The Realpolitik Guide to Being a Great Manager

manager training whiteboard

Here you are, searching for how to be a great manager.

Maybe you just got promoted?
Or maybe you want to get even better.

In either case, congratulations to you.

This article will help you become a better manager with real-life advice based on both experience and science.

manager training whiteboard

#1. Power-Align With Execs

Power aligning is defined as:

A chameleon-like strategy of aligning with those who have power.
It consists of adapting the views, values, opinions, and styles of those in power, and can include adding value to those in power with social support, favors, and/or (public) flattery.

That being said, I don’t recommend faking it.
The costs are just too high.
It’s far better to find a place that really reflects your values, so you can just be yourself.

#1.2. Embody the Company’s Culture

Embodying the company’s culture is part of power-alignment.

Managers who fit the culture and buy into the vision are congruent with their words, actions, and body language.

And congruence of values, words and body language is exactly what allows you to come across as charismatic, persuasive and powerful (Morgan, 2014)

Reverse of the law: the power-sapping effect of not fitting the culture

Think about it:

Who stays in a place they don’t like, doing things they don’t believe in?

Is it powerful managers, managers with options, and who take charge of their lives?

Or is it managers with few options, who don’t respect their time and easily sell out their values?

Of course, it’s the latter.

The result: managing people in a culture where you can’t be yourself makes you look slimy, powerless and uncharismatic.

And if you decide to be sincere in a culture that you disagree with, one of two things will happen:

  1. The employees side with the company and against you
  2. The employees side with you and against the company

The latter is better for you, but unless you have the power to change the culture and overthrow the current leadership, then it’s best you go your own way.

#2. Develop Group Identity: Turn Individuals Into Team Players

You heard the saying “there are no “Is” in “team”, right?

But how do you do that?

Well, here is the most important aspect of building teams: you must lead your reports to identify with the team and/or company.
It’s that sense of belonging, often encapsulated in people defining themselves as team members, which turns individuals into teams.

John Turner, the developer of the self-categorization theory explains that when people define themselves as group members, they also start behaving as group members.

And it’s that self-definition which leads to team spirit and pro-social behavior such as mutual support and personal initiative to go the extra mile.

As a rule of thumb: the more your employees define themselves as part of your team, the prouder they will be for being part of that team.
And the prouder they will be, the harder they will work for you and for your team.

#3. Learn How to Wield Power

Great managers know how to wield power and influence.

This section will quickly review how you can effectively wield power and influence.

#3.2. Leveraging The 6 Forms of Power

Let’s start with the classics, shall we.

The most influential work when it comes to academic research on power has been that of French and Raven, who identify six different forms of power.

Let’s introduce them through an example: a manager who wants his reports to attend a weekend seminar.
That manager can achieve his goal through one of his 6 powers (or a combination of them):

  1. Rewards: pay the overtime, assign future high-visibility tasks, etc.
  2. Coercion: pass the employee for promotions, “mobbing”, assigning tasks that are humiliating or disempowering etc.
  3. Expertise: reports attend because the manager recommends it, and they trust him because he’s an expert (ie.: he says it, so it must be good)
  4. Information: the manager sells the idea well and makes the reports want to attend (this is persuasion)
  5. Legitimacy: reports attend because they recognize the manager’s authority over them (this is ranks and titles)
  6. Respect: reports attend because they respect their manager and look up to him (this is a subset of soft power)

What type of power managers use depends on context (Bacharach, 1980), personality, company’s culture (Ashforth, 1994) and, of course, who they are dealing with.

This is how managers feel they can use one of the six types of power, depending on who they are dealing with (superiors, peers or reports):

managers' ranks of french raven power styles effectiveness at work
Taxonomies of power and the observed capacity to use them on others (based on Kahn’s survey)

The managers were correct when it comes to the capacity to use power, and you might want to take note that expertise and persuasion are the true “win-all” when it comes to power.
That means expanding your expertise and improving your persuasive communication.

Also read:

But if you want to be a truly outstanding manager, then we can’t stop here.
We need now to discuss the ability to motivate and inspire your reports.

#3.3. Appeal to Intrinsic Motivation

Reward, coercive, and legitimate power are the easiest to use.


