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How to be a better manager? Ask yourself what Abe Lincoln would do

How to be a better manager? Ask yourself what Abe Lincoln would do

by Moyra Mackie on June 14, 2013

How often do you see your manager?  Or, if you are the boss, how much does your team see of you?

And I don’t mean seeing the back of your head through the glass paneled door as you beaver away at emails or phone call.  Or a hasty acknowledgment as you move from meeting to meeting.

What I mean is:

How available are you to your team?


During the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln would surprise his generals and their men with impromptu troop inspections.

By seeking out and listening to ordinary soldiers and observing what was happening, his habit of unannounced visits allowed him to get an unfiltered view on which to base future decisions.

Lincoln pioneered the art of Managing By Walking Around (MBWA)

In the 1970s this concept was taken up by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard and became part of the open management practices known as “The HP Way.”

Tom Peters in A Passion for Excellence described managing by wandering about as the basis of leadership excellence.

This is the second element of emotionally intelligent leadership that I believe includes:

  1. Having Boundaries
  2. Being Available
  3. Being Consistent
  4. Trusting and Caring

Peters called MBWA the “technology of the obvious”

Peters listed three advantages for managers who could:

  •  listen to what people are saying
  •  use the opportunity to transmit the company’s values face to face
  •  be prepared and able to give people on-the-spot help

In other words, being available can kick start a two way process of communication and learning.

Being available fulfills an unconscious emotional need

Research by Peters and others has shown what Lincoln instinctively grasped; that MBWA is particularly helpful when an organisation is under exceptional stress.

In corporate terms the Civil War presents itself as a significant corporate re-organisation or takeover.

So the good news is that it makes a real difference in times of stress.

The bad news is that MBWA needs to be a regular practice before large scale change occurs.

So how can you begin the process?

Firstly, it is important to understand that being available has both a physical component – getting away from your desk.  And also an emotional component – really listening and focusing on what you are seeing and hearing.

The first question many of my clients ask is: “How can I be truly available and also get stuff done?”

The key to success is self-awareness and self-regulation

Begin by becoming aware of those moments in the day when you are available to those around you, and when you are not.

This can be passively – your door is open – or actively when you spend time seeking out members of your team in person or on the phone to find out how things are going and what kind of support they need from you.

Understand that an open door policy is not universally a good thing

Learn to self-regulate and NOT rush to respond to every knock at the door, every phone call or even every email.

At set times during the day you should have time to focus exclusively on yourself and your deliverables.

Your staff needs to learn to recognize when you are available and to then expect total focus.  In return, they need to respect your right to quiet and concentration.

How to Be Available

  • When a team member comes to talk to you, stop what you are doing and focus on them
  • Make sure you “wander” from your desk at regular, but random intervals
  • Pay attention to HOW people are saying things as much as WHAT they are saying
  • Avoid a rush to judgment about what you are hearing
  • Ask questions and coach for solutions, rather than imposing your ideas
  • Don’t shoot the messenger – you will quickly be seen as unavailable even if your door is permanently open
  • Focus on being in the Constructive Zone whenever you interact with your team

W. Edwards Deming, named a significant benefit to managers of doing all this:

“If you wait for people to come to you, you’ll only get small problems. You must go and find them. The big problems are where people don’t realise they have one in the first place.”

Deming, Peters, Hewlett, Packard and Lincoln are just a few of those who understood that those in positions of authority should spend less time aspiring to be a leader and more time working to inspire followship.

Being available is one important thing that Abe Lincoln would most definitely do.

Now it’s your turn:

Have you thought about the how your physical and emotional presence – or absence – might affect your team?  

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie helps leaders and teams to work with courage, compassion and creativity. She is an executive coach and consultant and the founder of Mackie Consulting.

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