napoleon managerMany books have been written about the skills and personality traits that express themselves in truly great managers. And I’ve read none of them.

But the good news is that I have worked with a lot of managers, both as their employee and as their senior manager, and there is one critical skill that manifests itself so frequently that it basically bifurcates those who possess it and those who do not:

Battle-picking.

When I begin working with a manager at one of my companies, I look for this skill immediately. If the person possesses it, then he or she will probably thrive in a managerial capacity. If they do not, then they will probably fail.

There is no other skill that is so decisive in its “make or break” nature.

Simply stated, a great manager knows how to conserve their energy and credibility for precisely the right moment. They know when to raise their voice, and they know when to hold back. They know when to let their employees make decisions — even decisions that they believe to be incorrect — so that they can really come down hard at that moment when it matters. It’s no different than when a marathon runner paces herself for the final stretch or when Eddie Van Halen saves that one killer guitar solo for the encore.

My goal is for employees to say, “Bryan is really easy-going, and he lets us manage our own affairs… except when something really big happens.”

To some extent, I want to be almost deceptively easy-going and hands-off.

Because most companies’ histories can be distilled into five or six key moments — and I want to face as little opposition as possible when those moments arrive. Those five or six moments will determine whether a startup succeeds.

When those moments arrive, I want my employees to shit their pants in surprise, cancel their dinner and weekend plans, and eagerly study the intricacies of my game plan as though it were the map of Iwo Jima. And I expect those managers who work for me to do the same thing with their own team members.

But there are a lot of subtler reasons why “battle picking” is so crucial.

Battle-Picking is important because your employees are often smarter than you. Do you think it’s possible that your employees are smarter than you? Good, because at least a few of them probably are. And, at the very least, they are smarter than you are at a few key things, which are hopefully central to their jobs (if not, you suck at hiring).

What you probably have is more experience than your employees. And you need to find that perfect coming-together of your experience and their smarts. Sometimes that experience is tangential to what they do — you know a lot about marketing, but they are the ones who have to build that new suite of social/sharing features.

Realize that you hired these guys, because they are so smart. And keep that in the back of your mind every time you defer to them on a decision.

Even if 10 percent of their time is wasted going down a foreseeably wrong path, that experience may make the other ninety percent of their time more valuable. And when you finally step in during those critical moments, they will be much stronger teammates.

Battle-Picking is important because you will tire yourself out. If you are a founder, you probably stopped taking vacations a long time ago, so your energy is recouped right there in the office, not on some beach somewhere.

And if you spend all day at the office trying to micro-manage the hell out of your business, or if you spend the day driving yourself nuts over a small bug or minor feature change… guess what? You will not last all four years of your vesting schedule. Let alone go the distance to IPO or M&A.

Plus, as much as you promise yourself that you will take a big vacation whenever “this is all over…” you will probably discover that “this” lasts a hell of a lot longer than you could have ever anticipated. And in most instances, the outcome will not enrich you enough to just “chill” for twelve months thereafter.

So get ready for a long slog, and realize that losing a tiny battle is probably better for your leadership journey than fighting like crazy for a winning one.

Battle-Picking is important for you to gauge your employees’ talent. The sooner you know who on your team is there for the long run, and who is not going to make it, the sooner you will have an All-star squad.

And if you are constantly denying them the chance to strut their stuff, then you are delaying the formation of The Avengers.

Your employees have a right to show you who they are and what they can do. When you fight their battles for them, or if you constantly alter the path that they would have taken, then you are creating artificial conditions. And that result, even if it is a good one for the company, will shed precious little light on whom you are really working alongside.

When your company is in its first year, your most important task is to build a team, and — more importantly — to figure out who is good at what. Having an outstanding product is typically of less importance than the team itself. Managers who fight every little battle will often end up with a better product, and a team that is unprepared to take that product to the next level.

[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]