Response Crafting

Being a great manager starts with managing yourself

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Recently finished “On Managing Yourself” (one of Harvard Business Review’s “10 Must Reads.”) Here, a short summary of each of the eleven articles.

How Will You Measure Your Life?

It’s startling how little time most individuals spend thinking about the purpose of their lives. By contrast, some of the greatest people have spent considerable time thinking about their purpose – some as much as an hour a day, for years – and look back on that dedication as one of the most critical uses of their time – far more invaluable to their career that industry research, technological advancements, or market changes.

“If you’re not guided by a clear sense of purpose, you’re likely to fritter away your time and energy on obtaining the most tangible, short-term signs of achievement, not what’s really important to you.”

“The powerful motivator in our lives isn’t money; it’s the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements.”

“Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.”

Managing Oneself

Though the influence and support of a mentor is invaluable, history’s great achievers have ultimately always managed themselves. Our greatness and success is our own responsibility. And in order to achieve greatness, we must identify and understand a.) our own strengths, b.) how we learn, c.) whether we function as decision makers or advisors (rarely both), and d.) what our values are.

With regard to each of these areas, it is important that you “do not try to change yourself… Work hard to improve the way you perform. And try not to take on work you cannot perform or will only perform poorly.”

It’s equally important that we find an area in which these areas can thrive – “to work in an organization whose value system is unacceptable or incompatible with one’s own condemns a person both to frustration and to nonperformance.”

But we can’t expect the organization to define our values – we must first define them for ourselves, and then find a space that supports and strengthens them. (In one debate on acquiring new church members, one pastor said, “Unless you first come to church, you will never find the gate to Kingdom of Heaven.” Another pastor argued, “No. Until you first look for the gate to the Kingdom of Heaven, you don’t belong in church.”)

And as a manager, you must not only know and understand your own, but those of your team – and perhaps your client – as well. Success is not planned. It develops when “people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work, and their values.”

Management Time: Who’s Got the Monkey?

This was the only article with which I disagreed on many points.

The central discussion here is around the phenomenon of an employee “re-assigning” tasks or responsibilities back “up” to a manager (with the metaphor of “monkey” being the tasks or responsibilities.) An employee stops his or her manager and asks about a problem; the manager replies that he or she needs time to think about it, and the two parties part ways with that, effectively leaving the problem now with the manager. “You’ve now allowed a ‘monkey’ to leap from your subordinate’s back to yours… take on enough monkeys, and you won’t have time to handle your real job.”

Some things here I agree with. The most valid part of the argument to leave the monkey with subordinates is in order to empower them – to encourage him or her to recommend a solution and, if applicable, take action him or herself. If necessary, a manager can offer support and guidance in the process, but ultimately I think there’s a lot of merit in mentoring and supporting people, especially by way of empowering them to reach their own greatness. (As an aside, I also think that there’s some merit to dedicating a manager’s time and attention to other tasks. But mostly, I think a manager has no other core task than leading a team to an objective, and this is how that’s done in the longterm.)

And so, while I do agree with that point, there are far more things I disagree with here, some of them critical counter-points:

First: a subordinate’s tasks should not be considered “below” a manager’s role – a manager should empower employees and transfer tasks accordingly, but he or she should also be ready to roll up their sleeves and make the team’s problems their own. Stopping in a hallway to talk to a subordinate about a task – or even taking it, if necessary – does not make you a lesser manager. On the contrary, it makes you a better one – if done in the right way.

Similarly: the article states that when the monkey jumps from subordinate to manager, as a manager, “you’re now working for your subordinate.” This statement reeks of hierarchy and, frankly, it’s grossly archaic and outdated. The assignment of tasks does not dictate superiority, and the owner of the task is not somehow inferior to the person from whom it’s assigned. The notion that the transfer of tasks defines rank is disgusting. I will happily be “tasked” by a subordinate, if I agree that the task will help our team reach its objective and my doing it makes sense.

