The Middle Manager

Surviving & Thriving as a Leader

Levels of Leading

I read an interesting parable from ancient China.  The story goes that one day the Emperor was reminiscing with his chief of staff.  Chatting about the many battles they had been involved in, he asked, “How would you rate me as a general?”

The chief of staff responded, “I think at best, a few divisions within the army.”

In reply, the Emperor asked, “And how would you rate yourself?”

His friend quickly responded, “The more divisions I command, the better I work.”

Laughing, the Emperor replied, “Then how does it happen that I’m the Emperor and you’re simply a General?”

In answer, the chief of staff said, “Because you are a born leader of leaders.”

This struck me because I’ve seen this demonstrated during my career with large corporations.  It’s not unusual to see someone who has a hard time with managing operational details be completely comfortable and capable seeing the bigger picture and develop high-level strategy for an organization or entire company.

Likewise, people who can be very efficient at managing small teams or departments become lost or even panicked when faced with having to coordinate multiple teams or large parts of an organization. 

There’s a modern allegory to this – it’s called “The Peter Principle,” which stipulates that someone will promoted to the point at which they become incompetent.  Alas, I’ve also seen this from time to time in the course of my career!

The point of this is simply that we need to take a realistic look at ourselves and recognize our own abilities and then do our best to establish reasonable and attainable goals.  If you’re really good at managing small teams, then focus on doing that to the best of your ability.  If coordinating a variety of teams comes easy, then work on advancing your career in that direction.  Either destination can result in a happy and productive life.

(c) Can Stock Photo

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