Philosophical pursuit of a good manager

Praveen S
Sunday, February 27, 2022

Good managers are so rare. The worst is that we still don’t know what makes a good manager. Is it the job experience that makes a good manager? However, many of them still perform well even after switching industries. Is it the level and type of business education they had? However, many of them have not gone to a business school. There have been many attempts in the past to understand the qualities of good managers, for example, Gallup had found that their characteristics are they motivate, they have the assertiveness, they create culture of accountability, they build relationships, and they make decisions based on productivity. Many of such attempts to come up with characteristics of good managers are believable, but always debatable. I would not repeat these findings in this article, but resort to explaining a philosophical answer, because they have been refined by centuries of wisdom, and hence carry more weight in the arguments. 

The philosophical answer to a good manager lies in what Ackoff calls as the path to meta-ideal. A good manager is an ideal human being with superior pursuits. Since the institutions he manages captures the meta-themes of society and they guide the life pursuits of other individuals, a good manager as a meta-ideal would be an apt one. Ackoff summarizes the pursuits of a human, from the works of ancient Greek philosophers as follows:

  1. The scientific – the pursuit of truth
  2. The political-economic –  the pursuit of power and plenty
  3. The ethical-moral –  the pursuit of goodness and virtue
  4. The aesthetic –  the pursuit of beauty

 Good managers have to be ultimate pursuers of truth. They should be objective, fact-based, and thorough. No managerial decision-making can happen in the air without factual understanding of the industry, competitors, consumers, and regulations. He has to work as a scientist, but with a narrow view of finding the truth about his organizations, and to go greater lengths in collecting and analyzing various data. His analysis is objective; he measures emotions but is not emotional while taking decisions. He develops and tracks metrics and makes others do the same. 

Good managers should also have access to resources. When everyone is eyeing valuable, rare, inimitable, non-substitutable resources, access to such resources is a political game. Good managers politically manage such access; not that they engage in office politics. They also need to ensure efficient use of such resources, which makes them ultimate economists in their own world. Thus, controlling the access to quality resources and ensuring effective use, makes the political-economic pursuit of managers a desirable characteristic. 

Relevance of ethical-moral pursuit of managers will be the most debatable part. Gellerman in his 1986 HBR article argued that good managers make bad ethical choice. However, all long surviving organizations are built on strong foundations of ethics and morality. Ability of the manager to guide and lead is partly based on his moral behavior. In the absence of a moral character, no other virtues can make a good manager. Strong moral and high ethical values are expected by other members of the organization from any manager. His role of resolving organizational conflicts requires high level of trust from other members, which are impossible without goodness and virtues from a manager. Though short-term profits in dealings can be expected from unethical managers, no long-term success can be expected. 

And finally, good managers are connoisseurs of aesthetics. They find fun in their work, appreciate the beauty in everything, and above all give importance to creativity. Managerial work is something of beauty and like any other art, good managers appreciate the beauty in their work. And for all good managers, it is the pursuit of this beauty in their work that reveals a greater weightage than all the other three – scientific, political-economic, and ethical-moral aspects. 

Yes, the pursuit of a successful manager is the pursuit of a meta-ideal in all these dimensions. There is no surprise now, why good managers are so rare.