaten down. This is why numerous Agile Coaches have dabbled in managerial roles before retreating to the comfort of consulting. The exceptions tend to be organizations whose product or service revolves around Agile (e.g., any company or department with “Agile” in its name).
In addition to the lack of quality leadership training available (which could be a blog entry in itself), I identify four major challenges today:
Challenge 1: Merits for Promotion into Managerial Roles
The first challenge facing our leadership industry today is already widely discussed and often summarized by the Peter Principle. It is a common phenomenon where individuals, based on their competence in their current roles, get promoted to positions where they lack the necessary managerial skills. They are essentially “promoted to a level of incompetence.” This shift from doing the work to managing people requires a completely different skill set. Managers need to delegate, communicate effectively, and foster a collaborative environment, skills that aren’t always developed in individual contributor roles. This very important first misstep directly influences the next three challenges.
Challenge 2: Mismatch in Leadership Perception
Traditionally, the image of a leader has been shaped by heroic figures from history, emphasizing traits like strength, assertiveness, and a commanding presence. Certainly this imagery plays well to the business archetype of corporate savior who will rally your employees to crush the competition. However, these qualities don’t necessarily translate into effective leadership in today’s complex and collaborative workplaces. As Simon Sinek points out in “The Infinite Game,” there are no winners in business. Business isn’t about conquest but constant improvement. A nurturing mindset, focused on continuous improvement, fostering a positive work culture, and supporting employees’ growth, is more relevant in the modern business landscape.
I remember asking a manager why I wasn’t considered for a manager position, and he said that my leadership didn’t show. He suggested I ask anyone in our department if they saw me as a leader. I remember feeling baffled, and frankly insulted, but I did exactly what he recommended, and the people I asked were as baffled as I was. I had a similar experience as a Line Lead in a position before that, where my servant leadership left other leaders scratching their heads because my results were uncanny, but they just couldn’t comprehend that my approach to leadership was what led to those results. That’s because we recognize leaders who are assertive drivers of success, even if our media tends to vilify those personas. This is a limitation of beliefs.
Challenge 3: Scope of Managerial Positions
The sad truth is that most organizations fail to value the management, support, and growth of their employees, leading managers to have a multitude of responsibilities across different areas. Managers end up overwhelmed with too many direct reports, burdened with back-to-back meetings, and busy with their own administrative tasks and managerial asks. Managing people becomes just one item on a lengthy list of responsibilities because job postings for managers are focused on managing an area of work, not specific people. My senior manager used to frequently tell me that I needed to “ruthlessly prioritize” because even putting in overtime every single day, there was simply too much scope for one individual.
This situation highlights a broader issue prevalent in American work culture – the obsession with busyness. Corporations often equate high utilization with productivity. However, if you understand the physics of capacity versus throughput, you know that operating at maximum capacity results in decreased throughput and degradation of the system. It’s a paradox: the more we load onto individuals, assuming it leads to higher productivity, the more it strains the system, diminishing overall efficiency.
Challenge 4: Management Incentivization Model
Incentives shape behavior, and managers are no exception. Recognition for supporting teammates is rare; instead incentives are typically tied to KPIs, milestones, or perceived monetary value. The very skills that led to being promoted to a managerial role, proficiency in individual contributor skills, often continue to be the focus. Managers may question, consciously or subconsciously: if I was rewarded in the past for these skills, why wouldn’t I continue to be in the future? This perpetuates the fixation on the work and the neglect of the people.
The absurdity of the situation becomes transparent when one realizes that the only way for an organization to thrive is through strong people leadership, and yet, rarely are people recognized or incentivized for these behaviors beyond a lip service. Similar to my line lead example, I recall sitting in an annual review where the significant increase in revenue my team had achieved through the environment I had fostered was overshadowed due to some leaders feeling uneasy because I encouraged a shift in delegation strategies, urging them to trust the expertise of the team members. This shift meant that I was not personally solving all of their concerns or problems, which created the perception that I didn’t care or was not caring to our customers.
Managers, metaphorically, are akin to gardeners. A gardener doesn’t command a plant to grow or chastise it for producing subpar fruit; instead, she nurtures and tends to the soil, adjusts the sunlight and water, and protects the plant from pests. This analogy aptly applies to managers of individual contributors, managers of managers, and those above them. Jurgen Appelo has defined a main principle of Management 3.0 as “managing the system, not the people.” The system is our environment in which people can thrive through proper focus.
Putting This Topic to Rest
In conclusion, the challenges faced by leaders in today’s corporate landscape reflect deep-rooted systemic issues that demand urgent attention and reform. The misconception that leadership equates to assertiveness and dominance, rather than nurturing and support, perpetuates a cycle where many potentially great leaders are overlooked or feel trapped. The Peter Principle highlights a fundamental flaw: individuals are often promoted based on their competence in their current roles, lacking the necessary skills for managerial positions. Furthermore, the overwhelming scope of managerial positions often leads to burnout and inefficiency. Lastly, recognition tends to be tied to quantitative metrics, neglecting the qualitative aspects of leadership that truly drive organizational success. A shift in focus, from managing people to managing the system that enables people to thrive, is necessary for sustained growth and enduring success and prosperity.