Could You Become a Legendary Manager or Leader?

Nine characteristics of an outstanding boss.


What does it take to become a great, even legendary, manager or leader? Here are nine of their characteristics, drawn from such best-in-class management books as "Good to Great" and "12: The Elements of Great Managing," (derived from Gallup's interviews with 10 million employees and managers) plus personal experience coaching countless managers and leaders. Score yourself 1 to 10 on each of these, and/or have your boss or supervisees rate you:

1. Inspire the troops even if the job seems mundane. For example, if it's your first day supervising accounts-payable clerks, you might say, "It's easy to think our job isn't important, but it is. Countless people and their families are depending on us to get them paid promptly and accurately. Vitally important."

Your score: _____

2. Treat your supervisees not equally, but so as to bring out the best in each person. Just as a gardener recognizes that some plants need more or less sun and more or less water, the wise manager realizes that each supervisee needs more or less guidance, autonomy, supervision work or type of work. When an employee complains "That's not fair," the wise manager responds, for example, "It's not equal, but it's fair. Each of you is an individual, not a machine. One size does not fit all. My job is to create the conditions under which each of you can be your best."

Your score: _____

3. Err on the side of less process and accountability. Per the previous item, some employees do require a rigid process and strict reporting requirements, but if you hire wisely (see below,) most people won't. Indeed excessive processes and reporting can waste time, inhibit adapting to circumstances and vitiate employers' motivation.

Your score: _____

4. Your main job is resource-provider. Employees do their best when they have the money, tools and, yes, processes to do their job well. Great managers make those happen. You're Santa Claus, not Scrooge.

Your score: _____

5. Encourage a humane workplace but not the expectation it will be family. Yes, give earned praise. Yes, ask your people about their lives. Yes, if there's a personal problem, perhaps offer a bit of counsel. But ineffective managers go too far: They encourage so much openness that the workplace turns into a cross between a pity party and a social-work group, plus the belief that the slightest real or imagined slight is cause for a meeting or backstabbing.

Your score: _____

6. Use teams judiciously. Mediocre managers too quickly assign a project to a team rather than to an individual. Teams not only use lots of staff time and slow decision-making, decisions are rarely bold—usually it's only a tepid plan that everyone can agree to. Even more serious, most capable, hardworking team members often resent teams because their efforts go unrewarded or mitigated by lesser team members. Managers often get the most from strong performers by giving them challenging assignments to tackle by themselves. The great manager reserves use of teams for when the benefits of group input and buy-in outweigh those serious risks.

Your score: _____

7. Run crisp and not-too-frequent meetings. Meetings often waste more time than they're worth. The great manager calls meetings mainly when timely, group input is required. Other times, for example, when presenting a report, email or phone may be wiser. And to ensure meetings don't take too long, the good manager sends a draft agenda and keeps to it, including the time limit.

Your score: _____

8. Help each employee develop an exciting yet realistic career plan. Bad managers want to retain their good people and so don't help them move up or out. Wiser managers realize that among the most important parts of their job is helping people flower, and if that means their leaving, that's good. And even if your priorities are more pragmatic, encouraging your supervisees to grow even if it means they leave will result in that person touting you and your place of employment as a great place to work.

Your score: _____

9. Hire slow; fire fast. A core American assumption is people's infinite malleability: that with persistence, anyone can accomplish almost anything. Alas, as every teacher and psychotherapist knows, even years of effort rarely can turn a dullard into a brain trust, a phlegmatic into a charismatic. So it's critical to hire people who have – without requiring a personality transplant – the ability and drive to do the job. Yes, some specific knowledge and skills can be taught but intelligence and drive far less so. And in today's litigious society, you may well find it very painful to attempt to replace an unsatisfactory employee. That's why most top management books urge managers to hire slow; fire fast. That is, take the time to find really great employees, by asking everyone you respect to recommend candidates and then have them do simulations of difficult tasks that will be required on the job.

Your score: _____

Utterly Unvalidated Scoring Key

85 - 90: Top, even legendary manager or leader

75 - 85: A very good manager or leader

65 - 75: An adequate manager or leader

50 - 65: A marginal manager or leader

< 50: Improve or consider that you shouldn't be a manager or leader

The San Francisco Bay Guardian called Dr. Nemko "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach." His latest books are How to Do Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School and What's the Big Idea? 39 Disruptive Proposals for a Better America. He writes weekly for as well as for More than 1,000 of his published writings are free on

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