Why so many managers are mediocre or bad: They weren’t promoted because they are good leaders

This has been a recurring observation, repeated by different individuals in different circles, in person and online: So many people who are in positions of authority were put there for reasons other than their leadership ability.

Good at this, but not necessarily at that

They may have been named to the job because they were very good at what they did: A managing partner of a law firm who was a first-rate trial lawyer. A nurse supervisor who was an excellent ER nurse. A dean who was an inspiring professor.  A foreperson who was a highly productive shop floor worker. A coach who was a standout player.

Unfortunately, what they did well often has little to do with the skill set needed in their new leadership positions. Many of these folks crash and burn, or simply bumble along, because they were ill-prepared for the job ahead and didn’t quite understand the human side of their new responsibilities.

No threat to the puppet masters

Others may have been promoted because the folks who put them there didn’t want a good leader. Instead, they sought a feckless crony, puppet, or weakling they knew they could control. As writer William Deresiewicz said in his superb speech about leaders and leadership to West Point cadets:

Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole.

(Go here for the full speech and here for my blog post commenting on it.)

Leadership 101 training

For those who have the personal qualities to be effective leaders but lack the background and experience, leadership and management training programs emphasizing the so-called “soft skills” would help sensitize them to the human aspects of their jobs.

In fact, it’s arguable that basic management training should be part of all professional degree programs, such as medicine, education, law, and business. This initial exposure can be augmented by continuing education offerings for those elevated to leadership positions.

Nevertheless, if someone plainly lacks the personal qualities to be a good leader (e.g., the crony, puppet, or weakling), then all the training in the world likely won’t make much of a difference. That person will fold like an accordion when it’s time to make a tough, principled decision.

In any event, until promotions to leadership and management positions are based upon, duh, leadership and management skills, too many organizations will fall well short of reaching their potential and building an engaged, high-morale workforce.

8 responses

  1. Hi Dave, great post and an excellent topic. When I have observed people get promoted up the “greasy pole,” many of the promotions were a result of favors being given to friends and buddies that were pushing for the candidate.

    One of the most recent incidents validating your point was that of a soft skills moron who was connected to the political establishment in our city. Because of his connections – not his skills – he was promoted, and he created absolute havoc inside the organization. He did not have a stellar background, all he had was connections from on high.

    Organizations should vigorously test leadership candidates for the soft skills. Soft skills build rock solid companies.

    Your friend,

    Kevin Kennemer
    The People Group

    • Kevin, oh yes, the world of political appointments! As a Boston resident, I can say you’re definitely preaching to the converted! 🙂

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. David,

    Thank you for the excellent post.

    To combat this problem I recommend that we institute a national labeling system for employers, much like the Nutrition Facts label that appears on most food items. This system would allow job seekers and employees to choose employers with healthy management cultures. It would also severely sanction employers with bad management cultures by driving up their salary and employee turnover costs.

    I elaborate on how this system could be implement cheaply and quickly at the following post:


  3. Agree 100%. Am in a situation currently that is a direct reflection of what is described and my current boss has even said she’s not a good manager/doesn’t like managing people.

    Unfortunately, we are a 2 person department…

  4. I’ve had bully bosses and what really bothers me is the general lack of empathy about it, as though it is just something you are supposed to tolerate as a “grownup”,

    ….or the old “at least you *have* a job” thing. (ok so using that rationale, what if the unemployment rate goes up? will we all become so desperate that we tolerate, say, public beatings to keep our jobs?)

    • Ha ha! Had to laugh because the public beatings happen to me everyday! You should have been to the one in a Cracker Barrel on Monday! You would have loved that one.
      I may have a job but I can get another, even in this economy.

  5. related to “well, at least you have a job” on the last post, yes!

    this is especially apparent when the organization adopts a mission and vision that is in opposition (from a culture perspective) to honoring and valuing employee feedback. and, let us not forget the “awards” these organizations pursue and often achieve!

    don’t get me wrong – i appreciate being valued, but my days of accepting at face value (believing), that an organization who markets its’ quality and loyalty to employees based upon the awards received is over. my current employer may make the effort to recognize employees at the 11 thousand foot view, but my confidence related to its’ ability to manage leaders who are in positions of authority with little to no competence is has faded. it is at this very basic level (the 1:1 interaction b/t a subordinate and boss) that is the most problematic, the least recognized as an issue AND the most ignored.

    while organizations may be able to produce a paper trail reflecting success with strategic goals, this type of “insidious intimidation” MUST be dealt with if genuine success it to be achieved. the isolated and honest subordinates out there (not fearful of retaliation and/or willing to take the risk), are few and far between. why are their only options continued toleration of bullying, transferring to a different position within the same organization, or seeking out employment at a different organization?

  6. This indeed is the reality of today’s work environments. It would be a great idea to post which companies are abusive to their employees and which treat their employees with dignity. I think we’re at a point where we could sway one way or the other quite quickly. Acceptance… or zero tolerance for abusive work environments.

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