by: Issues: May / June 2010. Categories: Leadership.

Once there was a notion that managers could do it all. But the notion fell into disfavour when “leadership” – for example, the heroic leader – emerged and pushed managers aside and stripped them of their responsibilities. The manager became a second-class citizen. This author states that the time has come to empower managers and recognize and elevate the important role that they play in the organization.

Despite valiant efforts to separate leadership from management, the two roles remain entangled. Many refuse to differentiate between them at all. Some ignore management or confine it to a menial maintenance role operating in the engine room, “keeping things ticking over.” With such a poor image, it’s no wonder that so few want to be managers. Leadership is the glory role on the white charger, inspiring the troops to carry out grand visions.

Because leadership hogs the lion’s share of the responsibility and credit for driving organizational success, management has little to do. This reality is unsustainable; today’s complex business environment demands a broader sharing of the load. In an age of obesity, our current concept of leadership is the most bloated idea in town. To slim leadership down, management must be given more to do. This calls for a major upgrade, making management a much more proactive, positive force in organizations.

Why it matters

We need to reinvent management because a radically new concept of leadership is emerging. The rise of Richard Florida’s creative class1 means that innovative knowledge workers who create the future are the new leaders. To compete in the guerrilla war of ideas, we need creative class leadership, the bottom-up promotion of new products. Those in charge need to be recast as managers who show leadership only occasionally. This is a major change but an essential one wherever innovation is critical for success. If leadership simply promotes changes in direction, management must take on a hugely expanded role.

How leadership became a bloated mess

Our thinking about leadership went off the rails when we over reacted to Japanese business success in the 1970s. Recognizing that efficient execution was no longer enough, we demanded more innovation and condemned managers for being bureaucratic. Instead of upgrading management from a mechanical, controlling function to a facilitative, developmental one, we reacted emotionally, replacing managers with leaders. Managers were tarred and feathered with language previously used to describe management styles. For example, prior to the Japanese invasion, we said that managers could initiate structure or show consideration for people, be task oriented or people oriented, theory X or theory Y. To punish managers for letting us down, we blessed leaders with the good-guy styles and damned management with the bad-guy ones. The next step was to portray leaders as transformational and managers as transactional. Management henceforth became a virtual four letter word.

This whole train of thought had disastrous consequences. Newly labelled “leaders” got stuck with the impossible demand of being cheerleaders, while management was painted into a dark corner where nobody wanted to be seen dead. If managers weren’t quite in the grave yet, Abraham Zaleznik, a Harvard Business School emeritus professor of leadership, buried them by claiming that they were different types of people. They apparently lacked empathy and were control freaks, who could only motivate employees with “rewards, punishments, and other forms of coercion.”2 John Kotter attempted to save management with a functional definition. Management, he claimed, deals with complexity while leaders focus on change3. But in the 1980s, Kotter’s thinking was constrained by management’s fall from grace and he failed to create a fully functional story. Instead, his managers were limited to mechanical control with little to do but keep things ticking over in the engine room. Warren Bennis’s well known saying: “leaders do the right things, managers do things right” at least recognized that doing things right was still important. But by the time Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner started writing about leadership, management was long gone, which is why it is completely absent in their writing. It has been all about leadership, however bloated, ever since.

By seizing the territory once occupied by management, leadership aims to motivate high levels of performance in employees. Motivation used to be what managers did until leadership usurped its role. The whole point of the transformational leadership bandwagon is nicely summed up in the title of Bernard Bass’s well known book: Leadership and Performance Beyond Expectations. Clearly such leadership is all about employee performance. Note that this book was published in 1985, at the height of the backlash against management.

But surely performance is within management’s domain. There is no convincing argument to the contrary, beyond the emotional rationalizations brought on by the success of the Japanese. By constantly portraying leadership as a downward-directed effort to get work done through subordinates, it’s hard to understand how it can be shown flowing in any other direction. How can leadership be shown going sideways to colleagues or upward if it simply promotes a better way and has nothing to do with getting things done through people? The old idea of informal leadership is no help because it still entails taking charge of a group and directing its efforts toward a goal.

It is time to put 1980s thinking behind us and make a fresh start. We are over the Japanese crisis, and innovation is even more important than it was in the 70s and 80s.

How to differentiate leadership from management

John Kotter was on the right track in saying that leaders and managers have different functions. But, crucially, we need to stick to a functional story, where everyone can engage in some managing and some leading regardless of role or style:

Leadership promotes new directions; management executes existing directions.

The function of management

Management can do much more than merely keep things ticking over. It manages complex projects ranging from making a major movie to putting the first man on the moon. Managers can use facilitative skills to foster innovation. By sticking to a purely functional definition, we leave completely open the question of style. This liberating move means that managers can be inspiring. They can empower, nurture and develop talent. An inspiring leader influences us to change direction while an inspiring manager motivates us to work harder. Managers needn’t be restricted to mechanical control, transactional rewards, bureaucratic methods or relating without empathy. Portraying managers in such negative terms was an accident of history that we now must put behind us.

