Supervisory Acumen

“Rank does not confer privilege or give power. It imposes responsibility.” 1

– Peter F. Drucker

Supervision refers to the act of overseeing the activities performed by other people. It is concerned with observing, guiding and monitoring a group of people as they apply themselves towards the performance of the assigned responsibilities – within time, cost, quality, safety and other stipulated parameters. 

The term supervision arises out of a combination of the two words “super” (meaning “over and above”) and “vision” (the act of “seeing”). On the other hand, the term “acumen” refers to the possession of keen insight. Thus, Supervisory Acumen is the ability to educate a team of people about the job requirements as well as expectations, and then purposefully coordinate their efforts towards accomplishment.

The core supervisory mandate is to achieve collective results by:

  1. Implementing the performance agenda for a group of individual contributors.
  2. Harmonizing and integrating their efforts.
  3. Providing guidance and counsel as necessary. 

This mandate places the supervisor at the second rung of the accountability hierarchy. In contemporary parlance, the supervisor is also variously referred to as the Departmental Heads, Team Leader or Project In-charge. 

Supervisors usually have strong working knowledge of the activities under their charge. They leverage the strengths of their colleagues, give clear directions, and provide timely feedback to the people. 

Effective supervisors are known to be considerate, supportive, democratic, flexible and development-oriented. They respond with alacrity to contingent events, and reciprocate sensitively in delicate situations. Their creativity lies in managing the overall context within which the workgroup operates. 

The transition from Individual Contributor to Supervisor

When meritorious individual contributors produce good results, and also demonstrate an ability to collaborate with other people, they are usually promoted to a supervisory role. This is the first occasion when they assume professional responsibility for coordinating the work of other colleagues. 2

Moving from doing an assigned task well (e.g. playing the violin), to synchronizing the efforts of other people (e.g. conducting the music orchestra), constitutes a daunting upward shift in responsibility. 

This situation is akin to marriage or parenthood. The focus shifts from fulfilling one’s own desires and aspirations, towards satisfying the needs and wants of other people. 

This transition is something for which their previous “individual performer” role does not prepare them. Thus, freshly promoted supervisors often experience their new role as a “stretch” assignment. Most new incumbents also fail to appreciate the reality of how the supervisory duty differs sharply from individual work. 

There are at least five common myths and misperceptions that lead to mistakes in their early days. 3

Firstly, supervisors expect their commands to be complied with, on account of the formal authority invested in them. In actual practice, the colleagues obey only after the supervisor has won their respect and trust. Team leaders need to demonstrate good character, competence as well as an ability to care for others before the group members willingly accept their directions.

Second, supervisors erroneously believe that a significant amount of authority comes from their new job and title. In actual practice, they find themselves enmeshed in a web of interdependent relationships with colleagues and associates – inside as well as outside of the organization. Supervisors are thereby required to negotiate and navigate their way ahead. Linda Hill quotes a new promotee as saying: “Becoming a {supervisor} is not about becoming a boss; it is about becoming a hostage.” 4

The third myth is that authority flows from the formal organizational position of the supervisor. When team leaders authoritatively direct a colleague to do something, the latter does not necessarily respond. In fact, the more talented the person, the less likely she is to simply follow the orders. The supervisory cause is best served by seeking a strong sense of commitment, rather than compliance.

Fourthly, supervisors mistakenly believe that they must build friends and forge good individual relationships at the workplace. This is mandatory, but inadequate, for supervisory excellence. The actual fact is that the supervisor must harness the concerted power of the group. By shaping the team culture around diversity of talent, progressive norms, and shared values, the supervisor unleashes the collective problem-solving prowess of the workgroup.

Finally, the mandate of the supervisor is considered to be that of ensuring that things run smoothly. This is certainly necessary, but by no means sufficient, for supervisory success. 

Supervisors must proactively initiate the necessary changes that can enhance the performance of their workgroup. In doing so, they sometimes need to challenge certain organizational systems and processes that lie beyond their locus of direct control.

The Challenges of Supervisory Work

Supervisors or team leaders carry out their work in emergent circumstances. They are expected to be out there in the trenches alongside the troops, remaining ever ready to step in when trouble appears to be brewing. 

The precise tasks and objectives are diagnosed according to the specific needs of each circumstance. Problems are resolved through a practical, step-by-step approach that brings together numerous pieces of relevant information. After due exploration, analysis, and evaluation, a course of action is formulated.

