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Twelve key differences between good and average Leader-Managers

By Nicholas J Higgins.

As organisations continue to grapple with the means to optimise employee engagement on a daily basis – one of their biggest assets (or liabilities) is the leader-manager. To shortcut the leadership/management debate I use Drucker’s dictum:

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

Thus my interpretation here is that leadership and management are two sides of the same ‘Leader-Manager’ coin. Any individual who finds himself/herself ‘in charge’ of people and wants to be successful, needs to be good at both. Period.

Having spent the last thirty years successfully managing teams, being part of teams and latterly consulting on successful team/organisation performance projects with regard to employee engagement and talent management, I’ve shortlisted a number of defining ‘traits’ that differentiate  good ‘Leader-Managers’ from the rest.

If organisations are to demand, and get, the best from employees in their organisation on a daily basis – then ensuring that their cadre of Leader-Managers are ‘high-performing’ in engaging their staff is paramount. This of course extends to ensuring that these Leader-Managers, themselves, are highly engaged. And we’re not just talking about frontline Leader-Managers here – they are at all levels starting with the CEO, continuing ‘downwards’. So what are these ‘differentiators’ with regard to employee engagement?

1. Good Leader-Managers have good self-awareness and score well on any emotionally intelligent test. This basic requirement feeds into a number of the differentiators. Many may observe that this is common sense – but how many current Leader-Managers pass this basic requirement?

2. Good Leader-Managers treat those in their charge as organisation assets and not their ‘own’ – i.e. decisions made about individuals are done from an organisational perspective not the individual manager’s perspective (in terms of benefit). It is important to recognise that highly politicised environments quite often work against this ‘good’ trait.

3. Good Leader-Managers are more pro-active (as opposed to good ‘fire-fighters’), forward-looking and confident in dealing with day-to-day staff/operational matters. However, many organisations mistakenly associate good ‘fire-fighters’ as good ‘Leader-Managers’. Having good ‘firefighters’ doesn’t necessarily equate to high employee engagement.

4. Good Leader-Managers have a good working understanding of managing people and how to optimise employee engagement – getting the best out of people with regard to performance. This comes with both access to requisite knowledge through learning and gaining the right experience. Note, experience alone is not enough.

5. Good Leader-Managers understand the importance of clear and consistent one-to-one and one-to-many communication, particularly around performance and decisions. They also understand the good and bad impact of the various aspects of social media when it comes to productivity.

6. Good Leader-Managers get results but not at the expense of over-relying on their best performers, nor generating higher than needed attrition whether it is absenteeism or turnover. Understanding the related positive/negative aspects of employee engagement in relation to attaining targets, measures, objectives and values is crucial.

7. Good Leader-Managers always make the tough calls for the benefit of the team. The collective employee engagement will always be higher. This is in marked contrast to Leader-Managers who defer decisions, using cover excuses or who make politically expedient decisions.

8. Good Leader-Managers don’t procrastinate or postpone issues important to an individual team member. Cancelled appraisals are an obvious and common example as are delays in granting holiday times and so on. The Good Leader-Manager always asks: Would I be happy being on the receiving end? (And even if they are from their own boss it is no excuse to repeat the practice.)

9. Good Leader-Managers understand that making and explaining decisions are all about team equity. It is one of the most under-recognised elements in employee engagement. Perceived fairness is paramount. This is way beyond just ‘equality’ or ‘diversity’ issues.

10. Good Leader-Managers pursue a natural interest in the development and success (and of course safety) of the people in their charge. They don’t just do the tick-box requirement.

11. Good Leader-Managers continue to challenge their team performance in different ways given any work constraints that may be operating. Applying timely fresh approaches or changes are all part of the ‘toolkit’.

12. Good Leader-Managers recognise that to be put ‘in charge’ of people is a privilege that not everybody receives. Thus they recognise the opportunity for what it is rather than view it as a right due to length of service or ‘loyalty’ or reward for political correctness.

If, hand-on-heart, you can tick all of these good traits you are probably in charge of a well-engaged and well-performing team. You are most probably highly engaged yourself though this may be tempered by not-so-good examples in peers or those above you that you spot.

That’s the problem with employee engagement – its 360° all of the time. For those tasked with employee engagement strategies to improve employee engagement from an organisational perspective, focusing on Leader-Managers and their respective ‘Goodability’ is a good place to start. Just how many practice what’s preached on a daily basis? And, more importantly, what is your organisation’s drive to ensure widespread ‘Good Leader-Manager’ capability?

Summary table:


Good managers Average/poor managers
High probability of: High probability/tendency of:
  • Being self-aware (score well on EI)
  • Limited self-awareness
  • Treating staff as the organisation’s, not their own ‘little army’
  • Treating staff as their own resource rather than organisation’s
  • Being pro-active, forward looking and confident no matter the situation
  • Being reactive, backward-looking and/or display uncertainty on too many occasions
  • Being knowledgeable of  (successful) people-management approaches
  • Being limited in their understanding of people management
  • Understanding the importance of clear one-to-one communication and being consistent
  • Their communication too often being seen as vague or inconsistent when interacting with staff
  • Getting results but not at the expense (or over-reliance on good performers)
  • Get results but tend to have higher absenteeism or turnover of staff
  • Making tough calls when required for the benefit of the team
  • Deferring tough calls, preferring to political expediency even at the expense of others
  • Don’t postpone/move important events such as individual reviews/appraisals etc
  • History of postponing or procrastinating on individual events such as individual reviews/ appraisals
  • Understanding that most managerial decision-making is about equity in people situations/issues
  • Limited awareness of or disregard the equity principle when making managerial decisions
  • Taking a natural interest in people development above the mandatory level
  • Show little interest in individual development save for mandatory skill requirements
  • Challenging team performance in different ways
  • See team people management as a ‘chore’
  • View management role as a ‘privilege’, not a right
  • View management role as a ‘right’, not a privilege

I will be speaking about employee engagement on the 3rd April at Symposium Events Employee Engagement conference, click here for more details.

For the accompanying slide share version of this article please click here.


Nicholas J Higgins is an expert in human capital management and organisational behaviour/performance.

Nicholas is the Dean of the International School of Human Capital Management and technical editor of The Journal of Applied Human Capital Management – a dedicated journal for Practitioners. Seminal papers include ‘Competitive Advantage through Strategic Human Capital Management’, ‘Devising an HCM Strategy’, ‘Employee Engagement’ (various), ‘Evidence-based Leadership’, ‘Organisation Engagement: Evaluating your human capital management signature’, ‘Brave New HR World’, ‘Real HR Transformation’ and ‘HR Operational Excellence’.

A veteran of 250+ projects over the last 15 years, his global clients include a significant number of FTSE 100/Euro300/S&P500 companies. He has also worked with various organisations in the NHS, Higher Education, and Local Government. Implemented projects include a range of human capital management/measurement related areas, leadership, employee engagement and productivity, HR strategy/transformation, through to value based management and customer relationship management.

He is a DrHCMI, holds an MSc in Finance from the London Business School, and an MBA and Diploma in Management from the Open Business School. He is a Chartered Manager by profession (MCMI) and a member of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM US).

He has previously worked at top global consulting firms PriceWaterhouseCoopers (Human Capital Management), Towers Perrin (Strategy & Organisation) and Watson Wyatt (Human Capital Measurement). This spell in management consulting followed a successful management career in financial services spanning 15 years running various growth operations incorporating both organic and acquisition strategies.

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