How the myth of “superman manager” causes organizational stagnation


Summary : nearly everybody knows that the role of manager will have to evolve. But there’s still a gap between words and action. The fact is the common mental representation of managers, that’s been been built when people were students and is predominant in the workplace, which, combined with a culture of visual control makes people prefer visible activity. By sustaining the myth of the instant-action man versus systemic-oriented people and mistaking hindsight for inactivity, organizations make the germ of stagnation proliferate in their core.

Whatever we can do, some images die hard and stay deeply anchored in our minds. Among them, the “superman manager” that saves the enterprise every time something goes wrong. Of course this image comes with many other ones in the background : someone who do things, someone who acts, someone always busy.


Of course, few managers are still convinced by this image. On the contrary they often say that they can’t do anything more, that they’re overwhelmed with work. But, even if t’s surprising, it seems that this image is still very present for younger, most of all students. But that’s quite normal while they have few experience of the reality of work, tend to idealize their future and are not very comfortable with the difference between omnipotence and leadership.

Note that this is clearly the opposite of all the conclusions that are drawn, nowadays, about the future of managers. Someone who’s more focused on leadership and facilitation, who operates in a subsidiarity model…in short, the antitheses of what’s in people minds.

So what ?

What would you think of an applicant saying, during the job interview : “I want to empower my team so they’ll be autonomous in their day to day work and would only rely on me for things that need me to intervene as a hierarchical support or decision maker. By doing so I’ll have more time to help and support those who need and take hindsight to think about how to improve our performance tomorrow. By doing so, not only I’ll improve both their performance and employability but I’ll trigger a continuous improvement system ” ?

Attractive at the time of enterprise 2.0 and social business, isn’t it ?

I had this discussion with a couple of people last week and they told me : “of course, this is an unavoidable future. But no one will give a job to someone with such a program because they’ll understand “pay me a high salary for doing nothing”. Moreover, in the open space, this manager who would avoid being overwhelmed to take hindsight would lokk lazy because not looking hyperactive and busy. Anyway, who would say “My purpose is to be less and less indispensable in day to day operations to have the means to work on sustainable performance improvement”. People are paid to be indispensable. If they are not, why hiring them ? And the snake is biting its tail once again…

We came to the conclusion that we were not able to understand the difference between “do” and “act”. We need people who act but we also want it to be visible so employees tend to focus on immediately visible actions rather than on things that may have visible results…later.

In fact the mental image of managers and culture of visual control makes us mistake :

• business for busy-ness

• acting for doing

• leadership for inactivity

and makes us think that

• A supportive attitude is not management

• leadership does not deliver anything

In other words, tomorrow’s managers, even if many organizations would like them to emerge as soon as possible, are not acceptable in the open-space today and have many chances to be dismissed after the first job interview.

The whole representation of managers has to be rebuilt because it has an influence on people’s choices and behaviors even if they’re convinced that something new is needed and, sometimes, are missioned to implement it.

Meanwhile, organizations keep on replicating behaviors that makes them stagnate.

At the beginning of the servant leadership era, organizations will have to understand that Superman, with his tight blue suit and his red cape, is both outmoded and square.