This pattern of decision-making is somewhat similar to detective work. 

Accordingly, supervisors are required to perform three distinct roles at work: 2

a) An operationalrole, wherein the workflow is managed through problem solving and decision making -so as to meet the targets in terms of output, timeliness, cost, and quality

b) A communicationrole, whereby the supervisor serves as a two-way conduit between the management and the frontline employees.

c) A supportiverole, wherein the team members are encouraged and motivated to do their best.

The Development of Supervisory Acumen 

Supervisors guide and enthuse groups and teams of employees or associates on the operational front. Because human beings learn and grow chiefly by imitation, the behaviour patterns of the supervisor set the tone for the interpersonal interactions within the entire workgroup.

In order to become an effective supervisor, a person thereby needs to:

  • DemonstratePersonal Credibility, which is the quality of being trusted and believed by others – through the demonstration of personal clarity, hope, and authenticity. 
  • BuildInterpersonal Commitment, which is the act of inspiring the involvement, enthusiasm, and dedication of other colleagues
  • Enable Collective Collaboration, by aligning and empowering the employees to work together at the intersection of common goals.

The Supervisory Acumen Framework

Supervisory Acumen is developed by means of an active and iterative progression through the three stages of Credibility, Commitment, and Collaboration. Each stage operates concurrently across the behavioural, cognitive, and affective dimensions of the human personality.

On the behavioural plane, the phenomenon of authenticity(the unobstructed operation of one’s core self in daily operation) naturally facilitates empathy(the ability to identify and understand another person’s situation and feelings without making value judgments) that eventually leads to collective alignment(affective agreement or cooperation among persons in a group).

At the affective level, clarity(lucidity of understanding about one’s inherent strengths, sense of purpose as well as vision of the future) facilitates motivation(the condition of having a strong desire or enthusiasm to accomplish something) that eventually culminates into mobilization(the act of marshaling, organizing and assembling resources for deployment) on the collective plane.

With respect to the cognitive dimension, hope(the expectation that something desirable shall occur in the future) leads to adaptability(the ability to adjust oneself readily to different conditions) that facilitates synchronization(the systematization of activities such that a system can operate harmoniously, and in unison).

The framework may be succinctly represented as follows:

Authenticity is the starting point of the supervisory pilgrimage. Unless the person has the courage to politely (but firmly) call a spade a spade, he or she is unlikely to ever succeed in genuinely guiding and working effectively with others. 

Motivation is the fulcrum of the supervisory endeavor. A simple test of supervisory competence is to assess whether people feel elevated after an interaction with the incumbent, or they feel dissipated. Lifting human spirits is the key task of the supervisor. 

When this is done well, the results manifest themselves by way of people working co-operatively together. Synchronization of efforts is the fundamental goal and outcome of the supervisory endeavour.

The Credibility Phase

Credibility is the quality of being personally worthy. It refers to the objective and subjective elements of the trustworthiness of a person, and the impeccability of judgment by way of doing the right things at the right time for the right reasons. A sense of credibility evokes respect and trust from other people.

Human beings put forth their full vitality into an effort only when they truly believe in it. Likewise, they repose their trust and faith in a person whose thought, word and deed they can rely upon. Thus, Credibility is the foundation of Supervisory Acumen.

The process of building credibility begins with the development of clarityabout one’s own “inner territory.” This includes the knowledge of personal strengths and talents, the sense of purpose in life, core values and beliefs, and the vision for the future. Next, authenticityrefers to the willingness to be true and genuine. Finally, hopeis the process of goal-directed thought that reflects a person’s confidence in keenly pursuing goals (agency thinking) and of finding appropriate routes to achieve these goals(pathway thinking)

Thus, personal clarityabout strengths, purpose/objectives and intent, authenticity,andhopeare the essential attributes that the supervisor must personally imbibe, before the team members voluntarily repose their faith in him or her.


Authenticity represents the unobstructed operation of one’s core self in daily operation. It is the degree to which the person remains true to one’s own personality or character, despite external pressures to the contrary. 

Authenticity is the state of being worthy of acceptance, trust, or belief on account of genuineness or conformance to known facts or experience. Authentic people act in ways that are consistent with their deepest values and beliefs. 