Because they come prepackaged with the territory.

The moment you got promoted to a managerial position you got the title (legitimate power) and you got the power tools of the trade (rewards and punishments).

But managers who stop there don’t get people.
And they are poor managers.
See an example from Don Draper:

Him: It’s your job! I give you money, you give me ideas (pushes a transactional, colder, “WIIFM” model of leadership)
Her: But you never say “thank you” (asks for emotional rewards / intrinsic motivation)
Him: That’s what the money is for! (doesn’t get it, and will soon lose her)

If Don Draper had been able to lead through intrinsic motivation, he would have been a more effective manager.

Classical research of Lippit & White, reproduced many times over in social science, shows that incentives might lead to compliance, but not to conversion.
Meaning: your reports might do it, but they will not believe in it and they will not take ownership of your goal.

Furthermore, only relying on rewards and punishment (or “carrots and sticks”) is costly for leaders.
Rewards and punishments deplete your resources, and disenfranchised employees require more supervision, which, again, costs time and money.

See the first half of the diagram: 

leadership with intrinsic motivation and social identity

What’s the alternative?

The alternative is intrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation includes:

  • Shared group identity with the team (ie.: reports proudly self-categorize as group members)
  • Shared identity with the manager (ie.: “us and the manager both belong to this great group”)
  • Alignment of individuals’ aspirations with team’s goals
  • Uplifting, supportive environment members want to be part of

Which one is superior, intrinsic, or extrinsic?

So far the accepted consensus in the social sciences is this:

As long as you reach a minimum threshold of salary, then intrinsic motivation is more effective than extrinsic motivation

That is of course even more obvious in politics, volunteer-based organizations, and wherever money plays a smaller role (Tyler & Blader, 2001).

But it’s a huge managerial mistake to think that in for-profit businesses, people are more motivated by money and “what’s in it for me” types of exchanges.

Organ and colleagues, for example, show that employees’ willingness to “go the extra mile” hinges on them not asking “what’s in it for me”.

And the very best for-profit companies are built around intrinsic motivation.

Simon Sinek, for example, makes a compelling case that people dream of working at Apple because Apple speaks to their identity and it helps them define “who they are”.
That’s the pinnacle of intrinsic motivation.

To you as a manager, it means yes, you must provide a fair salary, but also that you must appeal to higher motivations and ideals.
And don’t think that because you work in a dull industry it can’t be done: any team can foster a prideful sense of belonging.

Also read:

#4. Develop Your Personal Power

There is one form of power that we haven’t listed yet: 

Social power.

If you want to be more than a good manager and join the exec cadre, then you need to develop social power.

This website is here to support you.
But a few tips here:

1. Mind your social ROI & speak less

Managers who talk too much are perceived as being too friendly and chummy. 
Friendly and relatable, yes.

But too friendly and chummy, no. You can’t be top management material if you’re too close to the bottom layer.

2. Direct meetings, rather than acting like a participant

During team meetings, focus less on speaking and more on directing the discussion of others, making sure you stay on topic and keep it productive.

Help reach decisions, assign tasks, and then summarize: that’s how strong managers behave.

3. Apologize with a neutral tonality

Some people mistake “owning up to one’s mistake” with “over-apologizing”.

Powerful individuals have antifragile egos and are focused on getting things done, not on exculpating themselves.

Furthermore, too profuse an apology feels like begging for forgiveness, which is emotionally needy and puts you in a subservient position.

Learn to say “I’m sorry” in a more neutral tone:

Me: she’s going to be evaluated by our lovely… Sorry I mixed it up (flat tonality)

Skip the pose which might be a bit too cocky and hear the tonality of “I’m sorry”. 
It’s very neutral, as if to say “I’ve made a mistake there, so what, let’s move on”.

Also read:

#5. Acknowledge & Foster Meritocratic Hierarchies

All groups have a hierarchy (Peterson, 2018).

Leaders who pretend hierarchies don’t exist look weak and, equally bad, prevent a positive culture of meritocracy.

What should you base your hierarchies on?

Hierarchies must be based on tangible benefits people bring to the team, including:

  • Results 
  • Effort (ie.: show example of dedication and hard work)
  • Spirit (ie.: upbeat, positive, full team loyalty etc.)

