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Line managers are the squeezed middle of business

Leaders are often touted as charismatic, hero-type figures, but it's time we looked beyond the rhetoric. Line managers have more influence over organisational success, but are squeezed from above and below.

There is currently an understandable focus on the urgency with which senior business leaders need to rebuild a sense of trust in post-recession organisations. Among employees who have had their pay frozen, their job security undermined and opportunities for progression eroded, the challenge leaders face to re-engage and motivate the workforce is considerable.

A sign that we are emerging from the crisis is the boom in new books about leadership, many of which focus on the personal traits and attributes leaders will need to exhibit in order to galvanise organisations. One of these, The Myth of the Strong Leader by Archie Brown, takes the view that a collaborative, authentic and consensus-building style is more likely to be successful than a directive style underpinned by individual charisma.

The great thing about leadership as a topic is that everyone has an opinion on what makes a good one, and stories about narcissistic or megalomaniac leaders for whom self-doubt was never a constraint. Much of this commentary reinforces the popularity of so-called ‘trait’ theories of leadership and our endless quest to find the magic mix of attributes among the cohort of bright young graduates entering businesses today.

I have a suspicion that even the most charismatic or transformational leaders have far less influence on organisational success than we think. People like Jeffrey Pfeffer were saying this back in the 1970s, but such is our curiosity about the ‘hero’ model of leadership we never pause to question the orthodoxy.

The truth is line managers probably have more influence over organisational success (and failure) than they are given credit for and that serious investment in the way we select, develop, promote, support and reward them is likely to have a bigger influence than we think.

Yet we don’t talk in such reverential terms about the traits of line managers, partly because management as a discipline has traditionally been more about the allocation and stewardship of resources or control and compliance.

In the worst cases, managers only get their jobs because they are good accountants, engineers or salespeople and a management job is a good way to climb the greasy pole. This can both expose their interpersonal frailties and render them more remote from their fields of subject-matter expertise.

Variability in the quality of UK line managers has been identified by various studies as a brake on our competitiveness and ability to fully utilise the skills of our workforce.

Line managers occupy a perilous but influential position in organisations as they shape the way strategy, vision and policy are executed.

Good ones can inspire and motivate great loyalty and exceptional performance. On the other side, poor ones can prompt workplace stress, unwanted resignations and rampant demoralisation. They are charged with an almost impossibly complex array of tasks and expectations both from above and below them in the hierarchy – line managers are the squeezed middle of business, and many are struggling to cope under the weight of our expectations.

So before getting swept along by another wave of breathy rhetoric about the need for leaders with the right traits to inspire us out of the slump, we should make sure that we are also ensuring our line managers are sufficiently skilled, resilient and supported to play their part in securing the recovery.

Stephen Bevan is director of the Centre for Workforce Effectiveness at The Work Foundation