Top ten reasons managers become great

As a positive counterpoint to my list of why managers become assholes, and as a counterbalance to my tendency to write cynically, here’s a list of why people become great at managing others, trying as much as possible not to just do the reflexive act of merely inverting my other list.

  1. Enjoy helping people grow. Few things feel better than helping someone who is new to a role, or who has been struggling, into becoming a productive, confident person. There’s a kind of satisfaction in helping someone figure out how to be successful that doesn’t come from many other living experiences. Great mangers love seeing this happen on their teams.
  2. Love creating positive environments. A great manager creates a team and and office environment that makes it easy for smart people to do good things. They love that moment when they wander the halls and see all sorts of amazing things happening all on their own, with passionate, motivated people doing good work without much involvement from the manager.
  3. Want to correct mistakes inflicted on them. Some great managers are looking to undo the evil managers they had. Rather than take it out on their subordinates, they want to do a kind of pay it forward revenge: prove to themselves and the world that it can be better that what happened to them in the past. This can create the trap of fighting the last war: your team may not care at all about avoiding the mistakes of your previous manager. They want to avoid the mistakes you, and your blind spots, are probably making right now.
  4. Care deeply about the success and well being of their team. Thoroughbred horses get well cared for. Their owners see them as an expensive asset and do whatever they can to optimize their health, performance, and longevity, even if their motivations are largely selfish. A great manager cares deeply about their staff, and goes out of his way to protect, train, care for, and reward their own team, even if their primary motivation is their own success.
  5. Succession mentality. A successful manager eventually realizes their own leadership will end one day, but if they teach and instill the right things into people who work for them, that philosophy can live on for a long time, long after the manager is gone. This can go horribly wrong (See, history of monarchies) but the desire to have a lasting impact generally helps people think on longer term cycles and pay attention to wider trends short term managers do not notice.
  6. Long term sense of reward. Many of the mistakes managers make involve reaping short term rewards at the expense of long term loyalty and morale. Any leader who inverts this philosophy, and makes short term sacrifices to provide long term gains, will generally be a much better manager. They recognize the value of taking the time to explain things, to build trust, to provide training, and to build relationships, all of which results in a kind of team performance and loyalty the short term manager never believes is possible.
  7. Practice of the golden rule. It’s funny how well known this little gem is, and how rarely in life people follow it. But I think anyone in power who believes in it, and treats all of their employees the same way they truly would want to be treated, or even better, treats employees as they actually want to be treated, will always be a decent, above average manager. A deeply moral person can’t help but do better than most people, as treating people with respect, honesty and trust are the 3 things I suspect most people wish they could get from their bosses.
  8. Self aware, including weaknesses. Great leaders know what they are bad at, and either work on those skills or hire people they know make up for their own weaknesses, and empower them to do so. This self-awareness makes them open to feedback and creates an example for movement in how people should be growing and learning about new things. The challenge is it seems self-awareness is hard to learn.
  9. Sets tone of healthy debate and criticism. If the boss gives and takes feedback well, everyone else will too. If the boss is defensive, passive-aggressive, plays favorites, or does other things that work against the best idea winning, everyone else will play these destructive games. Only a boss who sees their own behavior as a model the rest of the organization will tend to follow can ever become a truly great manager. Without this, they will always wonder why the team behaves in certain unproductive ways that are strangely familiar.
  10. Willing to fight, but picks their battles. Great managers are not cowards. They are willing to stake their reputation and make big bets now and then (I’d say at least once a year, as a totally random, put possibly useful stake in the ground). However they are not crazy either. They are good at doing political math and seeing which battle is worth the fight at a given time. A manager that never fights can never be great – they will never have enough skin in the game to earn the deepest level of respect of the people that work for them. But a manager that always fights is much worse. They continually put their own ego ahead of what their team is capable of.
  11. (Bonus!) Instinctively corrects bad behavior within their team. True story: on a new team I once saw a mid level manager make a personal attack of a junior employee in front of the VP. I looked at the VP, expecting him to jump in. He did nothing. Not a thing. Message to team? It’s ok to pick on people if you outrank them. Micromanaging is never good, but correcting destructive behavior, is always appropriate even if you have to jump levels to do it (Sure, perhaps there was an offline conversation. But something like this was so egregious it should have been corrected on the spot). Nothing builds morale and respect faster than a manager who jumps in to the fray to defend someone who is being picked on by a bully, except perhaps a manager who gets rid of the bully altogether.

Also see: Advice for new managers (A popular essay)

What did I miss? Think of the last great manager you had and what traits you’d add to the above.

50 Responses to “Top ten reasons managers become great”

  1. Dwayne Phillips

    I believe that Self-Aware is the most important item. If I am aware of myself and what I am doing, I can do all the other things better.

    It is this struggle to see myself as other people are seeing me that plagues me and most people I know.

