The Indispensable-Manager Syndrome

If a bureaucracy can't function when the boss is gone, something is wrong.
May 2, 2018
By Richard Clay Wilson Jr.  |  Contributor
Retired city manager of Santa Cruz, Calif.

A longtime friend and colleague of mine had a 40-year career in a large government institution. He held a top management position and was highly regarded. He often told me that while he loved his job, he wished he could go on longer vacations. But everything at work came to a standstill in his absence. When I asked why that was the case, he said that over the years he had learned how to pull the necessary strings to get things done. In his absence, things didn't get done. He had become the go-to person for just about everything.

Everyone who has worked in a bureaucracy-driven institution knows how this happens. Over time, the number of participants in organizational processes grows. I used to marvel at how the number of required approvals for routine processes would increase. I remember one key government process that rightly entailed two approvals, but over the years the number would grow to six or eight. At some point people would become frustrated and wonder why things were so cumbersome. A review would be conducted, and the two-approval practice would be resumed. Then the process would repeat itself.

My friend created a niche for himself as the best at overcoming bureaucratic obstacles. In his absence, obstacles slowed things to near-standstill, but when he returned he put things back on track. People regarded his presence as indispensable.

My friend's way to matter to his organization was all wrong. He would have mattered a whole lot more if he had sought to reduce, instead of work around, bureaucratic obstacles. He should have equipped co-workers to deal with obstacles rather than force them to rely on him to overcome them.

The way for managers to really matter is to develop institutional practices that produce high-level performance independent of the presence of given individuals. If everything comes to a standstill when valued employees are absent, that should be seen as a poor, not a positive, reflection on those employees' supervisor.

Back when I was a city manager, I remember an occasion when the mayor said to me, "You don't have a micro-managing molecule in your makeup, do you?" I had been insisting that a department head deal with some matter. I replied that I didn't think of it in terms of micro-managing but in terms of doing my job as opposed to doing other people's jobs. As the chief executive, I had plenty of responsibility and more than plenty of things to do. I declined to do other people's jobs for them.

Supervisors and managers everywhere come under pressure to perform tasks and make decisions that the people who work for them would rather not perform and decide. It starts the first day one assumes responsibility for the work products of others. Very often, perhaps most of the time, the path of least resistance is for the supervisor or manager to just take on the tasks. If this happened just once or rarely, it wouldn't matter. Unfortunately, it happens all the time, and it does matter.

It often works fine for the individuals who take on other people's work, as they become more and more essential to getting things done. But it is contrary to the interests of any organization to allow individuals to become indispensable in this way. Organizations must function independently of who is at work on a given day.

I was involved in department-head evaluations for 35 years, and found that department performance in the absence of the department head was sometimes a telling indicator of the leader's overall performance. Some departments would come to a complete standstill when the boss was gone. Others would function smoothly. The best department heads would take it as a compliment -- which is how I meant it -- when I would say something like, "Welcome back from your vacation. Your department functioned perfectly while you were gone." Less-able department heads, on the other hand, were happier when their absence demonstrated the importance of their presence.

Being indispensable as an individual on a day-to-day basis is a terrible way for supervisors and managers to matter at work. It is far better to become indispensable by contributing to group performance that supersedes individual performance. This might seem risky. It is only natural to fear that building successful groups might render the builders expendable. But this fear doesn't materialize. Everyone knows who really matters at work, and why. Supervisors and managers who build solid group performance that is sustained in their absence need have no fears for their futures. There are far too few of them, and they are the ones who are truly indispensable.