Giving Power to Untrained Managers

In my recent interview with Richard Rierson, host of the Dose of Leadership podcast, I made this statement:

Giving power to untrained managers is like giving them scalpels and telling them to do surgery. It’s risky.

Some people—okay, most people—are pitched into the leadership fray without really knowing what to expect or do. They were born with the potential to lead but have not yet learned the critical leadership principles needed to be successful. And unfortunately, most organizations don’t provide much help in the way of leadership training.

To illustrate the point, here’s a somewhat ridiculous training scenario from my book, Leaders Ought to Know: 11 Ground Rules for Common Sense Leadership. Singling out two training participants at random — I’ll call them Jack and Janet — the exercise unfolds like this:

Me speaking to the entire group:

“Folks, you’re probably not aware of it, but we have an individual with us today who has a hidden dream. Jack, here, has always wanted to be a surgeon. Ever since he was a little boy, he has fantasized about being able to save lives and help people with desperate physical needs. You may not have known this about Jack because he’s a relatively private person. But this has been Jack’s dream nevertheless. Isn’t that right, Jack?”

Though slightly suspicious, Jack good-naturedly plays along. Others in the room are usually snickering by now, possibly considering the far-fetched nature of such a possibility. I continue:

“Earlier today, Jack decided to finally act on his dream of becoming a surgeon. He drove down to the local medical center and proceeded to the surgical unit. Once there, Jack walked purposefully past the ‘No Admittance: Authorized Medical Personnel Only’ signs and made his way directly into the surgical prep room, where he came face-to-face with that famous surgeon, Dr. Van Hooser—me—who had just finished scrubbing up for a waiting surgical patient.”

I identify myself as the famous surgeon to the laughter of the group, including Jack. Janet is enjoying the activity, along with the others, oblivious to the fact that she will soon be drawn into this unfolding scenario as an unwitting participant. 

“‘Who are you?’ I ask, as Jack enters my operating room.

“‘Jack,’ he answers simply.

“‘No, young man, you don’t understand. I don’t really care who you are. I want to know—who do you think you are barging into my operating room uninvited?’

“‘I’m sorry, Dr. Van Hooser, sir,’ Jack explains. ‘I’m here because I’ve always wanted to be a surgeon. I know I can do it. I know I can be successful. All I need is a chance. I need someone—you—to give me a chance to prove myself.’

“‘Have you ever been to med school?’ I ask pointedly.

“‘No, sir, but I want to be a surgeon.’

“‘Have you ever taken any anatomy or physiology classes?’

“‘No, sir, but I really want to be a surgeon.’

“‘Have you ever been in a real surgical situation, even observing an actual surgery in progress?’

“‘No, sir, but I really want to be a surgeon and I’m willing to try.’”

“‘Young man, don’t ask me to explain why I’m about to do what I’m about to do. But for some reason, my gut is telling me that you might just make it as an acceptable surgeon one day. Therefore, this is what I want you to do right now. Here’s my scalpel. Take it. Now, there’s a patient prepped and waiting on the other side of this door. Her name is Janet.’”

Janet’s attention is immediately arrested. Laughter ensues as the audience begins to anticipate what happens next. Everyone is laughing now, except Janet.

“‘I want you to go through that door and attempt to remove Janet’s appendix. If she makes it through the surgery, we can discuss the possibility of sending you off to med school sometime in the future so you can actually learn what you should know to be a surgeon.’”

Laughter intensifies. Finally, turning my full attention now to Janet, I ask:

“‘So, Janet, how are you feeling right about now?’

“‘Not too good! I think I want another opinion,’ says Janet.”

The room is fully engulfed in laughter now, including Jack and Janet. Once the laughter dies down, I make the following learning points.

“Folks, I think we all agree that the scenario I’ve just created is ridiculous, regardless the angle from which you might evaluate it. It’s absurd to imagine, whether you are in Jack’s shoes, Dr. Van Hooser’s shoes, and especially if you’re in Janet’s shoes. Agreed?

The audience agrees.

“However, I’m here to tell you that as ridiculous as it may seem, similar situations happen virtually every day in organizations across America and around the world. On a daily basis, organizations entrust their future to genuinely dedicated individuals who sincerely want to do well but who have received no specialized training or preparation and have not an inkling as to how to effectively lead, influence, and impact people to accomplish organizational goals such as productivity, profitability, quality, and safety.

“We are giving untrained, unqualified individuals (managers) a scalpel, in the form of the power of the position, without training them how to use it, and then encouraging them to go do surgery on their departments and on their employees.

“At the very same time, the employees on the other side of the door are waiting—even longing—for qualified supervisors, managers, and leaders to emerge to help them with the challenges they’re facing, challenges they will never be able to overcome alone. They’re desperately searching for someone who knows how to lead and can do so effectively. They’re looking for someone to follow.”

A risky practice? A necessary approach? Please share your views.

Leaders Ought to Know book videoPhillip Van Hooser
Leadership Expert, Keynote Speaker
Author of Leaders Ought to Know: 11 Ground Rules for Common Sense Leadership


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Excerpts are reprinted by permission from the publisher, Wiley, from Leaders Ought to Know: 11 Ground Rules for Common Sense Leadership, by Phillip Van Hooser copyright (c) 2013 by Phillip Van Hooser. To purchase a copy of the book, please visit

Phillip Van Hooser

Phillip Van Hooser, CSP, CPAE is committed to helping organizations transform their business outcomes by building engaged employee relationships. He is an award-winning keynote speaker and author on engaged leadership and communication. His most recent book is “Earning The Right To Be Heard," a primer for creating greater influence and opportunities. Connect with Phil on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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