Leadership is all the rage these days. The lionization of leaders from Jack Welch to today’s pantheon that includes Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz, and Elon Musk continues undimished. While much of the emphasis placed on great leadership is surely warranted, scant attention is paid to the value of good management or the pivotal role of the manager.

There are many “top ten” lists of the greatest leaders in business or of all time, but no such list for managers. Great managers are seldom if ever noticed by the business press, and human resources departments are more preoccupied with developing the “leadership pipeline” than focusing on what it takes to grow good managers.

It wasn’t always this way.

Great managers were the most desired products of business education since the time of Henry Ford. But as Duff McDonald wrote in The New York Times, this changed in the mid 1970’s when Abraham Zaleznik of Harvard published a paper entitled Managers and Leaders: Are They Different? “The answer was an emphatic yes. Leaders were visionaries who got the troops excited to march into battle. Managers were platoon sergeants who actually marched them into battle.”

Since that time, when leadership and management were compared and contrasted, managers consistently drew the short straw.

For example, the leadership guru Warren Bennis made the following observations in his book, On Becoming a Leader:

  • A manager administers while a leader innovates.
  • A manager is a copy while a leader is original.
  • A manager relies on control while a leader inspires trust.
  • A manager focuses on systems and structure while a leader focuses on people

I say that this is stale thinking and does not reflect what good management is about. Consider this:

  • While leaders may drive innovation, most actual innovation happens at the employee level, and it takes a good manager to encourage it.
  • While leaders focus on people in general – particularly the high-potentials – good managers focus on everyone – up close and personal.
  • Trust is necessary for both roles: without trust, one does not willingly take direction from either a leader or a manager.
  • And great managers are as unique in their own way as great leaders are.

In sum, the clearest distinction that does justice to both leaders and managers is this: leaders set the strategy but managers make it happen.

Good Management Is Hard

The comparisons between leaders and managers, some of which come across as pejorative, are extreme generalizations. And like all generalizations, they are wrong when you get to specific cases.

In truth, many managers operate in the old-school ways of telling rather than selling, controlling rather than enabling, and correcting rather than facilitating. However, not all of this is the fault of the manager, since these behaviors are either not discouraged or are rewarded by leadership higher up.

Another reason managers suffer in comparison is that being a good manager isn’t easy. David Deacon, Chief Talent Officer at MasterCard, summed it up this way: “I walk up to the doors of the building almost every day thinking about how today I can help my people do something great or be successful and impactful; but the reality is that by the time I have addressed the priorities and pressures of the day, they may not have any evidence that this was my intention.”

In our many studies of some of the best managers in Fortune 500 companies, many of the same challenges are mentioned that prevent well-intentioned managers from doing what they are expected to do.

As you will see, though managers’ lack of skills is often blamed for their shortcomings and inability to deal effectively with these challenges, there are also contributing issues that are part of the system and not the manager’s fault. And despite what you might expect, being a great manager is not all about competencies.

Consider these challenges common to many managers:

  • Translating strategy into action. This is usually difficult because there is a big leap between broad goals such as “grow market share”, “Increase profit” and “expand product offerings” and what managers and their people should focus on to achieve these goals. It isn’t always clear how one’s job contributes directly to goals like these; furthermore, for many people these goals are not under their control. Managers need senior leadership to lay out what these goals mean for particular functions and operations for managers to do their jobs. Otherwise, they have to guess what it means for them and their people, leading to frustration and wasted effort.
  • Reconciling competing priorities. How should managers spend their time? What things deserve immediate attention, what things can be deferred, what demands on their time from higher up interfere with getting work done, and what mixed messages are they given about what is most important for them to do? For example, when a manager is given ten objectives for the year and is held accountable for all of them, it is a challenge to negotiate the most important goals and therefore the goals set for the members of their teams.
  • Having enough time. Some of this lies at the feet of the managers themselves. No manager became a manager overnight; they all started by being “individual contributors”, doing the actual work of the organization. When a contributor becomes a manager, a natural tendency is to want to play the part of a “super-contributor” or a “player-coach” instead of a coordinator of the efforts of others, being available to give advice and guidance but not actually doing the work. It’s no surprise that “delegation skill” is one of the manager’s biggest training needs.
  • Giving timely and candid feedback. The unfortunate connotation here is that this means criticizing people when they are doing things wrong. It need not be like this. There are ways to “catch people doing things right” and “coaching them in the moment”, both of which have a positive connotation. These are new skills for most new and many more-experienced managers, and training and practicing these skills help bake them into the manager’s daily routine. However, this requires managers to be around their people and observing them enough to do this, rather than shut behind their office doors.
  • Motivating people in difficult times. Senior leadership may communicate passion and optimism in the face of organizational challenges, but managers are the ones who have to not only believe these messages but also communicate this belief to their teams. However, being able to do this depends on a corporate history of unbroken promises: how many employees, when told that there will not be a reduction in force have witnessed the same in tough times? It gets back to trust – and trust flows from the top down. Managers find themselves as the ham in the sandwich, trying to shore up employees’ optimism about the future while privately feeling unconvinced – and this is hard for them to conceal.
  • Keeping good people. This is an outcome of all of the above. It’s an established finding that the number one reason why good people leave is having a bad manager. But bad managers are unlikely to deal successfully managing any of the challenges mentioned here. Granted, some of these challenges are not entirely of their own making, but their attitude about what their role is or should be and how they demonstrate that attitude by their own behavior will either keep their people engaged or turn them off, and in good times or bad, the best people won’t stay around long enough for their manager to see the light and change their ways.

It’s Not about Competencies – It’s About Mindset

Many organizations have had competency models for managers in place for many years. Despite this, most of these competency models have yet to move the needle when it comes to sustainable behavior change. What makes a great manager is not having the competencies but instead having a clear view of what being a manager is really about. If you see the role as doing what you need to do to help your people succeed instead of directing and controlling them, it opens up a different set of actions and priorities.

If you hire or pick good people for your team, give them clear priorities and expectations, and trust that they will do a good job without having to be told what to do, you don’t need to do a lot of “managing”. Time with the team can then be devoted to setting priorities, helping them plan their work, checking in to see how they are doing, making sure that that they have the necessary resources, offering advice as needed, and taking time to acknowledge them and their work.

In the end, it’s not how much training you throw at the manager but how the manager sees his or her role and what the organization does to support that view of the role. It’s time to retire the idea of being the “boss”. If directing and controlling are out and facilitation and empowerment are in, this is a mind shift more than a skills shift, and responsibilities and rewards for performance in the role need to be aligned.

The following remark that I attribute to Jack Welch – one that I strongly agree with – is this: “You don’t need many managers to run a company, but they have to be very, very good.”