    I highly recommend the writings and teachings of Jerry Weinberg in this area.

  2. Oliver Ruehl

    Great read.
    Its about time I comment on one of my favourite blogs (besides FAIL! ha ha)

    I’m from Europe (Germany) and i need to send this list around ;-)

    It boggles my mind that i find most of the qualities listed only in the “normal” employees that work with me — NOT the managers. Hmm… pretty sad actually.

    Many managers demand specific qualities of their employees – but usually managers don’t possess these qualities themselves…

    How can that be changed?


    P.S. I like your cynical style. Hey, I’m German :)

  3. Gary

    I would add couple of points

    Sometimes it’s important for individuals and teams to learn from their mistakes. If the manager constantly steps in just as disaster is about to strike then the team will never gain the scars that eventually heal into experience.

    And just like the poem Footprints, a good manager knows when to carry their team without anyone ever knowing or suspecting it.

    ‘During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you’.

    In other words a good manager knows when and when not to get involved.

  4. Scott

    Oliver: it’s hard not to run aground in the “why do we expect managers to be different than regular people” idea. I agree. Sure. If I was picking a teammate or a housemate, I’d want many of these same qualities too.

    And of course, I entirely left out competence. I mean, you do want your boss to be good at the thing he’s managing you to do. Maybe not as good as you are, but he should know some things you don’t, or have useful experiences you don’t have.

  5. Tim

    Excellently done.

    Last week, out of frustration, I started to work on a much more specific, more practical set of rules. Here are some selections:

    1. Answer every email. It’s just polite, let’s people know that you’ve heard them, and leaves open the possibility that you’re not just blowing them off.

    2. Do what you say you’re going to do. If you can’t, let the appropriate people know that you can’t and when you plan to get back to it.

    3. Avoid sudden policy changes, or sudden and unexpected enforcement of previously unenforced policies. If you must suddenly change policies, talk directly to the people who will be affected. Don’t have some underling contact them to deliver the news. And don’t call your sudden policy change a “misunderstanding.”

  6. Scott

    Hi Tim: I particularly like #2. It’s a golden rule kind of thing. Mean what you say and say what you mean. And if you fail to do what you say, apologize.

    For awhile I had an entire bullet for apologizing, but had to cut it to get back down to 11 :(

  7. Cedar

    This also applies pretty well to great teachers (who do, after all, manage a team of people working on their own learning).

  8. Jason Alba

    I like the list… wish my old boss had it posted on his wall! One I would add, which is one I tried to practice, was to always work on helping my team members move on to better opportunities. If I could not provide the best career-growth opportunity for an individual, and they found something else, I had to be their biggest support as them moved on. Kind of hard to practice when you are losing an A-player but it is the right thing to do!

    Jason Alba
    Creator – “LinkedIn for Job Seekers” DVD

  9. Shoun of the Dead

    u forgot one really main, right now i am sitting in the office taking a few moments off to read this blog…my point is wat about a boss who values the time of the subordinates and not call them at odd times to come to work, regardless of the personal times of the employees??

  10. Bob

    Those are great points. Although, that doesn’t sound like any manager I’ve ever had or encountered. Most have just been out for themselves. Once they get into a mgmt position, they will do anything to stay there. They are never wrong. They definitely don’t listen to new ideas and when they do, they pass them off as their own. Their management thinks they are some sort of a golden child when all they’re really good at is kissing up!

    I do agree that those are all great management qualities, it’s just extremely rare that you see those in the real world.

    1. Blake

      That is unfortunate that you have never experienced a good manager or leader. I feel that a lot of our bad managers were never individual contributors. I started very low within my company and worked my way up to a management position and I will say that I learned more from my bad managers on how NOT to be as a leader.

      It is hard to be courageous and support your team. Stepping in when people higher in the org are mistreating individuals on the team or threatening them to get their work done first are things that I have had to step in and try to fix. It is scary, especially since from a hierarchical standpoint I am lower on the chart.

  11. Kelvin

    A great article, well-reasoned article but you compared employees to… raceshorses. Really?

    1. Mr Ed


      A racehorse that cost millions that recieves the greatest nurturing, food, healthcare and training that money has to offer. I being that, unlike so many peers, will likely reach it’s full potential. A winner. a success.

      Not bad for an analogy.

  12. cyncialrealist

    The most important is “Works within an organizational culture that allows a positive environment to take root and grow.”

    When you work in a larger organizational culture/climate that is toxic, the efforts of one are typically thwarted by the many. You can control what is within your control, you cannot set a tone for healthy debate in a culture that feels the very concept of ‘debate’ is unhealthy.

    Plant the seed in healthy soil because it cannot grow on rocks.

