Too Many Leaders Are Managing on Autopilot

Managers should start by setting aside one hour every day as sacrosanct time for managing. During that hour, they do not fight fires. They use that hour for managing up front, before anything goes right, wrong, or average.

Most managers are so busy with their own “real work” that they think of their management work mostly as an extra burden. They avoid daily managing the way many people avoid daily exercise. They manage only when they absolutely have to. As a result, they and their employees get out of shape, and unexpected problems crop up on a regular basis.

When problems get out of control, these managers can no longer avoid their responsibility and they spring into action. By that point, however, they have a difficult task on their hands: They are trying to run 10 miles when they are completely out of shape.

I call this phenomenon “management by special occasion.” Most of these special occasions are big problems that need solving, but there are other special occasions, too: assigning a new project to an employee, communicating a change from on high to the team, or recognizing a huge success.

In the absence of some special occasion, though, most managers simply don’t manage. But they don’t even realize it!

Most managers already feel they spend a lot of time managing, but they are not getting the results they and their organizations need. Why? At first glance, these managers appear to be managing, yet they still see problems crop up on a regular basis.

Our research shows that while there is plenty of leadership communication going on, most of it is simply not very good. Typical methods of communication, and their associated problems, include:

  • Monitoring e-mail: With e-mail, it is too easy for important information to slip through the cracks. Most often, we send e-mail with the trust that the person on the other end will receive the message exactly as it was intended. This is fine with short, simple messages. But trying to delegate a new task or responsibility via e-mail, for instance, will almost always result in huge amounts of miscommunication, and, therefore, later rework.
  • Being in meetings together: It can be easy to get lulled into a false sense of security about how things are going with each individual team member when you are constantly seeing them in team meetings. The problem is that it is far too easy to hide out in team meetings and avoid ever having important, detailed conversations about each person’s performance. Team meetings are good for some things, but they are no substitute for high-structure, high-substance one-on-ones.
  • Touching base: Touching base is simply too informal to be relied on as the primary, or only, form of communication between a manager and his or her direct reports. Often, conversations steer into non-work-related matters, and while having personal rapport can be a good thing, it cannot be at the expense of having conversations about the work. 
  • “Let me know if you need me”: Whenever managers say this, they might as well be saying, “Please interrupt me at the worst possible time, when I’m right in the middle of something else important!” It’s important for direct reports to feel they can come to their manager when they need to, but unexpected conversations shouldn’t be the norm. That leads to distracted conversations, and no one is at their best when distracted. 

None of the above examples are high structure or high substance! But that is what most management relationships look like, until there is a big special occasion. Then the manager rushes in to troubleshoot, firefight, clean up the mess, and get things back on track. By the time the manager is done, he or she has even less time than before to attend to management responsibilities. And the vicious cycle goes on.

The only alternative to management by special occasion is to get in the habit of managing every single day.

I usually suggest managers start by setting aside one hour every day as sacrosanct time for managing. During that hour, they do not fight fires. They use that hour for managing up front, before anything goes right, wrong, or average.

Taking those first steps toward effective managing takes discipline and guts. New behaviors, no matter how good they are, often don’t feel comfortable until they become habits. The transition period will be somewhat difficult. But if done right, it is good pain. Building more effective management habits means still having to deal with unexpected problems, but they won’t be the kinds of problems that could have been avoided.

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Tulgan is the best-selling author of numerous books, including “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy” (revised and updated, 2016), “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap” (2015), “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014), and “It’s Okay to be the Boss” (revised and updated, 2014). He has written for The New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training magazine, and the Huffington Post. Tulgan can be reached by e-mail at; followed on Twitter @BruceTulgan; or via his Website,


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