Critical Management Questions I Can’t Answer

Thirty-some years in business, and I’m still troubled by management style. Maybe it’s that (MBA or not) I’ve never been comfortable with authority — Not with accepting it, and not with wielding it. But I managed.

But lack of authority sometimes seems worse. Have you been in one of those situations where everybody on the team has to like something like a packaging design, an ad layout, tag lines, or messaging? Have you seen it when one person who does one set of functions is pushing strong views on something that has nothing to do with his expertise? I don’t think management by consensus actually works. It always reminds me of that old saying:

If colors were managed by consensus, every room would be painted beige.

Or maybe it’s that there’s no consistency in what works and what doesn’t.

For a really different view, the other day I listened to a Buddhist Geeks podcast called liberating the soul of the organization, an interview with Brian Robertson, founder of HolacracyOne. Here’s the description:

…. a system that Brian helped develop as a new operating system on which businesses can run. He distinguishes between what he calls “predict-and-control” management practices and “sense-and-respond” processes, which are much more like the dynamic steering of a bicycle.

That’s an interesting interview, to be sure. It includes parallels between management and meditation. I‘m not saying that’s the next new big thing; but change, new views, and different approaches are good. Change things up. Take a new viewpoint. There’s a lot to be said for a fresh new look, in management and leadership, as in about anything else.

And then that same day was also the day I read Anger is not a leadership skill on Small Business Trends. No argument with that one. Diane Helbig writes:

You don’t get people to perform at their best when you spend your time beating them down. Fear is not a motivator. This behavior isn’t something that is learned in leadership training courses. It comes from one of a couple of places – insecurity, fear or mistrust. I submit that you can’t be successful if you operate from any of these platforms.

I certainly agree with that one.

Could it be that good management, like good leadership, is an art? Unpredictable? Hard to learn and hard to teach? Or that good leadership is like good software: hard to predict, hard to describe, but you know it when you see it?


  • Patrick Duncan says:

    Maverick by Ricardo Semler. Answers in there.

  • Berislav Lopac says:

    Tim, actually, management of people is pure applied psychology. And possibly the best book on the subject is Bringing Out the Best in People by Aubrey Daniels.

  • Colm Fitzpatrick says:

    I”m not sure about meditation stuff but the parallels might be interesting because reflection on whats really happening around you is rare enough in large companies and even rarer in small ones.

    The fact is really good managers have hired or selected really good teams and none of this stuff comes up. Oh and by the way when they inherit poor teams they do some spring cleaning and move on.

    The Beige example is interesting but a little too polarised because any sensible person encountering this in a company dusts off his or her CV and moves on. I did it once when I was in my early 20’s … 4 weeks to realise I was in a bureacratic hell and find a job and 4 weeks notice. Thats was in the early 80’s by the way when the word recession was really being tested and defined.

    I like the steering a boat metaphor better than anything to describe management. If you set out from Copenhagen and aim your boat as you leave the harbour at Lady LIberty in New York you’ll never get there. Its not technical either. There are just too many things that conspire to put you off course and if you don’t take account of them on a continuous basis your wasting your time.

  • Susan Low says:

    Alas, there is often trouble in finding the middle ground between a super-controlling management style and the over-consensual style. It’s a continuum, really. I think a “magic spot” is where somebody has enough understanding of human psychology & motivation to know what works, AND they are a generally organized and motivated person themselves. Somehow that usually results in good management that gets somewhere AND keeps people engaged.

  • Ivan Walsh says:

    Hi Tim,

    re: Fear is not a motivator…

    I’m not sure. There’s lots of successful CEOS, I’m sure you know some, that terrify their underlings, goad them, bully them, and make their life a misery.

    Not sure it’s an admirable quality but it does often work.

    One caveat is that it doesnt work IF people have other options, ie can go work elsewhere.

    Alas, in this recession, some people are stuck where they are and have to endure all kinds of abuse.



    • Tim Berry says:

      Ivan, interesting. Your comment reminds me of Harold Geneen, the once-famous tyrant of ITT. I never met him but by reputation he was a classic manage-by-fear type and he did okay for himself for many years; but ITT no longer exists. And I think we agree that it’s a style that happens. And that sometimes people can’t easily go elsewhere. Thanks for the addition. Tim

  • Diane Helbig says:

    Thanks for the mention Tim. I’m glad you liked the article. Business leadership is definitely a strange animal – and always fascinating.

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