Excellent managers

Essential qualities for excellent managers

Posted in Managing staff & processes
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Excellent managers are not born. Instead, developing first-rate management skills, attitudes, and abilities requires an intentional self-improvement project. Here is a start.

1. Prompt responsiveness

The first attribute every manager should pursue is that of responsiveness. Why? First, when an employee reaches out, a prompt response is an excellent way to provide reassurance that they matter to the manager. Second, with only a small effort, one accumulates lots of credit. Third, responsiveness is a relatively easy skill for a manager to master. 

So why is responsiveness so important? Above all, when someone makes a request, a clock starts in their head. A delayed response is assumed to mean something. And if left hanging, one begins wondering if something is wrong. Questions creep in–was my inquiry out of bounds? Is my leader angry at me? Do I matter?

Every email or message deserves a response, even if the answer is, 

  • “I’m jammed right now” or
  • “I need to think about your question.” 

A statement as simple as “Let me get back to you in a couple of days,” works wonders.

My awareness of this obligation to reassure grew as I noticed the effects of silence on the eventual conversation. When I did finally respond, my supervisee always wanted to check that everything was okay. I came to accept that others who relied on me always desired reassurance that our relationship was solid. Only when relationally secure could we get to the topic at hand. They always interpreted my responsiveness, or lack of it, in personal ways.

Bottom line. Rapid responses to inquiries declare, “You are important to me.” Excellent managers reassure others that the relationship is solid with quick responses or by providing a deadline for when they intend to reply.  Adjustments to the deadline are allowed, but a slow response is costly.

2. Fairness 

Should an employee lose confidence in their supervisor’s fairness, immense problems inevitably follow. In some cases, that mistrust will erode the relationship enough to lead to a departure. 

Sometimes this troublesome doubt grows out of a misunderstanding. Distrust quickly takes root when the employee doesn’t see that the boss took their interests into account when making a particular decision. They become distressed when they cannot know that they got a fair hearing.

Admittedly, fairness is a tricky concept. The confusion between “equality” and “fairness” is challenging to sort out. And frankly, the blurring of these two concepts can be very dangerous to employee relations. 

Examples where inequality seems fairer

Consider the following examples of where inequality seems fairer than equality. 

  1. In a game of chess, it’s undoubtedly “equal” for both players to get precisely the same pieces on the board. But if one is playing a child, the adult might start with fewer chess pieces to make the game less equal but “fairer.” 
  2. Similarly, in the Air Force, women meet lesser physical standards than men to make it “fair.” In this case, “equality for women” means unequal standards. 
  3. And it is often thought that the one who takes more significant business risks is entitled to greater reward. That is considered, by some, to be “only fair.” 

Examples where equality seems fairer

But on the other hand, there are many examples where inequality does not seem fair at all. 

  1. No one thinks it is fair that women earn, on average, from 68¢ to 90¢ on the dollar for the same work as men, depending on the state. And the wage gap is even more massive for minority women.
  2. Nor does it not seem fair when wealthy people have advantages in the legal system that others do not. The US is supposed to operate with the doctrine of “equal treatment under the law.” Deviations from that principle seem immoral, wrong, and certainly unfair.

As a practical matter, the question of inequality is rarely an issue unless the inequity is judged to be unfair.

Nevertheless, managers frequently must sort out when inequality is unfair, and when it is actually “fairer.” 

Real examples that managers face

Here are some examples of inequality to ponder:

  • When employers offer a health insurance benefit to employees, they must contribute a percentage of the premium costs. These contributions are a subsidy to those that participate. Those that do not participate do not receive that benefit.
  • When employees become ill, do we pay them for time away? Do we pay their health premiums if they are not able to? 
  • Should a worker’s longer tenure entitle them to privileges? We, for example, used the length-of-time-employed in determining office selection as new spaces became available. 

What is fair in these situations? How should managers handle this responsibility?

First, we will do better when we directly face difficulties. Furthermore, excellent managers communicate not just a decision itself but also much of what went into making the decision. Doing so helps to acknowledge that in this particular case, there are inequities. 

Explaining why we selected the option we did helps support an important message–that we care even when the decision does not please all. I wanted all to know that I considered a wide range of perspectives in the deliberations.

Bottom line. Excellent managers communicate background information so that supervisees can appreciate the attempt at fairness

3. Wisdom

Many years ago, I read a book written by Stephen Evans, a philosopher at Baylor University. The title intrigued me: Wisdom and Humanness in Psychology. I find that wisdom is often precisely what I need as a therapist. So it is with being a manager. 

