In my time observing managers, one observation seems to repeat again and again: good managers write well, and bad managers write poorly. In fact, the best managers I’ve ever seen were not just good writers, they were terrific. And the worst managers I’ve ever had were not just bad writers, they were uncommonly bad.
I’ve started to reflect more on why this might be the case, as well as the implications of this trend.
Why Are Good Managers Good Writers?
I think good managers are good writers for several reasons, including:
- Writing is thinking
- Writing shows commitment to durable and transparent ideas
- Writing requires humility
- Writing requires handling ambiguity
Writing Is Thinking
The first reason seems obvious - to write well, one must think clearly and express multi-faceted ideas and arguments in a way that is easily digestible. To be a good manager, you must be able to do the same.
At their core, good writing and good management are about taking in the world, thinking about it, and communicating back out something of value.
Writing shows commitment to durable and transparent ideas
Bad managers are fickle and cowardly - they shirk from responsibility, blame others, criticize without contributing. However, the worst sin of bad managers is that they distort reality. They spin tales, make wild claims on what happened, and constantly rewrite history. To do this, they need to avoid clear statements of their beliefs, diagnoses, recommendations, and plans.
Writing is the opposite. Writing is a commitment to durable and transparent ideas. Writing says: I am here, I believe this, I stand by it.
When managers foster a writing culture, they create, at minimum, a consistent reality for their teams to live in. That level of transparency and durability is the kind of stuff that companies can be built off of.
Writing requires humility
The best managers and writers don’t just share durable and transparent ideas, they also invite and integrate critical feedback. They edit. And edit. And edit some more.
Good writing is often a collaborative art. Good writing is a commitment to finding the best way of communicating the best ideas. Good managers have the will and ability to handle critical feedback; they know how to consider and reject the wrong feedback and how to consider and integrate the right feedback.
Bad managers fear feedback - their authority relies on avoidance of a sufficient challenge. Open and honest feedback is a threat to bad managers, and when it happens they either accept it wholesale or reject it entirely. They don’t have the integrity or ability to make nuanced decisions.
Note: when bad managers accept all critical feedback, it’s because they blame it on someone else, e.g. “my whole team is unhappy, and I openly agree with them, because it’s somebody else’s fault.”
Writing requires handling ambiguity
Writing is a soft skill. There’s no formula for good writing and there’s no absolute judgment on what good writing is.
Bad managers hate ambiguity. A bad manager’s worldview revolves around winners and losers, good and bad. Ambiguity is a threat to their simple self-righteousness.
Good managers thrive in ambiguity. To good managers, the world isn’t good or bad - it’s complicated. Good managers find a way to have great outcomes without relying on simplifying models of people and the world around them.
The ability to write well and the ability to manage well both require finding success from an infinite number of ambiguous variables.
Good management requires good writing - so what?
I strongly believe that good management and good writing ability are at least correlated. What can we do with this idea? Some thoughts:
- I’m increasingly intrigued by the idea of interviewing managers with a writing prompt. It’s certainly not common, but I suspect it would be very high signal.
- If you’re a manager and you either avoid writing or feel you could meaningfully improve, try to write more and get better at it! It might make you a better manager. You’d certainly be better at the writing parts. Writing is one of the few skills that managers can improve and have it be entirely transferable.
- I’d bet that being good at writing is a prerequisite for success for any job that involves leading, instructing, or convincing many highly-skilled knowledge workers.
- Being good at writing likely isn’t necessary for many jobs. I’d bet it tapers with the amount of interaction needed. You can probably be a great painter and a poor writer.