Authenticity is characterized by sincerity and truthfulness of origins, attributions as well as intentions. It is marked by the exercise of individual freedom, the courage to act upon one’s true beliefs and ideals, and the fulfillment of “moral” obligations – regardless of race, gender or class. 

An authentic person pays close attention to the signals originating from the inner being. She emphatically aligns her external actions with these intuitive whisperings – regardless of contrary external forces, pressures, and influences. 

Authenticity also involves striving to achieve sincerity, openness, and truthfulness in interpersonal relationships. The authentic person faithfully represents one’s true values and assumptions to others.5


Clarity refers to the lucidity of perception and understanding as well as a relative freedom from ambiguity. 

Every human being seeks to live effectively, and also to achieve fulfillment in life. Fulfillment is the capacity to express oneself fully in the course of life’s activities. On the other hand, effectiveness requires the person to continuously learn, grow and acquire knowledge and skills so as to carry out the functions of life properly.Both of these attributes require the development of personal clarity.

Innate individual strengths and talents constitute the foundation upon which self-understanding may be developed. Further, every human being aspires for a larger sense of purpose and meaning in life beyond one’s narrow and limited self. The desire to make a positive difference in the lives of other people is fundamental to human existence. Finally, the crystallization of a personal dream or vision provides a direction to one’s life, and offers guidance for decision-making.

Thus strengths, talents, sense of purpose and vision of the future are the elements of personal clarity.


Hope is an optimistic attitude that is based upon an expectation of positive outcomes related to events and circumstances in life. Hopeful thinking comprises of the twin beliefs that one can: a) find pathways to the desired goals, and b) muster the motivation to use these pathways appropriately. 6

Pathway thinkingentails the perceived ability to generate routes connecting the present to the imagined future (goal achievement). Agencyis the perceived ability to use pathways to reach the desired goals. Agency thinking is important in all goal pursuits, because it helps people to apply the motivation that is necessary for movement along an alternate pathway. 

The Commitment Phase

Commitment refers to the consistent pursuit of a chosen course of action, over an extended period of time. It is also the state of being emotionally pledged towards a relationship or a course of action.Commitment is an intrinsic force that binds a person towards a person, role or aspiration.

One of the primary enablers of commitment is empathy, which is the ability to understand and share the feelings of other people. Empathy connects people together, and promotes pro-social behaviour.

Motivation is the capacity to arouse enthusiasm and persistence in another person, towards the pursuit of a chosen course of action. With its capacity to induce helpfulness, empathy becomes an enabler for providing motivation. 

Finally, adapting the interaction style to suit the level of maturity of the other person is more effective than the use of a singular engagement style. 

The capacity for empathy, motivation, and adaptation thus work together in eliciting high commitment.


Empathy is the ability to comprehend another person’s situation, feelings and motives or concerns in a non-judgmental manner. Being genuinely understood by another person ranks among the deepest and the most basic of human necessities.7Empathy provides insights into what others are feeling or thinking, and helps to explain the how or why of their behaviour. It has three components. 

The first component of empathy is emotional contagion, which is the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person. This leads to emotional convergence.8

Empathy also involves an effort to see things from a different point of view, by assuming the other person’s perspective. 

The final dimension is that of empathic concern; whereby an individual attunes her own feelings with the emotional state of the other person before responding with appropriate concern and help.9


Motivation is the state or condition of having a strong desire, willingness or enthusiasm to act or accomplish something. To be motivated means to be “moved” to do something. It is the drive that accounts for an individual’s intensity, direction, and persistence of effort toward attaining a goal. 10

Motivation is the process that initiates and guides goal-oriented behaviors. It is a complex mix of active influences that arouses a person to action toward a desired goal. Motivation occurs as a continuous cycle wherein thoughts influence behavior, which in turn drives performance that eventually impacts the nature of the thoughts.

Extrinsic motivation arises from influences that are external to the individual, such as money, power or prestige. On the other hand, intrinsic motivationarises from an interest or enjoyment in the task itself.

Intrinsic motivation represents the desire to seek out new challenges, to analyze one’s capacity, and to gain knowledge or capability.Doing this yields a sense of meaningfulness, competence, and progress. 11


Adaptability is the ability to adjust oneself readily to different conditions, and to respond effectively to changing events in the environment.It is the capacity to willingly accommodate new developments, and respond to these in a flexible manner. 

