What is a manager?

A good manager is someone who takes decisions that carry cost before the right decisions become obvious.

Anyone can take precautions if they have zero cost, of if they appear to have zero marginal cost. There is therefore a tendency to reduce the marginal cost of various precautions, processes, regular forums, documents, and the like by turning them into a running waste. That’s an attempt to make management easier, or more precisely to make bad management less distinguishable from good while sacrificing any efficiency.

Also, any vaguely competent functionary or committee can make tough decisions once the costs and benefits are unequivocally obvious. I once had a manager who, when faced with any important decision, asked his reports to gather all relevant information and present it in a table. He would only accept analysis that made the choice obvious, which is equivalent to saying he only made decisions of zero risk and zero marginal value.

The valuable work is to take decisions that are costly now to gain benefits or avoid risks that are as yet unseen in the future. The good manager is alone, or at least needs to have peers who are above the daily affairs of their team and are able to look into the longer horizon. Effective management has to be empowered, like business, so that risks and gains can be balanced and foresight applied.

2 thoughts on “What is a manager?

  1. Hmm. There really needs to be a terminology divide between a manager and an executive. A manager is a personal assistant with punitive authority. An executive is a person who makes important decisions. These are distinct and separate roles that require notably differing skillsets, but are all too often conflated, primarily due to being based on old class-based organizing of firms. The working class and the managing class are inherently distinct and separate in such a system.

    Honestly, most middle managerial positions require very little executive decision making. Often they could be best replaced by a mixture of facilitators(rather than leaders) and a more diffuse/democratic punitive structure.

    In fact, one could argue the same for much of the executive work at the higher echelons, with firms becoming more horizontally structured, and functioning in parallel. Thus dispersing the ‘control’ style property, and the benefits(and challenges/risks) of it amongst more workers.

    Still, visionaries, idea people who have been shown to be skilled at seeing around the next corner, certainly have a value to firms. And compelling ability to inspire, to motivate, to formalize and put into words the aims and directions of a company, these are of value. And even, oft times, a final arbiter is needed, a final word on matters of import.

    But these need not all fall to the same singular individual, nor do any of them require autocratic control, nor the risks and pressures that come with, nor the ego-gratification and casual abuse of power that are natural and unavoidable consequences of pyramidal power structures(much of which is so casual, and so natural, so as not even to be culturally visible as abuse).

    This piece seems to argue in favor of more centralizing of power, authority, and of course risk. From a humanistic perspective, it is of value to decentralize authority and power, not re-centralize it. Plus, new systems arising in agile young businesses are starting to show that although some leadership roles remain essential(especially due to the short time-cycles involved in small business), decentralizing much of the decision making can be of great value.

    Most managers do not get into management due to being brilliant decision makers though. The skill they are most often best at is facilitating teamwork and productivity, and they should be allowed to perform the task to which they are best suited.

    • Interesting angle. I guess I wrote this to complain about individual managers in a traditional decision-making role who take the comfortable dead-end decision or take the hard but necessary decision too late, because they are cowardly, short-sighted, or comfort-seeking.

      Instinctively I would have thought that an individual would take the hard decision faster than a group, but you make a good point that this need not be these case. Managers may suffer from “group think” or other reality-impairing diseases more then the whole team, so a democratic system with a good facilitator may indeed take the healthy and painful action faster.

      I learned recently that in economic study the purpose of the firm is primarily seen as a device to reduce risk, especially the risk posed by individual failings of all kinds. I agree that the trend is to democratize decisions in firms for this kind of reason.


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