McCain the Seagull Manager


When John McCain cancelled Wednesday’s scheduled appearance on the Dave Letterman show to fly back to Washington and tend to legislation aimed at slowing the unraveling US economy, Letterman said he, “felt like a patriot.”

When McCain sat for an interview with Katie Couric Wednesday, and then didn’t leave New York for Washington until Thursday, Letterman’s tone changed. “Now I’m feeling like an ugly date,” Letterman said Thursday night.

Most people feel this way when they’ve just been bombed by a seagull manager.

McCain also said he would not attend Friday’s debate unless a deal was reached on the $700 billion bailout of our country’s sullied financial institutions. Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock you know how that one turned out–McCain once again changed his tune.

Honesty, or at least walking your talk, is not McCain’s flaw here. He’s just falling victim to the myth that so many managers succumb to these days–that it’s his duty to fly around putting out fires. He thinks he can swoop in on a problem that teams of qualified people have not been able to solve, and drop a magic solution that no one else has been able to see.

He dropped something alright.

The University of Mississippi spent millions preparing for Friday night’s debate, and by midday Friday the pressure mounting for McCain to attend the debate finally reached a head. McCain’s campaign released the following statement, “He is optimistic that there has been significant progress toward a bipartisan agreement now that there is a framework for all parties to be represented in negotiations, including Rep. [Roy] Blunt as a designated negotiator for House Republicans.” Right.

McCain’s sincere desire to present himself this week as a leader who can solve this country’s problems ends up amounting to a lot of wing-flapping, squawking and even a little dumping, at least where David Letterman is concerned.

John McCain is not alone. Today’s workplace is breeding seagull managers like wildfire. As companies flatten in response to the lagging economy they gut management layers. The remaining managers are left with more autonomy, greater responsibility, and more people to manage. That means they have less time and less accountability for focusing on the primary purpose of their job–managing people.

Seagull managers only interact with their employees when there’s a fire to put out. Even then, they move in and out so hastily–and put so little thought into their approach–that they make bad situations worse by frustrating and alienating those who need them the most. Instead of taking the time to get the facts straight and working alongside their staff to realize a viable solution, seagull managers swoop in at the last minute, squawk at everybody, and deposit steaming piles of formulaic advice before abruptly taking off and leaving behind an even bigger mess than when they started.

According to a recent study published in Human Resource Executive magazine, a third of US workers spend a minimum of twenty hours per month in the office complaining about their boss. The Gallup Poll estimates US corporations lose 360 billion dollars annually due to lost productivity from employees who are dissatisfied with, you guessed it, their boss. And if there’s but one hard truth the Gallup Polls have taught US Corporations in the last decade, it’s that people may join companies, but they will leave bosses.

No one influences an employee’s morale and productivity more than his or her supervisor. It’s that simple. Yet, as common as this knowledge may seem, it clearly hasn’t been enough to change the way that managers and organizations treat people. Few companies recognize the degree to which managers are the vessels of a company’s culture, and even fewer work diligently to ensure that their vessels hold the knowledge and skills that motivate employees to perform, feel satisfied, and love their jobs. Senior leadership in US corporations is unschooled in the profoundly negative impact seagull managers are having upon their bottom line. The very individuals with the authority to alter the course of company culture lack the facts that would impel them to do so.

It’s easy to spot a seagull manager when you’re on the receiving end of the airborne dumps, but the manager doing the swooping, squawking, and dumping is often unaware of the negative impact of his or her behavior.

If McCain’s camp can’t intercept the seagull and change his course mid flight, he’ll spend 2009 back on his perch in the Senate instead of in the White House.


Dr. Travis Bradberry is the president of think tank and consultancy TalentSmart. His new book, “Squawk! How to Stop Making Noise and Start Getting Results,” addresses the problem of seagull managers in the workplace and is published by HarperCollins.

By Dr. Travis Bradberry