What Makes a Good Leader

I’ve been reading “Management” by Peter F. Drucker. It’s one of his foundational works that essentially defined management as a discipline in the early 1970’s. It’s been a great read, very insightful, and provides an impressive foreshadowing of things to come (given that it was originally published in 1974). Early on, Drucker posits his definition of what a good manager is and contrasts this to common perceptions that people have about what is a good manager.

“There is tremendous stress these days on liking people, helping people, getting along with people as qualifications for a manager. These alone are never enough. In every successful organization there are bosses who do not like people, who do not help them, and who do not get along with them. Cold, unpleasant, demanding, they often teach and develop more people than anyone else. They command more respect than the most likeable person ever could. They demand exacting workmanship of themselves and other people. They set high standards and expect that they will be lived up to. They consider only what is right and never who is right. And though often themselves persons of brilliance they never rate intellectual brilliance above integrity in others. The manager who lacks these qualities of character, no matter how likeable, helpful or amiable . no matter even how competent or brilliant is a menace unfit to be a manager.”

– Peter F. Drucker. (1974). Management.

Let me break it apart to discuss some of the points he’s making.

“There is tremendous stress these days on liking people, helping people, getting along with people as qualifications for a manager. These alone are never enough.”

The first part of the quote I think articulates a trend within our culture where a good manger is also a good friend. In my opinion, the roles are not related. In your professional life it should be possible to segment your personal life from your business life. In this I mean to say that, a good manager can be a good friend, but doesn’t have to be. A society’s humor often makes fun of cultural trends within that society. Humor takes a truth and exaggerates it. That’s what makes it funny. There is no better example of this cultural trend than that of Michael Scott, the obnoxious, oblivious and reluctant leader of the Scranton Branch of the fictional Dunder/Mifflin Paper Company. Michael Scott is a terrible manager who strives—first and foremost—to be his employees’ friend.

“In every successful organization there are bosses who do not like people, who do not help them, and who do not get along with them. Cold, unpleasant, demanding, they often teach and develop more people than anyone else.”

This reminds me of the anecdotal stories I’ve heard and read about the great tech titans of our day. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates are great examples. Both are incredibly successful. Both command respect for their role as technology visionaries and shrew businessmen within their respective organizations. Both have countless stories documenting their “anti-social” behavior at work. Cold, unpleasant, demanding, fill-in-the-blank. However, both have developed huge organizations that changed the world.

“They demand exacting workmanship of themselves and other people. They set high standards and expect that they will be lived up to.”

In the case of Steve and Bill, we also see Drucker’s definition of a good manager manifest itself as well. Steve Jobs’ and Bill Gates’ borderline irrational thirst for exceptional quality are also well documented. They had high expectations for themselves and conversely, for those that they surrounded themselves with. If there were persons that weren’t meeting the standard, they quickly found other opportunities. As the CEO of my current employer, Dinesh Paliwal, once put it “the competition needs help too”.

“They consider only what is right and never who is right. And though often themselves persons of brilliance they never rate intellectual brilliance above integrity in others.”

Good leaders don’t play favorites. That doesn’t mean that highly competent people can’t build credibility and rapport where a leader might trust their judgement over somebody else’s. However, no matter what your reputation is, you can make mistakes too. Confirmation bias is a dangerous beast and can be extremely expensive. Good leaders embrace critical thinking and build teams of critical thinkers.

“The manager who lacks these qualities of character, no matter how likeable, helpful or amiable . no matter even how competent or brilliant is a menace unfit to be a manager.”

This integrity of character is absolutely critical to be an effective manager. Does it mean you can’t be nice or pleasant or warm? No. However, without this integrity of character whose foundation is logic, reason, and rational thought one can not hope to analyze the work to be done through the sound critical thinking required to be an effective manager.

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