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I'm a senior leader at Amazon and have seen many bad managers. Here are 3 reasons why there are so few great ones.

Brandon Southern   

I'm a senior leader at Amazon and have seen many bad managers. Here are 3 reasons why there are so few great ones.
  • Brandon Southern is a senior leader at Amazon and former head of analytics at eBay and GameStop.
  • He writes that very few managers actually have a strong desire to elevate others.

I've seen a couple of good leaders, and a lot of bad managers throughout my 20-year career in tech and as a head of analytics at companies including eBay, Amazon, and GameStop.

I spent time reflecting on why so many managers fall into the category of a bad manager, instead of into the category of a great leader.

There are three main reasons why this occurs.

1. Most managers didn't set out to be a leader or manager

Almost all started out as individual contributors, and many then found themselves working in management because it was the next logical step on the career ladder or because it provided a higher salary.

Few managers seem to have had a strong desire to become a people leader. While I don't have quantifiable data, I've always felt like 90% of managers found themselves working in management by accident, 5% were power-hungry and wanted control over others, and 5% had a strong desire to truly elevate others.

This isn't to say that the managers who found themselves working as manager by accident or as the next step in their career are bad managers. But if leadership isn't something that they have passion for, we're already on unstable ground before the work even starts.

2. Too many focus on actually managing instead of leading

Every company employs managers and almost every manager working today has a job title with manager in the name.

This is a huge disconnect from what individuals and companies say that they want, which is leaders.

People should be lead and process should be managed. By calling someone a manager instead of a leader, the implied focus is on managing — which usually spills over to managing people instead of leading people. This issue is so pervasive that it goes without notice in all our lives every day.

Some managers will describe their job as managing a team and a few managers will describe their job as leading a team. when discussing the details of their job, almost all managers will talk about the specifics of what projects and tasks they and their team work on. Very few managers will describe the specifics of their job as "leading and elevating others, who accomplish tasks." The primary focus is on what they do instead of how they do it.

How you perform your job in a managerial role is through the efforts of other people. But the everyday words used by managers frequently fail to place the appropriate amount of attention to the real duties of the position.

3. Pressure to deliver can push manager into sacrificing employee growth

As a manager, you're required to manage processes and you're expected to lead people. Note that I'm using these words deliberately.

I've witnessed plenty of managers that managed processes and financial performance of business units very well but were terrible people leaders. However, because of the ease of measuring business results and the focus on profitability, companies are more willing to overlook poor people leadership compared with poor business results.

What this translates into is an over-indexing on delivering results, many times at the expense of real leadership.

Unfortunately, as a manager, there's a constant pressure to deliver results and please your manager. This means that when important projects, urgent tasks from executives, and risky situations arise, the focus tends to shift to management mode instead of leadership mode.

In many situations, a manager will take on those critical tasks themselves because there is greater assurance that the task will be done correctly. But while doing this work themselves can reduce inaccuracies and slow processes, other team members are being stripped of opportunities to grow.

This puts managers between a rock and a hard place when dealing with important and risky tasks, which are frequently the same tasks that create situations required for others to grow in their career.

Early in my career I found this to be one of the most challenging parts of being a leader. With constant pressure from my leaders, my initial reaction was to dive in and solve an urgent problem just as I had done as an individual contributor.

But as a people leader, this took away opportunities from my team. Over time, I learned how to manage my leaders' expectations and accept that mistakes might happen. Because without the chance to make mistakes, team members wouldn't have the chance to grow.

To create great leaders, we need to change the way that we think about management

We should change the words that we use to describe the duties of the role, and the expectations of the role. We also need to re-think the balance of risks and results, at the expense of lost opportunities for team members.

To develop great leaders, we must ensure that team members understand what true leadership is about. Then we need to create an environment the fosters the development of others and the creation of opportunities.

Brandon Southern is a senior leader at Amazon and former head of analytics at eBay and GameStop. He also creates TikToks about data analytics and career development.