The makings of a good manager

When you compare the qualities of a leader and manager, you will find many similarities. They are reflections of each other and a good manager is on his way to becoming a great leader


Arthashastra, the ancient Indian treatise written by Chanakya, follows the unique method of using sutras [verses] to teach; these brilliant one-liners are full of deep insights. Chanakya astutely defines the principles of management as, “the means of starting undertakings, the excellence of men and material, [suitable] apportionment of place and time, provision against failure [and] accomplishment of work—this is deliberation [management] in its five aspects.”

Qualities of a good manager according to Chanakya

Certain it is that man must eat. So, set what price you must on your service. But, never confuse the performance, which is great, with the compensation, be it money, power or fame.

—Judge Elbert P. Tuttle

Every manager today should reflect the qualities of integrity and service-oriented action. A good manager is a solid rock that stands in the midst of the storm around; he is the lighthouse that gives direction to others. Chanakya states that the qualities of a good manager are:

  • Desire to learn
  • Power of retention
  • Thorough understanding
  • Intentness on truth
  • Ability to lead an army
  • Sweetness of speech

To understand these qualities and their significance, you should visualise yourself in a managerial position. Do you possess these qualities? If not, how can you develop them?

When you compare the qualities of a leader and manager, you will find many similarities. They are reflections of each other and a good manager is on his way to becoming a great leader.

Desire to learn

A leader is supposed to learn continuously; so should a manager. Without continuous learning, there is stagnation in a manager’s career and boredom sets in. In offices, there is often rejoicing at the thought, “Thank God, it’s Friday!” Why? Does God differentiate between Sunday and Monday? Does the sun say, “Because it is ‘Sun-day’ today, I will shine brighter and on other days, I will not do my work?”

When you get stuck in a routine, are trapped in fixed ways of thinking and doing things and there is no new knowledge or learning, boredom is bound to set in. Then, you require breaks, weekends and vacations.

This is not to say that you should not have holidays and time with family and friends. But every day can be a day of celebration; your Monday can be as beautiful as Saturday or Sunday.

Ever since the age of 27, when I started on my own journey of becoming an entrepreneur, I have forgotten the difference between weekdays and weekends.

Every day is a celebration because every day, I am learning. And I have never got bored. That does not mean I am a workaholic. I love my work and find joy in it. I read books, listen to music, watch movies and go on long drives with my friends and family.

A manager can also achieve this if work is not considered as a ‘task’ to be completed, but a learning opportunity. One may think it is easy when you are the owner of a company or your own boss. This is not true. I know people who are not owners but professionals and managers. Yet they do not live their lives from one weekend to the next, one increment to the next or one job to the next.

They have the desire to learn. They work very hard and learn a lot. They learn by reading official reports, listening to others, travelling or resolving a problem in their companies. They draw on the experience of seniors and juniors, their children, families, friends and their mentors. They learn from professional journals, newspapers, television channels, radio, plays and movies; and from meetings, seminars and professional courses. They imbibe life lessons from watching the sunrise, a passing cloud or the movement of an ant. Because they have a learning mindset, they learn from anything and everything.

The whole universe becomes their university. And in that state of mind, they become deep thinkers, meditative in nature and are able to find solutions to complex problems.

Power of retention

Someone asked me in a seminar, “What is the greatest problem in our life?”

“Not being able to remember and apply the knowledge you have when the time comes,” was my instant reply.

In ancient Indian scriptures, there are many stories where a brilliant student is cursed by his teacher, “When the time to apply the knowledge comes, you will forget it!” This was the curse given to Karna, one of the greatest warriors in the Mahabharata, by his guru Parashurama, when the latter found out that Karna had lied to him.

As a result, Karna’s rival Arjuna, who was less skilled than him, killed him. Karna was an expert in military warfare, but could not recollect what he wanted at the right time and had to lose his life.

Therefore, to retain knowledge and recollect it when it is ‘really’ required is a skill a manager has to develop. Swami Chinmayananda said this jovially, “Before the exams I am wise, after the exams I am wise, but during the exams I am other-wise.”

Retention is not just memory skills or reproducing what you have learnt. It is going into your past database, selecting what is really required, diagnosing the current problem, choosing what is relevant and making an action plan, in the shortest possible time. Fighter pilots have to decide what to do in a split second. Policemen have to take a call for action on the spot.

Have you ever faced an instance in your life when you were all alone in a very difficult situation and when all your training, the knowledge from books you had read and all the advice you had received came handy in that very moment of judgement?

