On Management: The self-aware leader

Good management needs humdrum, mundane qualities if it is to avoid the pitfalls of grandiosity and narcissism.

by Christopher Grey, World Business
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

I often ask MBA students what one factor will always be present in every management decision they take. They give many answers - scarce resources, imperfect information and risk are popular suggestions. But the answer I'm looking for is that they, as individuals, will be present.

Managers, unavoidably, bring all their individual experiences, habits, strengths and frailties to every situation. So some degree of self-awareness is a vital competence. The reaction to this suggestion is often one of bemusement, sometimes even hostility. It seems indecently obvious, simple and, somehow, not what management is really about.

This is just one illustration of how management has been rendered overly complex. It is instructive to think about the origins of the word itself.

Management derives from the French menager and the Italian maneggiare, the first referring to running a domestic household and the second to handling horses. The ultimate root is from manus, the Latin for hand.

So, in origin, management refers to quite humble, mundane activities and we keep some of that meaning when we talk about 'managing to catch the train', for example.

But when we start dealing with the management of organisations, all this seems to go out the window. It is as if there are two types of management, one with a small 'm', which is to do with getting the job done, dealing with problems, making things work, and the other Big-M management, which is concerned with grand strategies, elaborate models and radical restructurings.

The same is true of leadership. We have become used to thinking about leadership in terms of dramatic heroism, grand visions and adulation from lesser mortals. But the etymology is again instructive. With roots in Norse and mediaeval German, the term leadership originally denoted the 'carrying of a load' with connotations of service to others - humility rather than grandiosity is the key.

This has important practical consequences because big-M management takes leaders away from the reality of what is happening in the business, so that they inhabit an idealised world. Research on the psychological traps of leadership and senior management tells us how easy it is to live in a detached, narcissistic bubble, in which the only problem is the curious failure of everyone else to conform to their allotted parts in the grand plan. As American philosopher Carl Becker disparagingly put it: "Our world can be computed even if it does not exist."

An infatuation with the grand rather than the mundane, the global rather than the local, has a distinctly masculine accent. Management is about the guys with their spreadsheets rather than about women running households.

One of Australia's leading commentators on leadership, Amanda Sinclair of Melbourne Business School, has shown how traditional, bullying machismo gets in the way of ground-level engagement with real business problems.

We need to drop these kinds of business role models, soaked not just with alpha masculinity but also with the know-all certainty of the head office.

How can managers tell when they have fallen into the grandiosity trap and how can they get out of it? If you spend more time producing documents than talking to people, spend more time talking than listening and feel constantly infuriated with the inability of others to do what they should, then these are good signs that you are a prisoner of Big-M.

The solutions are deceptively simple - deceptive because they are easier to preach than to practise. Make time to be with people, not your peers or your bosses, but those who do the frontline work. Use that time to communicate - which doesn't mean 'talking at' but learning from. Above all, stop blaming others for 'not getting it' and ask yourself what you may be contributing to the problem.

The key to this lies in another word with ancient origins: hubris, the excessive pride that leads to downfall. At the personal level, we can be blinded by excessive pride in the clarity of our own vision, the certainty of our own rightness. The same is true at the organisational level.

The one thing that we can say for sure about today's successful organisations is that they will be tomorrow's failures. Like individuals, they become puffed up with their own importance and blind to their limitations. It's no coincidence that the MBA students who hate the idea of self-awareness are always the ones who demand case studies of successful companies. They would do better to look at why successful companies fail: it is usually because they know themselves to be successful.

There are obvious psychological chains here. I'm a winner - tell me about other winners. I'm a winner - others are failures. The narcissistic idea of the omnicompetent leader is exactly the opposite of the self-awareness that is necessary to be effective. Running a household, looking after the horses, bearing the load - these are good, if unfashionable, metaphors for managers and leaders. In business, as in life, less can be more.

- Christopher Grey is professor of organisational theory at the Judge Business School, University of Cambridge.

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