I will never forget my first managerial experience. It was 10 years ago, or maybe more, but it seems a lifetime ago and is difficult to remember. It’s as if it happened to a total stranger instead of me. I sometimes see it in my dreams.
I always keep it in mind when giving support to other managers. It somehow always leaks into my educational workshops or speeches about management, leadership, and coaching, because that was when I started to understand what it meant to be a manager and work with people.
You’re probably wondering exactly what it was that affected me so much, or why I’ve carried this experience with me until now. It was a turning point in my life, because for the first time, I encountered a problem I could not solve by reading, pondering, or studying. For the first time, I took responsibility for a problem that I couldn’t solve by applying a specific algorithm, formula, or process. This time I couldn’t solve it by restarting the computer as a last resort. Right!

I didn’t admit it to myself, but I sensed intuitively that the problems occurring in my professional relationships were similar to those in my private life. For the first time, the problems fell into my main areas of responsibility. Also, contrary to my expectations, trying to use the skills that enabled me to manage so many people and take responsibility for such big targets in short timescales turned out to be harmful rather than helpful.

I remember saying to myself that things were getting out of control, and I didn’t have a clue how to sort it out. At that moment, I really empathized with the “incompetent” ones who I had criticized constantly.

Is this story familiar to you? I hope not, but many of us will have had similar experiences. Unfortunately, it is mostly a sea of paradoxes if we stop and examine our current careers or even our lives that led us to become managers or whatever else we wanted to do. Just think about it! Our responsibilities increase as we are promoted, whereas the power of control we need to effect outcomes decreases. We suppose that as we climb the ladder, we will become ruler of everything. Later, we realize that we are expected to determine the strategies and keep our fingers crossed that the employees will follow them.

We, the managers, are expected to move and execute very quickly, but as we start to move, everybody tends to resist change. The employees want us to stop using—or at least implementing—the skills, talents, expertise, and experience that enabled us to get to this position.

The rising career of a manager is very interesting when you think about it. Once every couple of years, you get promoted because you have been successful. People want you to give up your job, which you know very well, and to become a student of another job that you have no knowledge of. This evokes something in my mind. This is a road that you have walked step by step, where the knowledge required at each level is very different or even contradictory to the previous levels… A road where you find yourself a student at a very different level while telling yourself you have completed the job successfully… A journey where you give up what you’ve just achieved… A journey that you restart towards new achievements. Educator George Leonard called it “The Master’s Journey.”

You must realize this: There are two ways to experience your career, your managerial life, and even your private life and relationships. If you choose the first way, you try to reach “that point” and hope every new harbor you arrive in will be comfortable and safe, so you will reach ultimate happiness. Unfortunately, every time you feel this, you become disappointed when you realize this it is not the case. You realize the journey is not over yet. Just as you become comfortable, you are expected to leave this safe area and learn new things that seem counterintuitive. You need to become proficient with things you don’t understand or agree with. You react to this situation with fear and resistance. You say that there is no time for learning new skills and pray the system doesn’t make you a manager. You say things like, “Yes, you’re right, but real life isn’t like that” to the consultant or trainer talking to you. Maybe you quit reading this article around this point. If you can stand working for 14 hours a day while also doing the job of your employees, you might achieve the business figures expected and be promoted by your manager, who most probably does your job without complaint. You say, “Yes, I’m done now. I’ll find peace and comfort now I’ve reached “that point,” at least until the next disappointment. Finally, you lose hope and announce that neither the world nor your working life will give you your wishes and expectations.

There is also a second way, which we’ve already mentioned as “the master’s journey”… A person who starts the master’s journey knows there will be no aims or targets in this journey.

The target is the journey itself. The master is on the journey merely to experience it, not to reach somewhere. On his way, the master meets travelers, who are astonished as he prepares for his next journey while resting at a stop. Many of these travelers have been waiting at that stop for years, and they feel uneasy while waiting. They know deep down they’ve been waiting at this stop because of their fears, but they can’t admit it. If they did, they would have to confront their fears and take action, or it would make them feel worse and unable to move forward. As a result, they want to persuade the master to stay at the stop too.

They say things like, “There’s nothing wrong with this stop” or “The road ends after this stop. I know people who’ve been there—I heard it with my own ears.” Or they say, “This is how the system works,” “My parents didn’t raise me as a leader,” and “I have children to look after”… They keep saying and saying… The traveler of the mastership, in other words the “manager,” listens to them all but doesn’t give up his journey. He knows that becoming a master is about continuing on the road rather than possessing talents or skills. He always knows that there is a next stop. He lives his career and his life like the “warrior” in Carlos Castaneda’s book The Teachings of Don Juan: “The basic difference between an ordinary man and a warrior is that a warrior takes everything as a challenge while an ordinary man takes everything as a blessing or a curse.” Thus, the master grows and improves with each step forward, acting like a student at each step. A master manager knows that the only way to reach mastership is to give up mastership.

A master manager is well aware that becoming the master of something is very different to becoming a specialist in a certain role or subject.

Being a specialist may be an important step on the road to mastership, but one must also give up this expertise on the way to becoming a master. A master manager knows very well that a person can only become the master of one thing: life itself. This is why a master manager is not only the master of the job, but also of relationships. Our master manager is a master of enjoying, dreaming, being solid and down to earth, making strategies, getting his hands dirty, and even making mistakes, but at the same time he is a master at learning from his mistakes. He knows that being a master of anything actually means being a student of them. Thus the team, company, or crew of a master manager easily accomplish their business figures and targets. They can even exceed their targets without exhausting themselves. A master manager can always achieve moral results too, even if he doesn’t always behave according to the tactics and models taught by leadership books. He knows there is something deeper than tactics and techniques. Even if he practices the recommended techniques and tactics, he knows his team will perceive the feelings, thoughts, and senses deep down inside. Therefore, he manages himself first before working miracles by applying the right behaviors and models on others.

Stories of managers who live their lives and careers using these two ways are conveyed to children and students in the media, books, management case studies, financial newspapers, and magazines. However, only the “master manager” himself feels proud.

Dost Can Deniz