And lastly: the article argues that a manager’s job is “fulfilling the boss’s mandates and helping peers generate business results.” Really? Pleasing the boss and helping peers? Who’s the subordinate now? Not only does this objective directly contradict what most of the other articles here say, but, more importantly, it sharply contradicts my own perspective. A manager’s primary job is not to help his or her peers, and, even moreso, it most certainly is not to please the boss. A great manager serves the company, the product, the team, and the business objectives – and that means helping the team on a day to day business – and sometimes this is done independently of the boss’s tried and true process.

How Resilience Works

Resilience is incredibly invaluable. “More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics, and it’s true in the boardroom.”

A few key areas of resilience:

  • Face down reality – avoid avoiding hardship
  • Search for meaning – when hard times strike, resist any impulse to view yourself as a victim and cry, “why me?” Rather, create meaning from the suffering.
  • Continually improvise – make the most of what you have

Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time

Today, we are increasingly pressured to work more and more hours, dedicating more and more of our lives to our work (and really, our employers.) The problem, however, with working longer hours is that time is a finite resource. Energy, on the other hand, is effectively renewable, and can be derived from four primary areas: body, emotions, mind and spirit.

The last of these is the most abstract, the one in which I am most interested, and the one that I find the most important – if for no other reason, that body and emotions and mind can be corrected in the short term, but the human spirit can fall into disrepair that can steep for years unnoticed. “People tap into the energy of the human spirit when their everyday work and activities are consistent with what they value most and with what gives them a sense of meaning and purpose.” If our work really matters to us, it generates energy and focus.

To access the energy of the human spirit, people need to clarify priorities and establish accompanying rituals in three categories:

  • Doing what they do best and enjoy most at work
  • Consciously allocating time and energy to the areas of their lives – work, family, health, service to others – they deem most important
  • And living their core values in their daily behaviors

“Practicing your core values in your everyday behavior is a challenge for many. Most people are living at such a furious pace that they rarely stop to ask themselves what they stand for and who they want to be. As a consequence, they let external demands dictate their actions.”

Greatness isn’t about working more or working harder or even working smarter… unless “smarter” is defined as understanding and working within one’s values, and designing a life in which our energy sources are renewable, and our focus and engagement is renewed with our day to day activities.

Overloaded Circuits

Many of us are routinely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stimuli and input in our lives, and it channels itself in impatience, irritation, and lack of focus. To combat this, we should build lives with less distraction and more opportunity for engagement, by giving each moment our full attention, and protecting ourselves against superfluous stimuli.

Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life

In order to lead a richer life, we must define and then operate in accordance with our values. First, articulate who and what matters most in your life – this depends largely on regular self-reflection and introspection. Second, improve by experimenting with small changes that enhance your happiness in four domains: self, home, work, and community.

“Experiments” or steps we can take to do this:

  • Tracking and reflecting – increasing self awareness by keeping a record of activities, thoughts, feelings to assess progress.
  • Planning and organizing – making better use of time, preparing and planning for the future
  • Rejuvenating and restoring – attending to body, mind and spirit so that tasks are undertaken with renewal
  • Appreciating and caring – having fun, bonding, building relationships
  • Focusing and concentrating – being physically and psychologically present in the moment
  • Revealing and engaging – sharing more of ourselves and listening
  • Time shifting and “re-placing” – adjusting work structure to improve efficiency
  • Delegating and developing – shifting ownership of tasks
  • Exploring and venturing – taking proactive steps toward change, improvement and progress

Reclaim Your Job

This article has an odd title, because it’s not really about “reclaiming” your job. It’s really about stepping outside of it – disregarding the boundaries of what you’re told is “your work,” rejecting any rules that don’t make sense, and aligning yourself with higher motives – namely, fostering your own values, judgment and strategy, and working around anything that challenges it – particularly orders from above. “What gets in the way of managers’ success is… a deep uncertainty about acting according to their own best judgment.”

“By following what they believe are strict orders from the top, many typical managers tend to concentrate on working within budget and resource constraints – thereby developing a boxed-in, “can’t-do” mind-set. By contrast, effective managers develop inventive strategies for circumventing real or imagined limitations. They make out ways around constraints by developing and acting on long-term strategies, making trade-offs, and occasionally breaking rules to achieve their goals.”

