Work World Myth #8: Managers should know how to do everything.

This is one of those old fallacies about what it takes to be a “good manager.” You often hear it voiced something like this: “Don’t ask an employee to do anything you can’t do yourself.”

There is so much evidence surrounding this to the contrary, that it astounds me this myth is still around. Even worse, mediocre managers are hiding behind it. They are not working ON business health, innovation, and vibrancy because they are “safely” ensconced IN business tasks that should be delegated and assigned to someone else.

If you want to be needed, be needed as a productivity maximizer: an inspiration, visionary, and compelling leader, not as another worker bee. And please, I mean no disrespect whatsoever to the worker bees you manage and lead; I’m just asking you to better understand what your own role is if you are their manager and a leader.

The strongholds for this good buddy manager myth are more apparent in the supervisory positions that are closest to line staff, however there are hold-outs higher up the food chain that still don’t get it:

If you are supposed to know how to do all the tasks your staff does, and you are supposed to occasionally do them yourself to prove you can, and to prove you understand and empathize with those who do them more often, you are not focused on being the manager or a leader that same group of employees would prefer you to be. You are not working on improving productivity in the smarter way — optimizing strengths to maximize capacity, learning, growth, and market responsiveness.

Recently I’ve shared a story with you about the Alaka‘i Nalu. Since they are fresh in mind, let’s use them, and my manager’s relationship with them as an example.

—There are six different seat positions in a traditional Hawaiian outrigger canoe: we’d refer to them with names such as
1–Stroker and Pacesetter,
2–Partner 1/Communicator 6,
4–Guardian of the Ama (the outrigger),
5–Extra Eyes/Bailer, and
6–Steersman and Captain.

After a full year of paddling with the Alaka‘i Nalu I was still barely proficient as a Stroker and Pacesetter, and pretty much hopeless in the other 5 seats. Yet I knew exceptionally well how to manage all six seats, and which Alaka‘i Nalu to assign in which seat when the strength of one over another was needed in light of our customer profile for any given day or season.

—I could not run, repair, handle or maintain the waverunner we needed for rescues, and never could I participate in an ocean rescue without needing to be rescued myself, yet I knew how to empower every other Alaka‘i Nalu how to do so, and I could proactively mobilize whatever resources they needed in training, certification, and DLNR permitting to make sure that we were ever-ready for any rescue necessary.

Those are just two examples, but they should help you think about this more in your own management arena…

—At one time I managed massage therapists, but I couldn’t give a customer a deep tissue massage or do Hawaiian Lomi Lomi if one of them happened to call in sick.
—At one time I managed landscape artists, however I still can’t figure out when to compost instead of fertilize, and how to prune versus butcher.
—I know what graphics should be improved on my websites, and how they drive traffic and improve user-ability, however I’ll probably always need to employ someone else to actually produce them for me.
—I could sell and distribute my own books to bookstores and other retailers (for who knows the ‘product’ better than I?), but if I do that I won’t be coaching and mentoring the managers who have a burning desire in managing with aloha to make it happen.

Managers aren’t supposed to know how to do everything that is done by those they manage —— take that pressure off yourself. Managers are supposed to know the right things to best empower their staff to be the stars they should be; i.e. their strengths and their values, and employing them synergistically.

If you feel your staff thinks differently, that you have to roll up your sleeves and jump into their fray, my guess is that you have to lay your cards on the table and talk it over with them (or it’s a cry for a different kind of help, not yours personally).

Explain to your staff what you can do instead of what they are doing, so that your separate efforts complement each other, and you are working collaboratively, not repetitiously. Ask them for their suggestions on where your [different] efforts can be on their behalf. Ask for their input on how you can make processes better for them, not simply participate in those processes, perpetuating auto-pilot and duplicate effort.

See here’s the other part of this: You don’t have to have all the answers that will produce better results either. However you are responsible for finding and using them.

Catching up?

