This an excellent post that reminds us of overzealous project managers who needed (and were responsive to) valuable feedback to create a more productive and conducive engineering environment. I wanted to bring up the fact that there are many effective managers out there who utilize the Pareto Principle 80/20 and help teams remove barriers to achieve success on time and within budget. I want to commend the managers that don't micromanage and instead empower their teams daily.
There's a remarkably simple answer to that question. Its that, deep down, they know the answer. Which is the message that 'its only necessary for you to get out of the way'. As LaoZi said 'Begin with the people, listen to the people. At the end the people will say "we did it ourselves"'.
You are correct in terms of decision making. It is very true for those "front-line" managers who are constrained by many factors. I think the discussion here is about on normal circumstances, why some managers succeed but some fail.
One thing I’ve noticed is that a front-line manager shall be able to dissect a given complex task into small operable modules, maybe with his/her senior engineers’ help, to allow his/her team to complete the task under given budget. He/she also is able to convince his/her management to allocate enough resource to support this task. This kind of managers is very rare now. Most of managers who engineers are dealing with daily do not have such capability. They either over-commit or are very unrealistic. Worse, some of them exploit their teams for their personal gains. This seems the cause of many problems.
In defense of managers, sometimes the difficulty in managing risk and taking early action is not an issue of capability, but a lack of authority. Only the person with budgetary and resource allocation authority can take action -- all those other managers who report to him or her can only make recommendations. Sometimes the "big boss" will follow those recommendations and sometimes not...and usually for good reasons.
I think one of the toughest management decisions is to kill a project in which the organization has already made an investment. But some projects do need to be killed rather than completed.
Good managers are rare for this reason: they are rare. The skills involved in managing a group of engineers: eccentric, individualistic, driven, impatient, egocentric, and sometimes just plain old neurotic are not common. Engineers work towards mitigating technical risk; managers mitigate schedule and economic risk. Naturally, these two drives don't always run in parallel. I've had a number of pretty good managers; one superb manager, and a handful of real losers. You try to avoid the losers, and work for the better guys: when you can. I don't know that educational programs can make good managers any better than engineering courses can make good designers: in each case, I think you have to have the right set of innate skills and inclinations.