Hierarchies function in parallel to actual job titles, since not everyone with the same title (or comparable title) contributes in the same way.

Acknowledging and respecting merit-based hierarchies shows that the manager rewards contribution. 
And it sends a simple message: if you want to advance in this team, all you gotta do is to help the team.

5.2. But Never Don’t Tell People Who’s Lower

One poor manager once said to my colleague:

Bad Manager: Lucio is more senior than you are

And with that, he created a rift in the team.

I didn’t feel close to him because he didn’t tell me. And my colleague hated him because he told her. And the two of us got closer together against our boss because we formed a bond against his “divide and conquer” strategy.

Don’t make the same mistake and never tell anyone they’re “lower” than someone else: it’s divisive and promotes internal infighting.

What you do instead is to simply reward those who contribute more and praise them more.
Which, in turn, will serve as an encouragement for everyone to do the same great job.

And that’s the hallmark of soft power and influence: having people work for your approval and rewards.

#6. Champion Your Group: They Will Love You For it

Theoretically, everyone should support the company as a whole.

But that’s not how people’s minds work.

Probably because of our evolution, people tend to break up bigger groups to form smaller units of allegiance.

None of your reports will say it out loud, but they secretly resent a manager who doesn’t to stand up for his team.
And everyone will love a manager who champions and defends his team.

#6.2. An Example of Defending Your Team

I still remember my very first manager.

There was Anton, the program manager from another unit who’d always grab me last minute for whatever he needed.
As a freshman, I wasn’t sure whether it was fair for me to say “no” or not, so I asked my manager.

He listened to me and then said: “whenever you feel it’s too much, simply tell me and I will take care of telling Anton to f*ck off”.

Well, he didn’t actually curse, but that was his message.

And that was the day my respect and admiration for him grew 10-fold.

This isn’t just me, of course.
Social research shows that the more your reports see you as defending and championing them, the more they will love you and support you.

Says leadership researcher Haslam:

Leaders’ capacity to exert influence—the very essence of leadership—rests on their behavior being seen to have “done it for us.”

Of course, “championing” your team within a bigger company requires some tact and can’t be too brutal and obvious.
But there are plenty of ways to do it.

#6.2. How to Show Support

There are many ways to support your team.

As well as to “romanticize” your support.

For example:

  • In salary negotiations, be (slightly) on your report’s side

There is always a tug of war between reports and HR.

Usually, HR has a range for each position, and it’s often in your best interest to help your reports be in the upper range.

If you are the founder negotiate with a “higher authority” for salary approval and play the good cop / bad cop through the higher authority (see: manipulative negotiation techniques).

20 Manipulative Negotiation Tactics

  • Leverage enemies (tactfully!) to show you’re on their side

It’s a well-known phenomenon that enemies help a group to bond.

Of course, you gotta be careful here.

Exaggerating will make you come across as a bad fit for the organization.

But imagine your report complains to you about “that other department” which, as usual, is slowing down his work.
The typical manager response that you’re all part of the same company will frustrate your employee.

Instead, you will still give the “we’re all one company” spiel, but you will add a slight sigh, a head shake… All this communicates to your report “I’m with you, I get you”, but without sticking your neck out.

Also read:

Manipulation: Techniques, Strategies, & Ethics

#7. Set The Ideal With Your Example

enlightened leader

Look at it this way:

You want to be representative of the group but, as a manager, you want to represent the group as one of its very best members.

Standing out because of your personality and/or performance will make your leadership all the more influential.

On the other hand, being an average performer will make it harder to manage the most driven individuals, who will be thinking “who the hell is this guy to manage me”.

Some crucial areas to excel at:

  • Work Ethics: work harder than anyone else
  • Work quality: deliver great work
  • Preparation: prepare, because sloppy managers lead sloppy teams
  • Knowledge: know more than anyone else
  • Learnability: show your inner strength by appreciating “learning” more than “being right” (see: how to develop a growth mindset)

And avoid:

  • Social climbing 
  • Competing with the reports (remember: you are the manager, see yourself as a hunter and groomer of talent)
  • Getting too wasted at companies’ parties (nothing screams “sloppy” as an overly drunk manager, only beat by a wasted manager who gets too emotional or too sexually forward)
  • Abuses of power, including:
    • Personal vendettas
    • Sleeping with reports
    • Demanding exceptions

And, finally: keep your ego in check.
Leadership grounded in shared identity beats ego-driven leadership.

