Are Good Managers Born Or Made? by [email protected]
For many an ambitious worker, the measure of success lies just ahead in a path toward management. Career arcs in a wide variety of sectors are simply built that way, and sooner or later the serious-minded employee finds him or herself champing at the bit to be a leader. “For those who are front-line employees thinking about a long-term future, the question of whether to go into management, whether it is good for you and for others, and figuring out whether you have the temperament to master it, is a career issue that many people are trying to answer,” says Michael Useem, Wharton management professor and director of Wharton’s Center for Leadership and Change Management.
And yet, not everyone is cut out for a role that requires setting aside doing the work of the firm in favor of empowering others to do the work. But can anyone, with enough desire and proper training, become a manager? In other words, are good managers born or made? “This is a question as old as management, and we have lost a lot of wisdom about it in practice along the way because cost-cutting trumped all other concerns,” says Peter Cappelli, Wharton management professor and director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources.
The easiest approach, and some might say the most meritocratic, Cappelli notes, is to give the management role to the best performer in the role below — a management theory popularly known as the Peter Principle. “The problem is that … the competitiveness to win that often makes [an individual] the best performer is directly at odds with the requirements of managing other people and trying to get them to succeed,” he points out. “As in sports, where a lot of our lessons for business seem to come from, the best individual performers don’t necessarily make the best coaches.”
Unfortunately, even in the modern business world, becoming the office equivalent of a coach is what many workers are conditioned to aspire to, even if it’s not the best fit for them — or their would-be underlings. “We still have a pretty conventional view of the organization today, even though we have thought a lot about flatter organizations and more employee engagement,” says Virginia J. Vanderslice, founding partner and president of Praxis Consulting Group in Philadelphia and an adjunct faculty member at the University of Pennsylvania’s Organizational Dynamics program. “In this country, we’re pretty traditional in our view of what success looks like, and I don’t mean that as just inside the firm. As individuals, we think success looks like a bigger title and more money, and even in school we need to start shifting how we think about these things.”
You’re So Vain
[drizzle]Narcissism is often cited as the major personality hurdle standing between the desire to be a good manager and actually being one, and several studies show that the trait is on the rise. One nationwide meta-analysis and an examination of data within one campus demonstrated significant increases in American college students’ narcissistic traits over the generations, according to Jean M. Twenge and Joshua D. Foster in “Birth Cohort Increases in Narcissistic Personality Traits Among American College Students, 1982–2009,” published in Social Psychological & Personality Science.
“As in sports, where a lot of our lessons for business seem to come from, the best individual performers don’t necessarily make the best coaches.” –Peter Cappelli
“The larger cultural changes in parenting, education, family life, and the media toward greater individualism have apparently affected the personality traits of individuals,” they write. The nationwide meta-analysis shows that the increases are a little more than one third of a standard deviation over one generation. These results were, rather strikingly, consistent with a large epidemiological study on narcissistic personality disorder, the more severe, clinical form of the trait, the study notes.
Narcissism can cut both ways in an organization. Sometimes, and for some employees, a narcissistic leader comes across as inspirational. Several studies, however, show that such leaders are more likely to commit transgressions of integrity, and to leave unhappy employees and destructive workplaces in their wake. “The difference between having healthy levels of self-confidence and self-esteem, which are appealing and useful qualities for leaders, and being narcissistic is that narcissists have an elevated sense of self-worth such that they value themselves as inherently better than others,” write Charles A. O’Reilly III, Bernadette Doerr, David F. Caldwell and Jennifer A. Chatman in “Narcissistic CEOs and Executive Compensation,” published in The Leadership Quarterly. “That said, the difference between those who are self-confident and those who are narcissistic is often difficult to detect.”
A ‘Deep Sense’ of Personal Security
Tests such as the Hogan Personality Assessments can be helpful in identifying employees with the kinds of qualities that might predict a good leader. Leadership can be learned, Vanderslice notes. “But my conclusion after 40 years of working with leaders is that there are a few core qualities that a person comes with that are the harder things to strengthen,” she says. “Not impossible, but really challenging. And the big one for me is a personal, deep level of self confidence. And by that I don’t mean, ‘Hey, I can beat my chest because I’m so good.’ I mean real self confidence — a deep sense of personal security. If someone doesn’t have that, they are not going to be invested in others because they are too worried about themselves.”
So can any worker learn to become a manager if he or she wants it enough? “In principle, yes,” says Useem. “Most people in my experience can master what it takes to manage people. But I think we don’t appreciate how difficult that mastery is. Learning to manage others requires a very significant commitment, just like learning to play the piano or becoming a technical expert.” One way to think about how the average group breaks down in terms of being management timber: “A significant fraction is temperamentally ready to try out a managerial role if offered, another segment is likely to be indifferent, and a third sub-group would have no interest whatsoever,” says Useem.
“It is certainly possible for people to learn how to be good managers, but those who are not disposed to work with and through others are never going to be as good at it,” adds Cappelli. “If we don’t do training, and business is much less inclined to do so these days, and we appoint the best individual performers, we are bound to have problems.”
Part of the equation, Useem notes, is figuring out why someone wants to be a manager. Useem recalls hearing former Mexican President Felipe Calderón speak about why he decided to make the journey from community organizer to national leader. “As an organizer early in his career, he was working with people in a neighborhood to demand better services, but after a while he said, ‘I’m helping to improve the lives of hundreds, but if I am willing to play a national role, I could affect millions.’”
Among other capabilities needed to make a good manager, Useem lists “a willingness to work with ambiguity, uncertainty and unpredictability. If you want everything to be at right angles, that’s probably not the mindset you