Opinion | In Praise of Middle Managers


Jim never had to say anything to me, but with those kinds of slight gestures he taught us how to do our jobs. He communicated: This is how we do things on the “NewsHour”; these are our standards. Jim is gone, but the standards and moral ecology he helped create live on. Morally healthy communities habituate people to behave in certain ways and make it easier to be good.

Being hyperattentive. The poet Mary Oliver wrote: “This is the first, wildest and wisest thing I know: that the soul exists, and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness.” The leaders we admire are paying close attention to those who work with them. They are not self-centered but cast the beam of their care on others, making them feel seen and lit up. In how you see me, I come to see myself. If you cast a just and loving attention on people, they blossom.

Knowing that people are watching more closely than you might think. We like to believe that it’s our fancy pronouncements that have a big impact on others. But what usually gets communicated most deeply is the leader’s smallest gestures — the casual gifts of politeness, the little compliment or, on the other hand, the cold shoulder of thoughtlessness.

The Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke wrote, “The law touches us but here and there, and now and then. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in. They give their whole form and color to our lives. According to their quality, they aid morals, they supply them, or they totally destroy them.”

Generativity. The economists tell us that people are basically self-interested, but there comes a time in the lives of many managers when the capacity to guide and foster the next generation is more rewarding than just serving themselves. And yet they do this mentoring with respect, not condescension. The most generative leaders don’t see themselves as doing things “for” people. They know that “with” is more powerful than “for.” The chaplain Samuel Wells once observed that modern societies often “attempt to construct a world that works perfectly well without love.” But, he adds, mature love between equals is walking “with” and not doing “for.”

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