The Benevolent Manager

This essay was originally written as a Restroom Reflection, sent out to clients when I was working as a corporate communication skills coach. It's about benevolence in management, via Confucius.

As an improviser, I'm not your most obvious follower of Confucianism. Dependant as it is on the rites of a hierarchical society, Confucianism assigns everyone a place in society and according forms of behavior. Siblings, wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters, subjects and lords, all are to behave in manners befitting their stations. If they do so with sincerity, harmony will reign.

In short, no one flies by the seat of their pants. That can't be good!

Yet I'm drawn to this ethical system's concept of humaneness, or benevolence, particularly when I consider how organizations go about getting ideas out of their people.

Feeling comfortable offering one's ideas requires not only creativity but also confidence, especially when seated a few uncomfortable seats away from the boss at an unattractive meeting table. More than this, though, I'd say it requires a benevolent boss - a humane leader who recognizes that patience is a virtue. Confucius says, "To rule with virtue is like the North Star in its place, around which all other stars revolve, in homage."

How many of us feel our bosses are virtuous, or benevolent? How many of us, as bosses, consider the question of benevolence? Does the word ever come to mind? Ever?

If you're wondering what benevolence comes down to, let's keep things Confucian. The Master was a little coy on the subject, even though it was one of the axes of his philosophy: "Resoluteness, persistence, simplicity, and slowness to speak are close to benevolence."

Slowness to speak. That's the bit that strikes me. Slowness to speak (unless it is the result of a slow wit) means consideration and reflection. it might be reflection on the merits of the idea offered; it might equally be reflection on how to respond politely to a completely harebrained concept. Either way, it's good, and leads to appreciation.

I was in a meeting with a company's innovation team the other day, and when I asked them about the general attitude of the company's management when soliciting ideas, there was a sharp intake of breath, sucked powerfully through the teeth. They weren't shocked at the question; they were imitating the way the bosses respond to ideas. This sucking in of air is employed, I believe, to imply reflection. But we all know it comes across as, "How can I have hired this idiot?" Maybe you're slow to speak, but if you've already done The Suck, no words are necessary.

So a humane, benevolent manager takes time when an idea is posited. Another complaint of the innovation team was that when people put forth an idea, the boss would say, "Great. You do it." Which means that they were loath to open up not because they feared the idea's rejection but because they actually feared its acceptance. If the idea is a good one, then, it behooves a leader to take time to consider the best way to go about implementing it, the best way of employing the people at hand.

That seems to be to be the paramount role of managers: to encourage the individuals in their teams, and the team as a whole, to discover and then perform at their potential. Reflection and slowness to speak will help. Ideas will flow, and fewer mistakes will occur. Unless, of course, the people involved are beyond help, in which case it is helpful to remember what Confucius also said: "Rotten wood cannot be carved nor a wall of dung troweled."