The question is often asked – what makes some managers great and some managers ineffective, even if they have the same mental sharpness and command of their particular field?  Interestingly, the answer, I believe, can be found both in the Talmud (Shabbat 33b) and in the lessons of professional baseball, two of the world’s more seemingly polar opposites.

The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar (his son), who had achieved great spiritual heights while hiding in a cave to escape a death decree from an evil provincial governor. 

Upon the death of the governor, the two Rabbis were able to safety return from their self-imposed exile.  They happened upon a group of farmers, who were doing what ordinary farmers do: planting, reaping, sowing.  The rabbis were incensed of this waste of time doing the ordinary, and cursed the farmers.  Immediately, Rabbi Shimon and his son were sent back to the cave to continue their studies.  After a year, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar again left the cave.  Again, the two Rabbis came upon a group of farmers.  Rabbi Elazar cursed the farmers as he had done previously.  But – this time Rabbi Shimon blessed them – he had learned something.  The Talmud teaches that because of the insights of his extra year of study, Rabbi Shimon had learned an important lesson: to appreciate and relate to those who were not on his (spiritual) level and to see in them their good qualities at their level, not at his own exalted heights.

Similarly, many years ago I was watching a baseball game on TV (I have forgotten which teams, over the years).  Suddenly, it began to rain and the game was stopped until the weather improved.  The TV sportscasters were left with time to kill, and after some on and off commentary, one of the announcers mused, “Why is it that mediocre players make great managers, but great players make mediocre managers?”  The example he had in mind, of course, was Casey Stengel.  Stengel was the greatest manager of the New York Yankees in the 1950’s, and was known as the “Ole Perfesser”.  Yet, his playing career was totally ordinary – he had a .284 batting average for his career (he spent most of his playing days with the Kansas City Athletics – thus the nickname “Casey” – from K.C.).

After some batting back and forth, both announcers came to a conclusion, which is oddly parallel to the Talmudic commentary.  Most teams, the announcers reasoned, are made up of ordinary players – the .250 or .275 hitters, who are also ordinary fielders (note: in must be said that in the Major Leagues, even ordinary players are highly gifted – I can never see a pitched ball, let alone hit it).  The manager who himself was an ordinary player understands his typical players’ limitations and can effectively manage them at their level.  He is the Rabbi Shimon of the Talmud story.  On the other hand, the manager who was a superstar player can only relate to and manage players at his own exalted level and cannot relate to less gifted teammates.  He is the Rabbi Elazar of the Talmud.

So… what makes a Manager great?  Considering that most employees will be “average” (whatever that means, Lake Woebegone notwithstanding), a manager (regardless of what Team he is managing) must find a way of motivating and managing a Team of B- or C level members.  The one or two Superstars can take care of themselves (with some high-level input), and the D or F members will soon be gone; therefore, the majority of a manager’s time should be devoted to his “average” guys – mentoring, evaluating, coaching – to try to get them to an above average level – to become, in effect, a Rabbi Shimon.

Yet – the reverse is almost always the case.  HR encourages Managers to work with the D’s and F’s to avoid lawsuits or to produce an ironclad case for dismissals (such the awful Performance Improvement Programs, which almost never improve performance but do produce dismissals, meaning you wasted your time).  Managers love working with the Superstar A-listers, because they can do top-grade work with little effort on the Manager’s part.  So … the average team members tend to blur together in an amorphous blob.  And….who tends to be promoted into Manager slots?  Typically, top-ranked technical talent – the Rabbi Elazars, who tend to have even less of a “feel” for the average performer, making bad situations even worse. 

What would happen, one wonders, if the Casey Stengels and the Rabbi Shimons of the world became managers instead of the Superstars?  One would imagine organization where the average performer was more recognized and whose efforts are more appreciated; where 70 hour work weeks were not assumed, and weekends could be devoted to things other than work.

 Wouldn’t that be great!

JTS – 9/19/16

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