“Average managers don’t have enough perspective on the company’s overall business strategy to present an alternative view. Effective managers, by contrast, develop and use deep expertise.”

And it’s important to understand that an organization will not inspire this. In fact, it’s very often against their best interest to do so – organizations fundamentally want employees. They need people to carry out the work than strategize, and much of their defined “career growth” will follow this methodology. “Some organizational cultures that tout ’empowerment’ actually discourage volition among their managers.” They define structure and strategy, and they need people to follow suit for it to work. If we strive to actually be great – not only as managers (our roles; our titles) but in our lives – we must foster the courage and confidence to reject the boundaries and limitations defined by our organizations; to reject these restrictions, accept criticism, and act without fear.

“Managers who fret about conforming to the explicit or imagined expectations of others respond to emergencies (a loss of structure) by becoming disoriented and paralyzed.” They look to others for answers that aren’t found, and flail in the absence of guidance. They limit themselves to rules – even in the absence of explicit guidelines, they will imagine and hold themselves to limitations. “Effective managers, by contrast, seize the opportunity.” When we develop our own values and work to defend them, we operate with excellence.

Moments of Greatness: Entering the Fundamental State of Leadership

“When leaders do their best work, they don’t copy anyone else. Instead, they draw on their own fundamental values and capabilities – operating in a frame of mind that is true to them yet, paradoxically, not their normal state of being.”

If we make decisions not to meet others’ expectations but to suit what you instinctively understood to be right.

  • Move from comfort centered to results centered – Define the outcome (the “what”) and relinquish the conventional methods (the “how”), hold yourself and others to high standards in achieving them, initiate new action, challenge people, disrupt the status quo, engage in urgency, and venture beyond familiar territory to pursue ambitious new outcomes.
  • Move from externally directed to internally directed – Rather than complying with others’ expectations and conforming to the current culture, we clarify our core values and operate in accordance with those above all else. This increases our integrity, confidence, and authenticity.  We lead with certainty, authenticity, and courage.
  • Move from self-focused to focused on others – Put the needs of the organization (or project, or team) as a whole above our own.
  • Become more externally open – Accommodate outside signals or stimuli, including those that require us to do things we are not comfortable doing, invite feedback, find comfort with and move toward uncertainty, pursue new opportunities, and engage creatively.

“As we become more confident and more authentic, we behave differently… some people will be attracted to it, and some will be offended by it. That’s not prohibitive, though: When we are true to our values, we are willing to initiate such conflict.”

What to Ask the Person in the Mirror

Questions to ask:

  • How often do I communicate a vision and key priorities to achieve that vision?
  • Does the way I spend my time match my key priorities?
  • Do I give people timely and direct feedback they can act on?
  • Have I identified potential successors?
  • Am I attuned to business changes that may require shifts in how we run the company?
  • How do I behave under pressure?
  • Does my leadership style reflect who I really am?

Primal Leadership: The Hidden Driver of Great Performance

“Primal” leadership means to lead by managing one’s emotions. “A leader’s premier task – we would even say his primal task – is emotional leadership. A leader needs to make sure that not only is he regularly in an optimistic, authentic, high-energy mood, but also that, through his chosen actions, his followers feel and act that way, too. Managing for financial results, then, begins with the leader managing his inner life so that the right emotional and behavioral chain reaction occurs.” When there’s an emergency or a crisis, it is the leader’s job to remain calm and composed; to make clear-headed decisions and communicate guidance effectively.

Strengthening your emotional leadership means asking yourself: who you want to be, who you are now, how you plan to develop accordingly, how you plan to maintain that change, and who can help. Leading with effective emotional management means being self-aware, managing the self, exercising social awareness, and managing relationships.


A group of Pakistani soldiers carry their guns uphill along the K2 base camp trek in the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan


One thought on “Being a great manager starts with managing yourself

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