Nevermind leaders; what we need are good managers

If it weren’t for bad publicity, management wouldn’t get any publicity at all.

A good manager is often respected, admired, appreciated and even liked by the people he or she is responsible for, but there is little spillover outside that group. For most people management becomes an abstraction that is not particularly respected or appreciated and rarely admired or liked. Smart politicians rarely speak of their management skills or experience and instead focus on their “leadership” skills. Management has not been a vote magnet.

It is especially interesting, then, that management played such an important part in the recent elections. Voters in King County rejected a vehicle registration tax increase to fund Metro transportation operations. Assigning reasons behind vote tallies is an imperfect science at best, but it appears that voters had lost confidence in Metro’s management of projects and public funds.

Voters in Snohomish County rejected the Everett School District’s levy proposal to fund public school projects. While the economy was undoubtedly a factor, voters had also apparently lost faith in the school district’s management of costly public education. It didn’t help that voters had rejected a virtually identical proposal only a few months earlier, but it is not clear how much that careless campaign strategy might have hurt.

Management issues are not limited to the public sector, of course. General Motors faces lawsuits and federal investigations over its management of an automobile product defect that is believed to have caused collisions, injuries and deaths. Bank of America just recently revealed a $4 billion mistake that has forced an embarrassing admission to the Federal Reserve regulators, as well as abandonment of a dividend increase and a stock buy-back plan.

The General Motors and Bank of America cases are very different. The mismanagement of the product defect issue occurred almost entirely before the current CEO’s tenure, for example, and there are no known or suspected deaths in the Band of America foul up. In both cases, though, the relationship between leadership and management will be very visible and both CEOs will find themselves under intensive scrutiny and in jeopardy of abruptly shortened tenures.

Leadership and management are both necessary parts of the picture, like breathing in and breathing out. Leadership without good management is destined to a very short life; management without leadership is like a rudderless ship still sailing at high speed.

Leaders do not have to be good managers themselves. What they must have, though, is the ability to recognize good management and its value — to themselves as well as to the organization.

Although revered in comic strips, management has never found a real place in economic theory. In most economics texts and classrooms it isn’t even mentioned. Yet the reality of any economy is that nothing good happens without good management.

Leadership is needed, of course, but not every minute. A good estimate would be that from a statistical standpoint most organizations need leadership less than ten percent of the time. At least 90 percent of the work requires good management, not direct leadership. It is the task of leadership to insure that good management is there when it is needed. Leadership’s other tasks such as making critical strategic decisions or addressing a crisis, are crucial, of course, but they don’t pop up every day or even every month.

There is a gap between the quality of management needed and the quality of management in place or available. And nowhere is that gap more visible than in our federal government.

It is quite possible to populate a “Wheel of Fortune” with just the most egregious examples of the federal government’s management lapses and failures — some of which resulted in very high costs in terms of public trust, hard cash or both.

The most recent example has not been thoroughly investigated yet and is limited at this point to serious allegations of malfeasance and betrayal of trust at a veterans’ hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. Allegedly the hospital maintained was a secret waiting list of veterans waiting for treatment that acted as an invisible holding pattern for those needing serious care but would very possibly not live to receive it.

While the veterans’ situation may prove to be tragic, the government’s management problems are more often considered comical rather than a serious problem — even in the face of government’s increasing appetite for control over the workplace and key elements of the economy.

Our economy needs good management and lots of it. And management is sorely in need of some good publicity. To meet both demands, though, managers, public and private, have to do their job and live up to their responsibilities. That’s how the system works when it’s working right.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a monthly column for the Herald Business Journal.

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