For organizations to succeed and re- establish public trust, a Hope College professor believes that businesses, and educational institutions in teaching their students, must do more to develop the capabilities of middle managers--or "everyday" leaders--instead of focusing on those at the top.
Vicki TenHaken, visiting associate professor of management, is the author of "Everyday Leaders," published in the May, 2003, issue of the "International Economics & Business Research Journal." She feels that the celebration of "larger-than-life charismatic Leaders, with a capital 'L'" during the 1980s and '90s has, with disastrous results, diminished emphasis on the more important role played by those who contribute quietly every day.
"This focus on the Leader is at least a partial cause of the lack of trust we are witnessing in our business organizations today," she writes. "Leaders believe they must behave in some larger than life way. With the expectation that they must see things the rest of us do not, they make riskier and riskier decisions, desperate to prove they deserve the role."
It hasn't helped, she noted, that managers in turn were denigrated in the CEO-enamored era. For example, in his best-selling 1989 book "On Becoming a Leader" Warren Bennis used descriptions like "The manager is a copy; the leader is an original"; "The manager imitates; the leader originates"; and "The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it."
"Given these types of views, is it any wonder no one wanted to be considered a mere manager?," TenHaken writes. "Are we surprised that the leaders of our organizations aspire to be 'charismatic visionaries?'"
The unflattering portrayal of managers, TenHaken feels, hid a crucial truth: that the mid-level "everyday leaders" are key in a variety of ways. "Most situations requiring decisions are everyday challenges that don't come with time out to check with a Leader who has all the answers--they are woven into the very fabric of managers' jobs," she writes.
"Everyday leaders may not leave a bold mark on history because they work on a different scale," she writes. "The efforts of everyday leaders may not be noticed by the media or recorded by the business press, but they matter. They matter because it is the everyday leaders who keep our companies and our countries running."
TenHaken cites employee morale as just one area in which a competent, conscientious middle manager can make a major difference. "There is research supporting the fact that the single most important factor in an individual's satisfaction with his or her job is the immediate manager," she writes.
She sees signs that priorities are changing. In his 2001 book "Good to Great," for example, James Collins credits behind-the-scenes leaders "comfortable with the idea that most people won't even know that the roots of the [organization's] success trace back to their efforts." In September of 2002, a "Business Week" search for leaders who had built solid companies with superior performance found none who were visionary recent recruits charged with remaking culture or strategy; instead, they had a passion for their firms and had led their companies an average of 18 years. Also in September of 2002, "Fortune" magazine announced that "The era of the dominant CEO died a quick and painful death."
It is a trend that TenHaken hopes will continue. Business students, for example, can be taught lessons at the operational rather than corporate level--providing them with perspective more likely to apply to their work situation. It is a tact she has taken in including a module on "operational planning" in the Management Theory course she teaches. She developed the material on her own, since textbooks didn't include it.
"Perhaps now that we have seen the problems resulting from this Leader-focused approach to running our organizations, we can return to a more reasonable approach-- one that is actually attainable by mere mortals--where many are called upon to be good, competent, everyday leaders," she writes. "If we begin to focus on developing the skills and characters of these everyday leaders, our organizations will not only be more successful, but surely more trusted than they are today."
TenHaken has taught at Hope since 2000. She came to the college with 25 years of business experience, most recently as an executive at Herman Miller Inc. and earlier with General Electric. A 1973 Hope graduate, she holds an MBA from Grand Valley State University.