Authentic leadership is about getting in the trenches with our teams

Here’s an interesting take by Sheril Mathews on why people often don’t trust their managers, or find them inauthentic:

Managers don’t come across as authentic because more often than not they don’t have an intimate understanding of the day to day realities of how their teams actually get work done.

Sheril goes on to discuss some some great advice on how to show up for our teams in authentic ways (spoiler: it’s about getting our hands dirty in the trenches). But I also wanted to share this 1973 (!!!) quote from Henry Mintzberg in The Nature of Managerial Work, because it really stopped me in my tracks:

The prime occupational hazard of the manager is superficiality. Because of the open-ended nature of the job and because of the responsibility for information processing and strategy-making, the manager is induced to take on a heavy load of work, and to do much of it superficially.

Hence the job of managing does not develop reflective planners; rather it breeds adaptive information manipulators who prefer a stimulus-response milieu.

Sheril’s article—and that quote—is inspiring me to take a real hard look at my own work, and where there could be opportunities to weed out the “superficiality”.

This is a bit of an addendum that I think is valuable enough to add here. I shared the above Mintzberg quote among some friends and the discussion ended up being really interesting. Vince pointed out that as for the assertion that superficiality is an inevitable outcome of management, he prefers Russell Ackoff’s take from 6 years later. Here’s what he said in 1979:

Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consists of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis; they are to messes as atoms are to tables and charts … Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes.

Pete (who I’ve been begging to start a blog, please go yell at him as well) also went the less cynical route with his comments:

As you move up the levels of a company, you move to higher levels of abstraction. Every level takes the output of the level below, and distills and summarises it, passing it up. It also takes direction from above and tries to nudge the processes below in that direction.

I think that’s the just way it is, the way it has to be. I can’t think of any examples where a different model has been applied successfully at scale.

The key to this working successfully though is to make sure that information is correctly analysed, distilled, summarised and communicated at every level.

The problem with superficiality is not abstraction. It’s dillution. If you throw away the good parts and keep the wrong parts when summarising, the system starts fraying. And you’re setting those above you up for making the wrong decisions, and thus setting up those below you for failure.