I’ve been adding to my Work World Myths writing here on Talking Story pretty randomly as subjects have come up. So as I wrote this and wondered just how many myths we’ve collected I made this list for easy future reference (especially since I didn’t exactly write them this way initially :-)

Work World Myth #1 says: “What you do at work defines who you are.”

Work World Myth #2 shared: A dozen myths about Reading.

Work World Myth #3 claims that: “New inspiration won’t come from old business models.”

Work World Myth #4 really drives me crazy ” “If you are young, you have to pay some dues before you’ll be taken seriously.”
Sort of wrote about this one twice because the Catch-22 of Experience kept coming up.

Work World Myth #5 is about Theory X – so damaging: “The problem always starts with people: they need to be ‘fixed’ first.”

Work World Myth #6 reveals how out-dated our notions of community are: “We compete. Our information is proprietary. Therefore, we cannot network within the same community circles.”

Work World Myth #7 says: “Employees largely have an entitlement mentality in business today.”

Get to all the links via the tag index: Myths.

As so often happens on Talking Story the comments you share prove time and time again that “All of us are smarter than one of us” and that’s no myth – so be sure to read the comments too if debunking any of these myths interest you.


  1. says

    As a newly promoted manager, I appreciate your article. The more I know, the more I realize I don’t know. That is where the stress level rises. If I don’t know it I can’t do it. Now that you reinforced the need to manage and not do… you took a huge weight off of my shoulders.
    Thank you,

  2. says

    Aloha John, mahalo for visiting Talking Story and for your comment, it is good to meet you.
    As new managers we soon learn to get more comfortable with humility, and wonderfully, our humility soon gives way to more eagerness in learning openly. Best of all it actually endears us to our staff: we start to connect better with those we manage because they absolutely love it when we ask them instead of tell them.
    I visited your blog, Success Begins Today (Great title!) and really liked your I-Force; I’m going to start using it too!
    Dear readers, visit John’s blog and read how he “decided to put my favorite Sausage Biscuit through the I-Force. The I-Force is Information, Innovation, and Imagination.” Find it at

  3. says


    IT’S ALL ABOUT RISK Some fifteen years ago I walked into a London office as a young banking trainee and my first boss, one of these seasoned and arrogant investment bankers, gave me only a few moments of his…

  4. says

    But then the second worst manger I ever worked for knew so little about what the people under her were doing, she couldn’t effectively manage them.
    There’s a compromise between the extremes.

  5. says

    Dealing with bullies and conflict the aloha way

    Today’s snippet from my Chautauqua: I deeply appreciate what you have said so far, and value the perspective of talking from a very pro-active and positive set of values. However I would like to invite a bit of a turn

  6. John says

    I get what you mean on managers not being able to do everything but I can’t reconcile it with my experiences with managers. The managers who got respect were the managers that were not afraid to on occassion do some of the dirty work. It may be the result of the Peter Princible but managers often ascend to management because they put in their time doing the grunt work. From legal aide attorneys to apprentice carpenters, the line staff appreciates a manager that knows what their facing because he takes it on too.

  7. says

    Aloha John,
    I completely understand the point you are making, for there is much to be said for that time a manager spends in the trenches with his or her staff, and the argument can certainly be made that rolling-up-your-sleeves time is quality time too — an important part of it. It just can’t be the whole picture. However I do agree that working hand-in-hand, and side-by-side shouldn’t be totaling missing either.
    Another reader had sent me an email about this, and she said it this way: “I like it when my manager works with us periodically, just enough to understand what we do, how we do it, but most importantly, what we really need to get the job done better – like hiring more people when we are short-handed, or buying that new software program we say will increase our productivity. After that, I want him to get back to work on what he should be doing to work on the big picture stuff that eventually impacts us in other ways.”
    John, one of the things you said gets to the core of what we are trying to do here in sharing our thoughts: you said, “but I can’t reconcile it with my experiences with managers.” The more we talk story about these things, we can engender a workplace reinvention where all of our future experiences with managers and as managers are greatly improved.
    Mahalo nui for visiting Talking Story and for your comment; I do hope we’ll hear more from you here! My aloha to you.