We need wisdom in our decisions as managers too. Frankly, I am not sure wisdom can be taught. It comes with experience, which includes learning from lots of mistakes. 

Nevertheless, it is obviously more than just making mistakes that leads to wisdom. We need to reflect on our errors and understand the many facets that led to them. (Did my need for urgency blind me? Is there something in my history that pushed me to make the error?) And then, of course, we need to take those lessons and apply them to new situations.

Developing wisdom is best done with active feedback from a caring community. And yet, in my experience, it is isolating being a manager. (See The isolating effects of leading for more on this topic.) Therefore, how do we stay connected when our job is so isolating?

In my article on the isolating effects of leading, I mention my support team: my leadership team, friends, spouse, another practice manager, and my personal therapist. Some of these relationships did not take much effort to build. They were there, and I just needed to utilize them. But others required scheduling, for example, with my leadership team, my therapist, and meeting with the other practice manager. I made it a priority to have several safe people around me to talk to about any topic.

Bottom line. Excellent managers will make mistakes but need a team around to help them learn the right things from errors. This neverending process is the path to wisdom. 

4. Kindness + Directness = Respect

Somewhere I picked up this simple formula: Kindness plus Directness = Respect. Let’s consider each element. 

We all value receiving kindness. We wish we saw more of it. However, some situations require another sort of response. For example, in the face of injustice or aggression, we need to stand up and perhaps even be “impolite.” In other words, kindness is no longer kind when we are silent when confronting injustice. Instead, we need the ability to address particular concerns directly.

However, while situations may requiring directness, this approach can be a vicious weapon as well. We have all met people who carry their “truth-telling, commitment to honesty” as a badge of honor. Yet the manner they use their honesty feels cutting, insensitive, and tactless. Sometimes even mean.  

We need the softness of compassion as we directly tackle issues. Consider the topic of dealing with personnel issues. Our kindness might tempt us to ignore tough conversations about performance. But we could also point out those failings with harshness and unkindness. 

Kindness and directness together express respect

This example highlights how the balancing of kindness and directness expresses our respect for the person and their performance. (I have written more about how to handle dismissing an employee in this post: When we need to fire an employee.)

Fundamental respectfulness, via kindness and directness, always guides an excellent manager. Furthermore, any disrespect undermines all that a manager is trying to do. 

My practice created a document for our staff called “Our philosophy for working in community.” The first principle was, “Treat everyone the way we each would want to be treated,” a modification of the Golden Rule. The document spells out many subpoints on what respectfulness means: 

  1. Honor the lives people live as more important than the role they have in the organization.
  2. Assume all people are operating with pure motives until proven otherwise.
  3. Communicate to all with directness and candor and with kindness and compassion—and in a timely fashion.
  4. Set the example of taking responsibility for one’s own mistakes while being generous and kind when others make mistakes. 
  5. Express gratitude to others for all that they do for us and for all that is good in life: no whining, complaining, or negativity.
  6. Share the enjoyment of our work and each other with each other. Be fun.
  7. Intentionally nurture a supporting, mentoring, and helpful culture. 

Each of these operationalizes respectfulness as the blending of kindness and directness.

Bottom line.  Respectfulness, i.e., the blending of kindness and directness, guides excellent managers in every interaction.  

5. Risk-averse vs. Thrill-seeking

Our last attribute also balances two qualities; in this case, caution and fearlessness. We might place these two qualities on a continuum. At one end are those who are risk-averse and at the other, the thrill-seeking.  

In the face of risk, the risk-averse are frequently paralyzed. They pay too much attention to scary things.

At the other extreme, thrill-seeking easily slides into recklessness. There is a place for taking risks, but here again, the extreme is dangerous.

Somewhere in the middle are those who blend a thoughtful and analytic process with a willingness to take reasonable risks. And the trick, of course, is defining “reasonable.” What seems reasonable for one is not for another. 

For our purposes, let me summarize by saying that an excellent manager must:

  1. Look squarely at the risks involved in a decision
  2. Weigh the risks and rewards
  3. Make the decision 
  4. Take effective action

Of course, as mistakes become evident, corrections are required. The best analogy might be to the necessity for continual steering corrections needed to keep a car on the road. A highway is always requiring adjustments as we have new information.  

Bottomline. Excellent leaders weigh risks and rewards without excessive fear or excessive recklessness, take appropriate action, and then make corrections when needed.


I genuinely believe that with effort, therapists can develop outstanding management skills, attitudes, and abilities and grow into excellent managers. Take on the challenge, and see who you can become.

I have written several posts on what it takes to lead well. Check out these:

And in these posts, I have written about my process of growth and development: 


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