25 ways to make yourself unpopular: #6 Manage, but don’t lead

There’s a reason that the strapline of this website is “The site for leaders and managers of educational ICT”: leading and managing are different things. That isn’t to say that someone cannot be both a good leader and a good manager, but they may have to work a little harder on one aspect than on the other.

If I had to summarise the “secret”of leadership I should say it’s the art of letting go. Whether you’re leading a team, or taking on a consultant, I think you can take it as read that the team or consultant is competent. (If the team includes people who are not competent or proficient in a particular area, a good leader will regard that as a training issue – and there are few better ways of improving one’s skills than actually doing the work in question. But for the purpose of this article, I’m going to assume that the team is fully competent.)

It's OK to leave some of the details to othersThere is a real danger of being almost too organised. I learnt this lesson in circa 1982, when I was invited to direct a play for the amateur dramatics group of which I was a member. Bearing in mind how annoyed I and others would feel at being asked to attend a rehearsal in a church hall on a damp Thursday night, only to sit there for several hours wondering if our bits would actually be practised, I drew up a schedule of who would be required to attend on which date.

This was met with universal acclaim – but then I went too far. Instead of assuming that as people had volunteered to be in the play they would turn up at their appointed time, I started giving helpful reminders. This was in the days before email, so the reminders were in the form of telephone calls. I thought I was being helpful. They thought I was pestering them, even though each person received only one or two phone calls over the three month period.

It’s a really difficult balance to strike, because some people are laid back, others are prone to forget, and all have their own priorities. So when I was in the position of a team leader, I tried to give much more leeway for people to organise their own affairs, as long as the goals we’d set for ourselves, or had imposed on us, were met at the due time. In fact, what I’ve discovered, over the years, is that to be able to manage a team, but not fall into the trap of micro-management, you need to make sure the following elements are in place:


It’s essential that everyone involved has something to gain from it all going well – and therefore, of course, something to lose if it doesn’t.

A competent team

The higher the stakes, the more important it is to surround yourself with people who have a deep understanding of what’s required.

Faith in your team

You have to assume that “your people” are not merely competent, but creative. Explain the problem, but let them figure out a solution. People tend to live up – or down – to other people’s expectations. Something I found worked really well was to say to someone who presented me with a problem that they didn’t know how to handle:  (a) what are the options open to us?; (b) which of those would be your best recommendation? They invariably knew the answer.

Assume the best

This, I found, was the hardest of all. You have an urgent deadline, and the person to whom you’ve entrusted the work is standing at the coffee machine chatting and eating a doughnut. Do not remind them of the deadline, pointedly look at your watch or start huffing and puffing. Go out for some fresh air, breathe deeply or, best of all, assume that the person understands the urgency of the situation and is having a break in order to be able to work better afterwards. Perhaps they’re taking to heart what Suzuki said:

A Zen student must learn to waste time conscientiously.

(Quoted on Gratefulness.org)

In conclusion, with apologies to Orwell’s Animal Farm: management good, micro-management bad.