Some Musings on Abraham Zelnick

By Mary T. O’Sullivan

The management guru, Abraham Zelnick theorized that there was a good reason that managers managed and leaders led. It all has to do with which one is willing to take a risk.

“For those who become managers, a survival instinct dominates the need for risk, and with the instinct comes an ability to tolerate mundane, practical work.” – Zelnick.

Jake is a manager who survived much reorganization and always lands some position with a fair amount of power. Evidently, the key to his survival is to ensure some level of attention from those at the next level up. His goal was to “be the chief of staff” for upper management. Jake ensured that he had some part, no matter how small in senior level meetings, even if it meant his only function was advancing the slides. He actually grew in this miniscule role, and soon he was scouting out venues for management retreats. He finagled a major award from Special Olympics for the the company’s president by manipulating the company’s internal finance system:  The award was given in exchange for a $10,000 corporate donation. And, he was in charge of the invitation list, with all the perceived rising stars attending. Jake made it a point to let everyone know that he was the president’s (always using his first name) right hand man.

Others may have overlooked this behavior, except that Jake was responsible for a sizable organization of his own. To ward off failure, he surrounded himself with a group of marginally competent sycophants, not unlike himself, who executed his business obligations. Projects underway were handled with a check in the box mentality, always perfunctory and under the radar. One of Jake’s direct reports, with no business experience, led a major review of new business failures. She conjured up an action item list for everyone else in the department to complete. Acceptable responses consisted of only the bare minimum amount of effort.  Instead of showing how things could be done differently or improved, the last paper or policy created for similar issues was resurrected . The project was considered completed in the specified amount of time, and Jake’s whole internal team received an achievement award, permitting Jake to be free do master yet another mundane skill he perceived to be needed by upper management. (Purchasing a GPS for a new VP, using company funds.) Jake’s major talent was to perform the most ordinary and commonplace work. He knew in order to rise in the eyes of upper management; he had to make himself indispensable. Jake endured some level of derision in his role: “lapdog, lackey, water boy”, etc. were applied. But he seemed to take it all in good cheer. “Somebody has to do it” became his mantra.

Jake’s management style seems to defy definition. He has the qualities of an administrator: he believes in a strong chain of command, and unity of command principal, but lacks the elements of fairness and equity that characterize “Administrative” style. It would seem that Jake is really not managerial material, but more of an individual contributor, even though he relies on a certain number of direct reports to ensure his feeling of power and importance and actually do work.

If we use Zaleznik’s model for describing leadership behavior, specific examples become less clear. Large corporations often discourage the described leadership behaviors of challenge, aggressiveness, and innovation, as these behaviors often are seen as negative and even threatening.

The website Changing Minds.Org devotes a page to leadership versus management. (http://changeminds.org/disciplines/leadership/articles/manager_leader.htm)

They assert that true leaders attract voluntary followers, possess a charismatic, transformational style, people focus, and seek risk.

There are many leaders who fit that description, however, managers like Jake with their sycophantic style, ability to manage up, and knack for self preservation somehow seem to survive for years.


If you are struggling with a boss like Jake, give me a call. Your first 30 minutes are complimentary. 401-742-1965


Mary T. O'Sullivan

Mary T. O’Sullivan, Master of Science, Organizational Leadership, Member, International Coaching Federation, Society of Human Resource Management. Candidate, Master’s Certificate in Executive and Professional Career Coaching, University of Texas at Dallas. Member Beta Gamma Sigma, the International Honor Society. Advanced Studies in Education from Montclair University, SUNY Oswego and Syracuse University. Mary is also a certified Six Sigma Specialist, Contract Specialist, IPT Leader and holds a Certificate in Essentials of Human Resource Management from SHRM. Mary O’Sullivan has over 30 years experience in the aerospace and defense industry. In each of her roles, she acted as a change agent, moving teams and individuals from status quo to new ways of thinking, through offering solutions focused on changing behaviors and fostering growth. In additional, Mary holds a permanent teaching certificate in the State of New York for secondary education, and taught high school English for 10 years in the Syracuse, NY area.