How A Good Manager Is Like A Ninja

Firstly, let me start by saying that I am not recommending you dress up in black pyjamas and go on a killing spree :). With that out of the way, this idea actually came to me when I was reading chapter 4 of Beautiful Teams (I've mentioned Beautiful Teams before). For whatever reason I must have had ninjas on my mind (as you do :)) and thought that it would be interesting to draw some parallels, since ninjas and managers have a lot more in common than the obvious potential scariness factor.

You see, ninjas are not all about killing. Yes, they may be assassins for hire, but they are, in essence, great enablers. They remove obstacles and through their actions make the impossible, probable. They remain unseen, in the shadows, but what they do has a tremendous impact. This is what every manager should be – an enabler. They should concentrate on removing obstacles to enable you to have the most impact as a professional. When there is an organisational obstacle, that you see no way to overcome, they should be able to use their skills and cunning to make the impossible happen. All this should be done without kicking up too much of a fuss. All you would need to do is watch, slightly bemused, as roadblocks, that were preventing you from doing what you needed to do, disappeared almost by magic. That is true management ninjutsu.

Let's speak plainly. You help your people, but you allow them to shine. You don't seek credit (how useful is an assassin that seeks fame?), you seek to achieve goals. You gain validation through the achievements of your team. What's the main theme here? It is the fact that as a manager, you're actually a servant – not a dictator. You serve your people and try to make their lives better, kinda like what a politician should be :). This in turn will allow your people to have a greater positive impact on the wider community (i.e. the company). Everyone benefits in the long run.

Enough Ninjas

The rest of what I have to say doesn't really fit my metaphor, so I am going to abandon it at this point (since I don't really want to engage in any kind of verbal contortionism :)). It is reasonably easy to distil the qualities that a good manager needs (even though everyone has different ideas here), even I have done it once before in a guest post. The difficult part is HOW do you come to embody those qualities, especially when some of them go directly against your personality?

It really comes down to only one factor, you need to genuinely care about the people who work for you (if you don't give a shit about people you're out of luck). And I don't mean you need to 'say' that you care in a group meeting, you actually have to do it, on an individual basis and then back it up when it counts (i.e. when the person really needs your help). And you have to keep showing that you care – for each person as an individual – this is how you build trust. It is difficult for most people to talk about "touchy-feely" stuff in a one-on-one setting, makes us feel uncomfortable. So, we overcome it by avoiding it. Not a good strategy, all it gets you is a generic corporate atmosphere, it does not engender any loyalty. If you can generate loyalty, through building trust and genuinely caring for your people, then when you ask me to put in some extra effort, I am likely to do it, because I know you care and I know you wouldn't ask frivolously.

A good manager is a good listener, more than that, they're good at reading between the lines. Remember what I said about removing roadblocks? Well, you're lucky if the issues are visible and clear-cut (e.g. "We need more machines"). Often the issues are subtle, two team-members don't get along, people don't feel empowered, personal problems are affecting work etc. You would be the luckiest manager in the world for someone to just come out and tell you that these problems exist. Often your people themselves aren't even aware of the issue, or even when they are they may not be comfortable confiding, or simply can't articulate it. But, through your individual interactions with the people you manage you should be able to deduce what the problems are and it is up to you to then do something about it (yeah you have to be almost a mind-reader – I didn't say I had quick and easy answers :)).

Lastly, a good manager, just like a good developer should know his/her business. It doesn't matter how you fell into your management role, it is up to you to become a professional in what is now your trade. It is more than just annoying when the only qualification a manager has is their age or being in the right place at the right time, it is dangerous. When you as a manager don't try to improve yourself constantly, it paints an unflattering picture, it undermines everything you try to do. Like a fat personal trainer – it is tantamount to hypocrisy.

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  • Gideon

    The need for supervision is (in itself) a systemic failure.

    A great manager will have as her first priority to make herself superfluous, she might not reach that goal, but she should always strive towards it. This requires training people to work together, organize supportive structures and systems, and delegating control.

    • I completely agree, couldn’t have said it better myself. I believe if you empower people sufficiently, you will naturally work yourself out of a job (so to speak) as they are more and more able to self-organize in their environment.

      • Jim

        But in business there will always be roadblocks for the manager to remove, no matter how self organized you eventually become.

        • That’s true, I don’t actually think that you will ever literally work yourself out of a job, but you want to strive towards getting to the point where, everything happens so smoothly that the team will be under the impression that you don’t really need to do anything (what you actually do becomes opaque to them).

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  • Like in politics, managers can also be reduced to puppets in front of upper management. I see many a times that the managers will listen to problems of the developers and just escalate it to the upper management, but nothing concrete gets done. The managers do not have the will to follow it through and get things done especially when those problems are on a personal level.

    Most organizations in India work on a corporate level. If you do manage to find a manager who actually cares for you in these environments, you could consider yourself very, very lucky.

    • Hi Kevin,

      You’re certainly right, and what’s worth, many middle managers often start to manage upwards, to the point of lying to upper management. This has the effect of actually buffering the problems from the people who can do something about them. It’s a bad situation if you happen to be in it. That kind of behaviour helps noone in my opinion.

  • Ahmed

    Hi Alan,
    I liked this phrase: “through your individual interactions with the people you manage you should be able to deduce what the problems are”
    I think we can have levels of experience for managers from (problems point of view):
    Novice: Can’t see problems until someone told him and don’t know what to do unless go back to steps.
    Advance Beginner: Can’t see new problems until someone told him and don’t know what to do to new problems unless go back to steps.
    Competent: Can see new problems and knows what to do without go back to steps.
    Proficient: Expects problems and prepare precaution procedures.
    Expert: Almost no problems because his procedures covered all expected area of problems, and whatever arise old or new problems solved instantly without thinking.

    • Hi Ahmed,

      That is actually not a bad point, applying the Dreyfus model to management skill. I hadn’t even considered it, which is funny since I have written about the Dreyfus model before.

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