It’s good talking about how great you are, but never make it about you and always make it about “we, the team”.

#8. Keep A Healthy Emotional Distance

This entry addresses two points:

  1. Emotional closeness (how friendly you are)
  2. Emotional vulnerability

Vulnerability is all over the place these days.

But a manager cannot be too vulnerable.

Over-sharing your feelings, personal stories, fears and hang-ups will make you seem weak and too close to your reports to actually lead them.

Much better to keep most of your private life private, especially at work and in the beginning.

Then, when you will open up a bit outside of the office, it will feel like you are truly trusting your reports.
And it will feel special.

Also read:

Everyone asks for a vulnerable manager.
Except that when they get one, they don’t really respect him.
-The Power Moves

#9. Dispense Emotional Rewards

You know the sales mantra?

Always be closing.

The good manager mantra could be:

Every time you seem something good, say it

As Blanchard and Johnson say in “The One Minute Manager“, most managers give feedback only when something is wrong.

And just like that, they make the employee feel like whatever they do is wrong and that they unfairly criticized and underappreciated.

#9.2. Example: The Emotionally-Challenged Manager

Some years ago I quit work and went traveling.

And when I came back, I started negotiating with my previous employer.

During those days the parent-holding threw a big party that both I and my boss attended.
And, together with an “I got you SOB expression”, this is the very first thing he told me when I saw him:

Bad Manager: You know that your last customer isn’t using the money? But you got the bonus, eh?

What an interesting way to say “hello” at a party… And considering that at that point all the customers they had were from my sales.

Don’t fall for that: always highlight great performance. 
And always show it and publicize it with external people.

Prop Tip:
When you receive external compliments, confirm and then share the compliment with your team. 
See an example here:

example of great management

Sharing praise: a simple, cost-effective way of increasing cohesion, intrinsic motivation, and promote meritocracy

#10. Don’t Shy Away From Occasional Outbursts

Machiavelli said:

It’s better to be feared than to be loved.

And here is the best part: fear and love are not antithetical.

A strong manager who loves and cares about his team… But who seldom also gets angry will often achieve both at the same time.

A constantly calm manager, often described as the ideal in most “how to be a great manager” guides, is suspicious.

Your reports will be asking if you’re some kind of emotionally impaired psychopath and if they can really relate to you.
Or, even worse, they might ask themselves if you even have what it takes to raise your voice or if you’re not too weak.

Put those questions to rest with well-calibrated outbursts.

See the mostly calm and cool Michael Corleone, but getting emotionally wild when it’s needed:

Godfather: (low voice) you heard what happened in my home?
Caporegime: Michael I almost died myself…

Raising your voice is not your style?

No problem!

You can achieve the same effect with harsh feedback or honest expression for disappointment.

For example:

Strong manager: that would have been OK for someone else. But not from you. You have much better potential than this. I expect better from you

Notice that this is uplifting and inclusive at the same time that it’s a harsh feedback.

At first, this will break rapport.
But then, once they fix their performance, you are even warmer to them. As if to say “now, with this kind of contribution you are really a great team member”.

That’s emotionally addictive, but in a positive way.

#11. Be Honest: It Fosters Team-Spirit

So obvious, yet so underappreciated.

Keep that in mind:

Selfish managers break their teams into their selfish individual components

When it comes to culture and behavior, as a manager, you are the most important individual in the team.

If your team perceives you as being unfair, corrupt, or selfish, they will generalize those traits to the whole team.

They will stop considering the team “a team” and they will revert from pro-social behavior to the more cynical and selfish approach of “what’s in it for me”.

This can lead to a vicious circle where everyone focuses on taking and nobody gives anymore (in public good games this is also referred to as the tragedy of commons).

Social research proves this law of management over and over.
For example, Tyler and Degoey found out that during water shortages people weren’t willing to save water based on how severe the shortage was, but based on how honest they thought the politicians were.