That is retention in the true sense. That is wisdom in action. No reference time, no consulting time, no brainstorming activity is possible. There is only you and the moment of truth. When you take that key decision to jump into the fire and the unknown power in you awakens; the leader in you is born.

the-makings-of-a-good-manager-2-300x199Thorough understanding

Understanding has to be thorough and complete. We find young lovers often saying “I love you” but these are superficial words. Real love comes from understanding one another completely and unconditionally. An old couple really understands the meaning of love. When the old man is hungry, his wife understands. He does not have to ask for food. When she is upset, he understands. There is a perfect mental tuning between the two.

In the same way, there has to be a thorough understanding between the leader and the manager. It does not come from day one. It requires time being spent with each other, working with each other for a long period of time. But when this understanding reaches its maturity, there are no communication gaps any more, no ‘whys’ and ‘ifs’, no complaints of “he did it, not me”. There is only silence and a deep sense of calmness between the two.

The leader and the manager, have to reach that level of maturity. They work together for a higher purpose. They strive together to achieve a common goal. They may disagree on the methods and have different points of view, but their objective is not forgotten.

Disagreement between two people does not mean that they do not understand each other. In fact, Santrupt Misra from the Aditya Birla group said in the film Chanakya Speaks, “If the king and the minister agree on the same thing, then one is redundant.”

Intentness on truth

Truth is one, but it has various dimensions. A true manager will try to understand this complete truth. The story of the elephant and the five blind men is relevant here. While each blind man touched a different part of the elephant and described it differently as a pillar, broom, fan, wall and so on, the person with eyesight said, “All of you are right from your standpoint, yet the elephant is very different.” Each had his limited perspective, but missed the big picture. It required the wisdom of a person with full vision to see the complete truth.

A manager needs to develop this ‘big picture’ vision. Many people will provide different perspectives to a given problem or situation. He needs to gather all this information and collate it into a larger story. In this process, the truth is discovered.

Good managers have to be aware of and respect the perspectives of different individuals. But their intentness has to be on the truth, ensuring that the objective is not forgotten.

Intentness on truth also means the ability to take the next step. If you have reached the conclusion that a certain action is required after arriving at the truth, as a manager, you need to implement your findings.

For example, Mahatma Gandhi was convinced that non-violence was the way to freedom. But no one would accept his theory if it did not lead to results. He had to demonstrate his ‘experiments with truth’ in thought and action. He did that through his role in India’s freedom struggle, and attained fame and respect in India and the world. He said, “My life is my message.”

Ability to lead an army

A manager has a team that executes tasks. The minister has to ensure that his team implements the king’s decision. But the team members will do that only if they accept the minister or manager himself as their leader. Therefore, a manager or minister has to be an inspiring leader.

True leadership is inspirational. A manager cannot tell his supervisor, “My team does not listen to me; please help.” A manager is a leader, and therefore, cannot complain. Your team should be mesmerised by your vision and be ready to do anything at your command. This is charismatic leadership. Remember the famous saying, “People do not leave organisations; they leave their bosses.” That is, the boss was not inspirational enough to make them stick to their companies. Be the manager who has the ability to lead a team like an army fired up to take up any challenge. The manager in you has to transform into a leader.

Sweetness of speech

Sweetness of speech does not mean being nice to everyone. One cannot be uniformly sweet. But wherever it is possible, it is important to keep it simple, to communicate the most complex problems in a simple manner. Not all people in an organisation have the ability to understand what the leader is thinking. The manager plays a very critical role here. The manager is the bridge between the senior management or board of directors, and the staff and labourers.

The manager has the responsibility to convey the organisation’s needs to everyone, right down to the last man. Until each person in your team is connected to the vision of the organisation, they will not perform.

On the other hand, the problems of the staff and the foot soldiers also need to be conveyed to the senior management. Here, the manager plays a critical role. The ability to present the problems of your team with a solution to the senior management and to get an approval is a skill in itself; be it getting a budget approved for a project or organising a picnic. Getting that done and making your team happy is an essential part of management and leadership.

Truth is important, but the ability to communicate the truth in a palatable way is more important.

Excerpted with permission from Chanakya’s 7 Secrets of Leadership by Radhakrishnan Pillai and D Sivanandhan; Published by Jaico Publishing House.

This was first published in the August 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Radhakrishnan Pillai
Radhakrishnan Pillai is the founder-director of the Chanakya Institute of Public Leadership [CIPL], an organisation that promotes Indian concepts in management. His book Corporate Chanakya is a best-seller.
D Sivanandhan
D Sivanandhan is one of India’s highly regarded IPS officers. He has been instrumental in rebuilding Mumbai’s defences after the November 2008 attacks. He is known for his use of strategy and intelligence to uphold the law.


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