What Makes A Great Manager?

Norm Wright
Jan 14 · 6 min read
Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

This is a hard question. Everyone can instantaneously describe what makes a bad manager but few seem capable of reliably defining a great one. It’s ambiguous. It’s also boring. And the answers can vary depending on the day or situation. In fact, to many people, a great manager is someone who would have done the exact opposite of that thing their boss just did. One day, it’s the ability to empower staff. The next day, it’s the ability to deal with crisis. Then it’s all about setting a great example. Or emotional intelligence. Or prioritization.

The real answer, of course, is “all of the above”. Because the reality is that a great manager is someone who does the right and necessary thing to modulate the group’s performance in the most positive direction possible. A great manager uses a variety of tools and abilities, such as mentioned above. They apply these tools along three core fronts of influence. The Greeks called these Logos, Pathos, and Ethos. We’ll call them logic, emotion, and ethics. Or, if you’re a Zelda fan, we can bundle them together and call it The Triforce.

In this framework, a great manager isn’t defined by any set of traits or abilities. Instead, they are defined by their decisions and actions. It depends on context and situation. When faced with a situation, a great manager knows how to seek the best, most rational approach (logos), convey that direction in a persuasive and beneficial manner (pathos), and ensure that those actions are carried out the right way, free of lies and harm (ethos).

We can usually operate very naturally in two of the three elements. But we face a lot of tension when we incorporate the third one. I’ve felt it myself whenever I’ve found the most logical, most ethical decision and have wanted to pound that into everyone’s minds as a self-righteous smarty-pants. In such an instance, I’m thoroughly lacking pathos, an ability to communicate in an emotionally-resonant way.

So this is difficult. It’s also complex. You seldom work in situations that are fully within your control. In fact, it’s so difficult and complex that it drives me to this constant search for more knowledge because there’s always another tool to add or sharpen. Because for as long as I’m a manager, I want to be great one and, as you can see below, that’s a very narrow space and it’s hard to fit oneself within it.

In which of these spaces do you operate the most?

As with anything that is difficult and complex, great skill takes time, effort, and copious study. On the study part, I’ve done what I can to select the great books that I think help on a variety of fronts. And yet, I’ve only featured one distinct book on management thus far. It was First, Break All The Rules, which is a great book for sophomore managers to read after a year of following the rules and learning why you should break them. Here’s my full review:

The Best Book for Second-Year Managers

So this week is the start of a longer series that will provide what I hope can be the key books for every manager of every kind. This is the prescribed curriculum that I think helps us regardless of age, experience, or industry. We start with the classic by Andy Grove called High Output Management.

A Great Manager

For those who might not be aware, Andrew S. Grove was the illustrious former chairman and CEO of Intel. I can’t imagine a person better-suited to write a book on management. His book, originally published in 1995, has been considered by many to be the best book ever written on the topic. The most well-known advocates include Ben Horowitz and Marc Andreessen. That’s … quite a pair of endorsements. Ben, as it turns out, is the author of another of the best books on management but his book, The Hard Thing About Hard Things, has much broader applicability. I’ll feature it another week.

Back to Mr. Grove: the book is his very clear, salient answer to the question of what makes a great manager. While I float high above with a conceptual framework about three triangles, which is a bit of a dodge on the question, Grove goes so far as to detail his methods and approach at Intel and why it works. Honestly, folks, the material is a bit boring at times but that’s not Andy’s fault. That’s a product of the topic itself.

All the same, this great leader gave us a great gift. Unlike me, Grove is clear in his language, precise and accurate, and he can break down the ideas in ways that are intuitive but seldom articulate. I don’t know what it would have been like to work for him but this book makes it seem very clear that he would have drawn the very best out of me. And you. So by his definition, he was quite great indeed.

What Great Managers Do

The book impresses me immediately with its very balanced expression of what a great manager truly is. A manager isn’t your friend, your pal, your foxhole partner. They aren’t automatons purely focused on the bottom line. True to the title, a great manager is someone who generates the most output possible from their people. From the author:

A manager’s skills and knowledge are only valuable if she uses them to get more leverage from her people.

“Leverage” in this case is equivalent to productive output. With the commensurate quality, of course. And how does one generate more output from staff? In simple terms, Grove believes it is best done through a combination of motivation and training. Here’s some more from our author:

Most managers seem to feel that training employees is a job that should be left to others, perhaps to training specialists. I, on the other hand, strongly believe that the manager should do it himself.

I really like this idea. As a trained educator and sharer of knowledge, I’m already on-board. But what if your team doesn’t want to be trained?

Well, consider the motivation factor. As Grove explains,

How does a manager motivate his subordinates? For most of us, the word implies doing something to another person. But I don’t think that can happen, because motivation has to come from within somebody. Accordingly, all a manager can do is create an environment in which motivated people can flourish.

Together, these two things as the heart of Grove’s thesis. A great manager plays two roles to tremendous effect: they are an effective trainer who helps their team level-up and they are they stewards of a workplace environment where these trained people can flourish if motivated.

The thesis for what makes a great manager from the book High Output Management

I don’t think anyone can improve on this idea. Truth be told, the notion of a manager as a trainer is very rich. The hard part, however, is finding a way to be a trainer for a team that doesn’t want to feel like they’re being trained. This is where we get back to logos, ethos, and pathos. My tortured little drawings have some application here.

After all, fellow managers, we’re not Andy Grove. We don’t have the credibility. So for the rest of this week, we’ll examine his beautiful book in greater detail and think of a strategy to apply it to our workplaces since (a) these tactics work and (b) no one else will read this book and do it for us. More to come in the days ahead.

Sidenote: as you can see, I’m playing around with a new drawing tablet. I don’t know what value these simple images provide others but I highly recommend everyone get one of these tablets. So much fun!

Striving Strategically

Insights for making hard, smart, righteous work. New books every week. New articles every business day.

Norm Wright

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Trying to provide the most useful thing you’ll read on any given day. Target success rate: 51%. More at www.strivingstrategically.com

Striving Strategically

Insights for making hard, smart, righteous work. New books every week. New articles every business day.

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