Strength in a Manager: The materials analogy

No manager operates without stresses of all kinds. He is continuously subjected to physical, mental, psychological and emotional stresses. They may be cyclic or prolonged or sporadic or intermittent. It is his ability to withstand stress and continue operating without breaking down which we can call his strength of character. An individual’s strength is always present and is brought to bear automatically whenever stress is encountered. It cannot be turned “on” or “off” at will or to suit changing circumstances but it is never absent. It is unique to the individual and different individuals will be more or less suitable for the particular stresses encountered. Strength carries no connotations of inherent goodness or badness but whether it is wholly or partially sufficient or suitable depends on the particular individual and the specific stresses experienced.

The materials analogy

The strength of a material is a measure of its ability to withstand stress without failure by fracture or by rupture.

The strength of character of a person is a measure of his ability to withstand the stresses he encounters without failure by “breaking down”.

Napoleon Hill 

“Character is to man what carbon is to steel”

It is remarkable that so many of the terms used in materials science to describe the strength of materials are also applicable to human character. Strong, tough, resilient, brittle, malleable, tempered, hard, stiff, yield, stress, strain, deformation, ductile, elastic, rigid, fracture, fatigued and twisted are all words which have very precise meanings when applied to the properties and behaviour of materials. They are also all words which can be used – with very similar meanings – in describing facets of human character.

Stress in materials science is measured in units of the force applied per unit area of the material. Stress may be tensile (longitudinal pulling) or compressive (longitudinal squeezing) or it may be shear (sideways) or it may be torsion (twisting). The strength of a material is determined by its microstructure and defined as the magnitude of the stress that must be applied for the material to fail by fracture or by rupture.

There seem to be many parallels between the properties of inanimate materials and the components of human character. A person’s strength of character is similarly dependent upon his microstructure and is also a measure of his breaking stress. Toughness in a person, just as in materials, is not synonymous with strength but it is a related characteristic. It represents a person’s ability to absorb a great volume of stress or repeated applications of stress where he may yield to some extent, but does not break. As with a material, his resilience marks his ability to absorb setbacks and to recover his equanimity. He can also be subject to repeated stress cycles or difficult working conditions for prolonged periods leading to fatigue or creep where a gradual onset of small failings can lead to a total failure. Stubbornness in character has great similarity to brittleness in a material. The microstructure of the manager’s character, just like that of a material, can be changed by tempering or hardening or some other strengthening processes. Some managers are strong in tension and resist being pulled along by the latest fashion. Others are strong in compression and can withstand the weight of many trying to squeeze them into a particular shape. Just as material properties make them suitable for particular applications, the different characters of managers make them suitable for particular environments or particular tasks.

Properties of materials are amenable to precise tests and the results of the tests, which can be expressed mathematically, apply universally to all materials having the same composition and microstructure. Human characteristics are subject to much greater variation, are not as easily measurable and cannot be as readily predicted. Tests for the ultimate strength of a material are carried out by stressing a standard piece of the material to the point of destruction and the test pieces themselves are thereafter rendered useless. The strength of human character however, is not amenable to similar testing and does not allow of the same quantitative and mathematical approach. The science of materials though, is illustrative of, and does provide some very valuable insights regarding, human character, but it must be emphasized that it is only an analogy. Analogies serve very well for getting clarity in a new area of study by comparison with a familiar area, but there are many aspects of human character which are quite unlike material properties and the analogy no longer applies. Unlike materials, even conflicting character traits can co-exist in a person and the same trait can be manifested differently in different circumstances or at different times. A material is either brittle or it is ductile, but never both. But human character, for example, may be brittle and uncompromising in regard to integrity but flexible with regard to fallibility, both at the same time. A particular manager may be malleable and yielding with his superior while being hard or inflexible with a subordinate.   A manager may exhibit different, and even diametrically opposite, character traits to the same person but at different times. Strength of character is not an independent trait in itself but is a composite of many different features.

From Chapter 6: Essence of a Manager

Tags: , , ,


%d bloggers like this: