I am often asked how one recognizes a really great manager. Well, in almost all of the articles I have included in the site, I have addressed some form of behavior that tends to separate certain managers from the pack. But there is something else — hard to precisely describe — that makes certain managers the ones we refer to as authentic, the real deal, the genuine article, or somebody where what you see is what you get. These are the ones that readily come to mind when we are asked to name a manager in our experience we would gladly work for anytime, anywhere.
For many years I have thought about what exactly lies at the core of these outstanding managers, that certain something that transcends what they actually do and do not do on a daily basis. My conclusion: it’s, above all else, the fact that their commitments, pledges, and promises mean something. That is, you can rely on and depend upon them to do as they say. They are predictable and therefore they instill confidence and trust in their subordinates, and a willingness to follow their lead.
In the middle ages this quality was part of what was called chivalry — the qualities of an ideal knight — and it was a much admired and respected trait. In today’s managerial world I believe it remains a signature quality that separates the very best managers from others.
It is easy to admire the manager who remains true to his or her commitments because we recognize how difficult it can be to do so from time to time. It takes discipline, unselfishness, an occasional willingness to place the good of others above our own perceived self-interest, and self-sacrifice. Moreover, because it is so easy for we humans to rationalize our way to a justification for breaking a promise or pledge, we understand how difficult it can be to avoid the temptation to do so.
Being true to your commitments as a manager is not much of a challenge when they are popular and you have broad support among your subordinates for doing so. But when one of your commitments or something you have promised is, for whatever reason, something you would now like to avoid, one has to choose between two competing philosophies: “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” or “when the going gets tough, cut out”. That it is often easy to find plenty of examples in one’s organization of managers who adopt the latter course, does not make it an adequate excuse.
I have referred to the concept of defining characteristics for managers elsewhere in this series of articles. They are traits you alone control. Having your commitments mean something in the eyes of your subordinates is, I believe, one of the most important defining quality you can have. As a manager you often ask a great deal of your subordinates, frequently asking them to trust you, have faith in your judgment, and to join you as you venture forth into changing and uncharted waters. Knowing that they can rely on your word and that you will be there for them when needed is a powerful reason for them to follow your lead.
But, you might ask, what does one do when circumstances have changed and keeping a commitment or promise no longer makes sense for you or your subordinates? Then it is time to discuss the situation with your subordinates and to trust they will understand the need for a course change. This is not breaking a commitment. Rather it is respecting the intelligence and adaptability of those you ask to follow you. Believe me, your subordinates do not wish you to be foolish. They just want you to be open, honest, and dependable.