  13. Scott

    Kelvin: Yeah, I know. I thought about it for awhile and as poorly treated as horses or even livestock might be, from at least one perspective they can be treated better than some employees – their owners study how to get as much value from them as possible and invest in making that happen.

    So I’m not suggesting to go read “How to treat your employees like horses” or anything.

    And of course, if you consider that a successful racehorse spends only a few years racing and the rest of his life siring/breeding… Not too shabby.

  14. Kim

    There are two things that I think make a good manager.

    The first is that a manager has a reponsibility to both the company and his subordinates and a good manager ensures a good balance between the two. Too often a manager is too company centric. On the other hand a manager should not be manipulated by his subordinates.

    The second is that a good manager makes decisions. Too many managers avoid making decisions. Even the odd bad decision is better than no decision.

  15. Bijan Mohanty

    We can add one more trait that make managers great i.e to lead from the front in times of prosperty and also in Crisis . Greatness of a manager becomes more visible when he leads the team against all odds and protects them even at his own cost .

  16. Bijan Mohanty

    We can add one more trait that make managers great i.e the ability to lead from the front in times of prosperty as well as adversity . It is specifically during adversity that the greatness comes to the fore when he leads and protects the team against all odds .

  17. Lynn M

    These are excellent! One thing I’ve always appreciated in managers, but also co-workers, teachers, and friends is CONSISTENCY. If your employees know what to expect from you, they will feel more secure in their own job and more willing to communicate with you. People don’t like having to be on their toes trying to guess which personality they are going to have to face each day when it comes to a manager. Be consistent in your attitude, your expectations, and how you handle issues.

  18. Scott

    A resource that coincides with the list…

    Book: Dropping Almonds
    Author: Bach Anon
    Premise: Analysis of a company through the eyes of an executive. You might be surprised at the actions and outcome of Bach’s 2+ years as an executive

    Subtitle: All that work for so little return

  19. Dee Fleming

    Related to many on your list – but worth calling out: Back up your team – don’t throw them under the bus to save your own butt. Assuming the boss and team have discussed the position and/or proposal — there is just no good excuse for ditching the agreement at the crucial moment, just because the boss senses it is not necessarily the popular opinion in the room. This is one of the worst things a Manager can do. From that moment forward, trust and respect disappear from the team…

  20. Don

    Good list and a number of good comments. I would like to see two additional thoughts explored:
    1) The list appears to assume a “steady state” of the business. Given current worldwide economic upheaval, many businesses (and their business model) will fail, and hence impact a team’s operations and environment. What attributes must a manager exhibit to anticipate and communicate significant changes? Maybe it is a combination of your existing points trust and courage to innovate.
    2) Given next gen use of social networking tools, where traditional command and control management systems are less relevant, what attribute should a manager have to best harness that energy?

  21. Richard Hamilton

    I like the idea that succession planning isn’t just looking for someone to replace you, but is in fact preparing your team to carry on even if they get a not-so-great manager, an overworked manager (e.g., merged teams), or no manager at all.

    Thanks for the excellent article.

  22. Sharon Nani

    Great article, interesting comments, but the thing that inspires me to write is the concluding phrase in the footer: “…joy is free and recommended.” So true. I love it!

  23. Justin

    Great post! Numbers 1 and 10 really resonate with me- I’ve had a lot of bosses not really want to help me grow, which makes the ones that do take active interest much more influential on how hard I work for them.

  24. Tony Paulik

    Everybody wonders where you are when you’re gone. Must be a sign that people think your great!

  25. mohammad ali abdolazimi

    Great !
    I think we have to care that creativity and idea-making would be too important for all managers , especially the top ones.
    it is highly recommended to have a special notice on that..

  26. waheed

    self aware and enjoying helping people grow with new ideas are the key points for a good manager.

    1. philip-adewunm

      Thank you for the write up would make a very impact in lives of people who read and willing to be truthful to themselves of what is expected of a great Manager.

  27. Tahir Saleem

    I am just about to start my first management position. My mother who is 78 and only has primary level education advised me as follows:
    RESPECT your staff as you respect your mother and father. They do not have to earn any respect, it is a given because they leave their loved ones each morning to come to work. Be HONEST with your staff as you are honest with your wife. If you lie, they will find out just like your wife. Show COMPASSION to your staff when things go wrong just like you showed compassion to your children when they were young. Your new team is your family and just like any family there will be weakness and strength. Nobody can be perfect but if you as a manager can bring together the strengths then you can have a perfect team. Respect, honesty, compassion…is there any doubt that your team will not do its best under such an environment? Thanks mum.

  28. Maria

    Thanks for sharing this post with us.



  1. Scott Berkun’s Top 10 Reasons Managers Become Great or Not…

    Over the past few month’s Scott Berkun has written several interesting posts about leadership for his always blog on “management and creative thinking.”
    SHARETHIS.addEntry({ title: “”, url: “” });……

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