Adaptability involves cognitive, emotional and dispositional flexibility. Cognitive flexibility is the capacity to use varying thinking, strategies and mental frameworks. Emotional flexibility is the ability to alter one’s approach towards dealing with emotions. Dispositional flexibility is the capacity to remain optimistic as well as realistic. 12

In their classification of talent themes, Buckingham and Clifton describe an adaptable person as one who, “lives in the moment, sees the future as a creation of the choices made every moment (and not as a fixed destination), has plans but responds willingly to the demands of the moment even if this pulls away from the plans, does not resent sudden requests but expects and even looks forward to them, flexible, can stay productive even when faced with demands pulling in different directions”. 13

The Collaboration Phase

Collaboration is the process of jointly working together with another person or group, in order to carry out or achieve something. It is marked by the integration of multiple efforts towards the generation of valuable output. Collaboration blends together the strengths of different people, in order to reach a decision or goal that an individual would be incapable of accomplishing when working alone.

The three core elements of the Collaboration phase are Alignment, Mobilization, and Synchronization.

Alignment refers to a state of emotional agreement and cooperation among people. Emotional alignment is the primary building block for collaboration amongst any group of people. Mobilization brings together all the necessary resources and prepares the group for action. When an emotionally aligned and operationally mobilized group finally gets into joint activity, the synchronization of individual efforts becomes clearly visible.


Alignment is the state of cooperation among persons in a team or group, or an emotional agreement with a way of thinking. An aligned workgroup is marked by the fusion of individual energies, commonality of purpose, and the presence of cohesive emotional bonds amongst the people. 

The emergence of a sense of mutual respect helps to generate positive energy and enthusiasm. The group then functions as a “whole”. In order to maintain alignment, the supervisor or team leader facilitates participatory decision-making through dialogue, discussion, and debate. She also mediates when the group members need help in transcending mutual differences that emerge from time to time. 


Mobilization is the process of organizing and coordinating the work of a number of people, towards the achievement of a specific purpose or goal. It includes the garnering of organizational support towards the effective pursuit of the assigned goals and objectives.

A state of mobilization is characterized by the assembly of required resources, allocation of roles and responsibilities, and assumption of accountability for the various tasks. A clear articulation of expectations encourages people to take responsibility for their respective individual contribution to the overall effort. The knowledge of exactly where each individual fits into the larger scheme of things helps to release collective energy. 


Synchronization is the process of precisely matching multiple activities or processes together in time. It refers to the systematization of events that makes it possible for people to operate in mutual concert and unison. Synchronization becomes visible as the keenly coordinated action that characterizes a good surgical unit, a pit stop team in car racing, or a sports team.

Every workgroup takes its own time to get synchronized. People initially come together as an aggregation of individuals who share a common setting. Diversity is accepted, and even appreciated, as a potential strength. Slowly, the development of acceptance facilitates the opening up of deeper feelings. Members become more expressive, impulsive, frank and spontaneous. Data and information flow quickly and easily through the group. This enables people to behave in productive ways. Finally, the group members begin to work and play together in flow.

Synchronization results when people function together like the multiple limbs of a single, unified organism. Synchronized workgroups are high-performance teams that deliver outstanding results, qualitatively as well as quantitatively. Simultaneously, such groups and forums are very fulfilling for their individual members.

Concluding Reflections

Supervisors or departmental managers are the life and blood of any organization. They are instrumental in helping achieve the results that lead to the realization of the organization mission and vision. 

A supervisory role acts as the fundamental stepping-stone towards managerial and leadership responsibilities later on in the career. The capacity to be a good supervisor is the basic foundation of professional, social and organizational effectiveness. 

Building personal credibility, interpersonal commitment and collective collaboration, are not just the constituent practices of supervisory work, but also represent the essentials of organization building. These are simple and intuitive, which is just as it should be. Each and every institutional endeavor requires the practice of these attributes for collective success. Their impact can be far-reaching.

Ample proof of this fact is provided by the case of Narayana Health (NH), which is the subject of the next chapter. This innovative institution was founded by the genius cardiologist Dr. Devi Shetty. He built it upon the principles and practice of credibility, commitment, and collaboration. 

The blazing trail of NH is likely to help restore compassion and affordability into the practice of modern healthcare, and thus bring vitality as well as cheer back to human life across the globe. 


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