Mitchell Langbert

Attention HR Managers and Recruiters

Do you know what skill spells success?

October 22, 2009
by Mitchell Langbert, PhD

Managerial skills are of importance to employees who wish to succeed and to firms that wish to achieve high performance levels. Yet, American firms and business schools do too little skills training and education.

The idea that managers need to develop management skills is both old and new. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that happiness is the result of excellence or virtue. Fundamental to excellence is finding the mean or appropriate behavior between extremes. Aristotle claims that the use of reason is characteristic of excellence because the use of reason is the actualization of human potential. Reason, Aristotle claims, interacts with ethical excellence, which he defines as involving four chief virtues: justice, moderation, prudence and courage to produce happiness or well being.

Modern competency theorists derive ideas from Aristotle. Abraham Maslow, for instance, argues that there is a hierarchy of needs, the chief of which is self-actualization. David McClelland, in his book, Achieving Society, argues for the importance of need for achievement in motivating entrepreneurship. Peters and Waterman, in their book, In Search of Excellence, describe corporate virtues such as “sticking to your knitting” and having intense organizational cultures.

Makings of a Good Manager

Discussion of managerial and success-related competencies has a history in America. In colonial times Benjamin Franklin wrote about the importance of early rising, thrift, abstinence, hard work and not eating too much. In the nineteenth century emphasis was put on biological fitness in Herbert Spencer’s social Darwinism. In 1917, Elbert Hubbard wrote a best-selling essay, Message to Garcia. In the Spanish-American War, Hubbard wrote, President William McKinley personally asked Lieutenant Andrew S. Rowan to hand-deliver a message to General Garcia, who was encamped in remote Cuban mountains. Rowan did so, alone and against all odds. Hubbard’s essay is a diatribe against employees who do not deliver. According to Reinhard Bendix in Work and Authority in Industry, in the 1920s a common interview question was “Are you the kind of employee who will deliver a message to Garcia?”

In the 20th century there was an evolution as to which competencies were viewed as important. The emphasis on inner-direction and goal attainment in Hubbard’s essay gave way to emphasis on other-direction and interpersonal skills in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. David McClelland was among the first to claim that a combination of other-direction and goal or achievement orientation is associated with success. By 1990, in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen R. Covey emphasized the importance of both goals (beginning with the end in mind) and interpersonal skills (understanding first and then seeking to be understood).

In the past 30 years considerable research has been done with respect to the managerial skills associated with success. Some managers may still believe that managerial skills arise from personality, which in turn, they believe, arises from genetic, prenatal or early childhood development. But there is little doubt that managerial skills can be improved. Surely not every manager can develop the leadership skills of Barack Obama. But gaps can be filled and significant improvement can be made.

The best text about practical skills development is David A. Whetten’s and Kim S. Cameron’s Developing Management Skills. The book covers 10 key skills: self-awareness; stress management; problem solving; communication and interpersonal; power and influence; motivation; negotiation and conflict resolution; delegation and empowerment; team building; and leadership. Clearly there are additional skills that competent managers need to master, but these are among the important ones.

The book richly develops each of the skills. It includes the latest research as well as specific practical advice on how to apply them. My two favorites are communication and power. In the chapter on communication, Developing Management Skills claims that although the accuracy of communication has improved because of technology, the emotional content still poses a challenge. If you recall John Naisbitt’s book Megatrends from the 1980s, “high tech requires high touch” so that the importance of interpersonal skills is increasing with increased dependence on Internet-based communication. Whetten and Cameron argue that threats to emotionally supportive communication cause defensiveness and disconfirmation. To avoid these, they recommend eight communication tactics, namely, owning communication; focusing on the problem and not the person; responsiveness; validation (being egalitarian, respectful and two-way); being specific; being descriptive; listening; and being truthful. In the chapter on power they discuss the bases of power as involving both positional and personal characteristics and discuss how to improve both.

HR’s Role in Creating Good Managers

You might consider reading Developing Management Skills to develop your own skills. Developing Management Skills is of considerable value to anyone who works for a living, from line cooks to CPAs to CEOs. As well, you might consider designing training for your employees based on the book. Firms whose employees demonstrate good managerial competencies outperform those that do not. Many of the concepts in modern management, such as matrix organizations and cross-functional teams, depend on competent employees who are adaptable and good at communication, team building and power and influence. Many firms attempt to introduce matrix structures or teams without having selected or trained employees appropriately.

As well, I have argued that degree programs in human resource management (HRM), both in MBA programs and in Master’s in HRM programs, pay insufficient attention to managerial skills. Skills development needs to be integrated with education about business and functional HR knowledge. MBA programs emphasize general business skills like strategy and finance while Master’s in HRM programs emphasize functional HRM skills. Neither emphasizes the managerial skills that Whetten and Cameron discuss. MBA students in most major business schools can easily complete the degree without having heard of managerial skills. Nevertheless, Whetten and Cameron’s book has become a kind of cult classic. But the material it covers deserves universal application.

One avenue to expand the competency literature is to better define its integration with ethics. In recent years, American business, including the accounting profession, has been plagued with ethical challenges. The emphasis on psychological validation that is important for HR policies and personnel psychological has had the unfortunate effect of limiting the degree to which Aristotle’s strategy of integrating ethical and intellectual virtues has been duplicated in the modern literature. For every managerial skill there is a managerial ethical virtue. This cannot be related to performance because the effect of ethics on corporate performance is long term. Any one employee’s or group of employees’ ethics are unlikely to effect business performance, but over time the accumulation of ethically inappropriate responses leads to Enron and Bear Stearns.


Not only should skills be applied in accordance with an Aristotelian mean, but practical wisdom, the combination of moral and intellectual virtue, is a fundamental component of each of the skills. For too long business schools have pretended to offer scientifically developed ideas that have dispensed with the ethics component. But without ethics, guides to action are ill-conceived, under-developed and demonstrably destructive.

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Mitchell Langbert, PhD, is an Associate Professor, Brooklyn College. Widely published on the subject of human resource management, Langbert has consulted and served as an expert witness.