Think about it again: people didn’t contribute depending on the severity of the threat, but depending on the fairness of the leader.

Luckily, the opposite is also true.
And principled leaders set the examples to turn selfish individuals into a collaborative team.

This is why, if you are wondering how to manage great teams, the simplest answer is: be a great team player.

In social-psychology Tyler & Blader call this phenomenon “Group Engagement Model”, and it’s been confirmed by experiments of game theory as well (also see “Ridley, 1996“).

See a diagram here:

group engagement model for effective leadership

#12. Fire Anti-Social Individuals (Quickly!)

The same law applies to team members.

This is the rule of thumb when it comes to team spirit and cooperation:

Rotten apples spoil the bunch.

That’s not a maxim, it’s (social) science.
Let’s quickly review it.

Experiments show that the biggest group of people in any team are “conditional cooperators” (around 50% to be precise).

What does that mean?

That means that most people cooperate only as long as the majority cooperates
And when they see selfish individuals (free-riders) who take more than they give, they start re-assessing their pro-social strategy.

And if the number of free-riders passes a certain threshold, conditional cooperators stop giving completely.

When that happens, you don’t have a team anymore.
You have a bunch of selfish operators.

And that is why a good team manager must recognize selfish operators and get rid of them as soon as possible (or inoculate them, if they are irreplaceable).

Luckily, even here the opposite is also true: when a spirit of cooperation and support permeates the team, the majority of people also start giving more. 
The increased contribution is often related to how much more others contribute, which is why it’s possible to start a virtuous cycle of cooperation.

As the manager, you must set the example of that virtuous circle of cooperation.

Pro Tip
Don’t rely on the company’s sponsored lunches to foster cooperation. It must come from you.
And it doesn’t have to be based on resources of course: wisdom, support, finding time for 1 on 1, working hard, caring and championing… These all count as team’s contribution.

#12.2. & Be Quick to Fire Your Enemies 

This might sound Machiavellian, but it’s not.

As a manager, you are the lighthouse of the team.
And if you are doing a great job, your enemies are the team’s enemies (and vice versa).

Keeping enemies within the group indeed is dangerous not only for yourself, but for the team as well.

Enemies who know what they’re doing will be scheming against you and forming a coalition of haters.

As legendary Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson said:

The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided

This is similar to the collaborators and freeloaders split we have just seen in the previous step.
Most teams will have leaders’ loyalists, some members who are more neutral and, as well, it might present some hostile players.

When internal enemies are left free to operate, a split will take place between the loyalists and the rebellious faction. 
The first victim, of course, is the team’s morale, atmosphere, and effectiveness.


Whenever you suspect an enemy, cut him loose.

Also see:

Beware of The Employees’ Masks


Your reports lie to you.

Not because they’re liars, but because they’re human beings.

Managers tend to see the best side of their employees. The smiles, the kindness, the shirt with the company’s logo… But that’s only the front.

Many employees put a front because depend on you, and you cannot expect full honesty from people who depend on others (that’s why this website embraces emotional and financial independence alike).

And that’s why, as a manager, you need to learn to peer behind the mask.

But Ultimately, You Must Accept The Manager’s Burden

The manager’s burden is to serve without expecting eternal loyalty.

Great managers know the ambivalent nature of people towards power. They know that on one side people crave a leader while at the same time resenting the leader’s power over them.
And they might as well find pleasure in seeing the leader fall.

But… What are great managers going to do, anyway?

The best leaders lead because they’re the best ones at doing it. What else are they going to do, not serving?

That’s the leader’s burden: you simply must do it. Shoulder the responsibility… And shoulder the blame if things go wrong.

Only when you can accept the leader’s burden you can become a great manager.

Career Strategies

Start with this article here:

And then move onto getting smarter about your own career moves:


Being a great manager is more difficult than being a great leader, because you have more constraints.

But it’s possible.
And you have the chance to positively impact many people’s lives, which is both a great opportunity and a great responsibility.

This is a preview of Power University. The lesson in the course has more examples, more steps, and more practical advice

1 thought on “The Realpolitik Guide to Being a Great Manager”

  1. Some real world wisdom here.
    It’s like Robert Greene with science and modern examples.
    This website is dope, happy to have found it and thank you for sharing!

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