To get the best out of knowledge workers, managers might set up self-managing teams. Here, the classic functions of management (planning, organizing and controlling) are delegated. But the function of management is still operating even though the manager is not personally doing it. This should dispel the myth of the manager as a control freak or bureaucrat.

By removing all style connotations, leadership benefits as much as management. No longer needing to be inspiring cheerleaders, leaders find it possible to exhibit quiet, factual leadership. This is essential in technical contexts, where a hard business case often moves stakeholders more than an inspirational delivery. Not being committed by definition to any particular style, both leaders and managers are free to use any style that works for the context in which they want to make a difference.

The function of leadership

Leadership needs to narrow its focus to promoting new directions as one-off acts to promote a better way:

  • The developer of PlayStation promoted this new product to Sony management, thus showing bottom-up leadership.
  • An exceptional customer service associate shows leadership by example to colleagues.
  • Martin Luther King promoted justice by marching against segregation on buses.
  • Jack Welch showed leadership by example to businesses all over the world when he implemented ideas at GE such as the need to be first or second in a market.

Key features of leadership reinvented

  • It consists in showing a better way, either by explicit advocacy or by example.
  • Those who are led may not report to the person showing leadership, even informally.
  • No implementation is entailed. This is management’s domain, getting work done through others, motivating people, developing them (more on management below.)
  • It does not involve managing the people led or getting things done through them.
  • It comes to an end once the target audience buys the need to change. It sells the tickets for the journey; management drives the bus to the destination.
  • It relies on influence; since it’s not an actual role, it can’t decide for the group.
  • It can promote ideas developed by others; no need to be creative personally.

Conventional leadership is a static concept: gaining and holding a position of power in a fixed hierarchy. Such leaders have a stake in the status quo. But rapid change driven by innovation has created a more dynamic context in which leadership has to operate. The rise of the creative class locates the emergence of new directions at the front lines. The advocacy of new directions becomes leadership when the group follows or adopts the proposed change. Since it’s not a role, leadership occurs only when people follow an influence attempt.

In a dynamic context, no one has a monopoly on good ideas. Creative class leadership is ephemeral, no longer a role. Being so fleeting, leadership shifts dynamically from one person to another, much as in guerrilla warfare, thus spelling the end of static, role-based leadership.

How management works

Management actually does much more than merely execute existing directions. Crucially, if leadership works through influence and management takes over once followers get on board, then ALL decision making is managerial. This includes strategic decisions, deciding what to do and not just how to do it. So much for Bennis’s notion that managers only do things right. This is a vastly expanded role for management.

Thus, management works by making sound decisions and by facilitating execution and creative thinking. It can be likened to investment. Instead of investing money, managers invest a range of other resources such as people, material, time and finances. But the goal is the same — to generate the best possible return. Unlike financial investors, managers actively develop their human resources.

Effective managers are catalysts, coaches, facilitators, developers and investors. Their focus is mainly execution, but they can also decide on new strategies, manage change and facilitate innovation. Because leadership works through influence, all decision making, operational and strategic, must count as managerial. This must be the case if leadership can be shown bottom-up where those showing it have no power to decide anything for senior management, their followers in this situation.

How Leadership Works

Leadership works through influence. We can gain a clearer grasp of how leadership influence works by comparing it with selling, although selling is self interested, leadership is not.

Leading and selling, indeed all forms of influence, share the following features:

  • They can be done on a one-off basis—anyone can sell something once on e-Bay.
  • They can work at a distance across group boundaries. Both selling and leading can be done by outsiders. Green leaders have a leadership impact on communities around the world where they are outsiders.
  • All influence is a one-way impact. This is true even when two parties influence each other in turn. Leadership is often described as a relationship between leader and follower. But if influence can be exhibited from a distance, then it cannot be defined as a relationship. The truth is that management requires relationships, not leadership.
  • All influence comes to an end once the person influenced accepts the idea. A car salesman doesn’t keep selling once you sign on the dotted line. In fact the rude ones start taking calls from other customers as you complete your paperwork. This shows that influence (including leadership) does not entail ongoing involvement in implementation. And this is one of the keys to separating leadership from management.

An objection might be raised that organizational change is a lengthy process. Leadership conceived as selling the tickets to the journey can’t stop once people board the bus. But, where resistance is minimal, change is a project that requires only good management. Second, selling the tickets for the journey doesn’t have to stop at the start of a change process. There can be as much periodic reselling as needed. Leadership repeated is still a series of discrete acts, not a role.

Benefits of reinventing leadership and management

Upgrading management to be a more facilitative, nurturing, developmental and empowering function returns it to its rightful place alongside leadership. To stimulate faster innovation and better engage front-line knowledge workers, it helps to portray them as leaders. If Richard Florida is right about the rise of the creative class, we are in the midst of an unstoppable power shift in any case. Focusing leadership on promoting new directions is the only way to explain how it can be shown bottom-up.

  1. The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida, Basic Books, 2002
  2. “Managers and Leaders: Are they Different,” Abraham Zaleznik, Harvard Business Review, May-June, 1977.
  3. “What Leaders Really Do,” John Kotter, Harvard Business Review, May-June, 1990