The Leadership Lies We Love To Believe

Social media sites are full of tables and info graphics like the one below contrasting management skills with leadership skills. Have you ever seen something like this before?

Do things right
Organize work and resources
Are concerned about efficiency
Focus on the short-term
Ensure positions are staffed
Seeks for control and order

Do the right things
Set the vision & strategy
Are concerned about effectiveness
Focus on the long-term
Ensure people are aligned
Seeks to empower

The difference between management and leadership

There’s something about this way of thinking about the difference between management and leadership that seems so logical, so satisfying. But don’t buy it. Like soda pop for the brain, this simple way of differentiating leadership and management techniques might taste good to consume, but in the end, it’s just empty calories.

Those false axioms are not contrasting two different roles, but rather pitting the ordinary responsibilities of a manager against the sexy ones, and calling the sexy responsibilities “leadership”. Did Martin Luther King, who most regard as an excellent example of a leader, simply give the famous “I have a dream” speech and let his ‘lower level’ managers figure out how to organize the human rights movement? Of course not!

The soda pop definition of managers versus leaders is binary thinking – forcing “either / or” conclusions. At best, this thinking simply separates the strategic activities of management from the operational activities. At worst, these caricatures demonize the term manager, making the word “manager” synonymous with “bad leader.” Consequently, the word manager has become something of a repugnant term in modern business literature. Not considered simply the poor cousin of leadership, but something to be distained. In either case, the clear message in popular literature is that leaders are better than managers.

This view promotes the false notion that managers and leaders are on opposite ends of the same spectrum. They’re not. Managers, supervisors and executives (aka “senior managers”) are on the same spectrum, and all of them can be good leaders.

The Rub

Focusing on the differences between management and leadership has created two problems:

1. Some executives use this false definition of leadership to excuse themselves from being disciplined, organized and aware of the ‘details’. They seem to believe that their role is to simply sit in their ivory tower dreaming up a vision and making the decisions while the lower life-forms, known as managers, must figure out how to operationalize their vision.

2. It has confused the role of a leader with the responsibilities of executives. In tables like the one above, leaders are often defined using leadership principles (such as empowers people) AND executive responsibilities (such as vision & strategy). Consequently, the words “leader” and “executive” are often used synonymously, leading some to believe that only executives can be leaders. This is dangerous because it implies that the letters “VP” somehow magically make you a better leader, and it discourages managers from investing in their leadership skills.

Once again, executives are simply senior managers, and both executives and managers need to be concerned about the big picture and the details, about effectiveness and efficiency, about the long-term and the short term, etc. The difference is that executives must spend more of their time thinking about former than the latter.

Leadership is a Mindset

Contrary to popular thinking, leadership is not associated with any position on the org chart. Leadership is a mindset – one that executives, managers, supervisors or even individual employees at any level can adopt. It’s the mindset that desired operational results are best achieved when people are inspired to do the work that needs to get done, not simply incentivized to do it.

The simplest definition of a leader is “a person who has followers”. In other words, if no one would willingly follow you without being incentivized to do so, then you’re not a leader.

Notwithstanding the above, I find the following definition the simplest and most instructive:

“A leader inspires positive action in others.”

The word “inspire” implies motivating others without relying on coercion. Leaders inspire positive action in others when they help people improve without damaging their self-confidence. They do this by focusing on people’s strengths instead of criticizing their weaknesses, and by providing opportunities for people to learn and grow.

Applying the Principle of Leverage

The ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes said “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” Leadership is the ultimate lever. Having more formal authority just provides greater opportunity to use that lever. Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that far too many managers and executives are not recognizing or applying the lever of leadership.

The world is craving better leadership. Let’s take a step in the right direction by understanding that managers are not the opposite of leaders, and that everyone has the potential to be a great leader, regardless of their position.


2 Responses

  1. Hi Michael. Thank you for your thoughts here. I agree completely that the polarization of the terms “leadership” and “management” have lead to the focusing on the trees rather than the forest. In my organization we encourage leadership in all levels of our teams, and although some of those individuals are managers, fostering leadership at all levels increases team effectiveness. Teams need to have managers who can utilize that leadership in different situations, but like you said, leadership is nothing more than a lever. It is not a title.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. I love your MLK analogy… vision + action makes a leader… ” Did Martin Luther King, who most regard as an excellent example of a leader, simply give the famous “I have a dream” speech and let his ‘lower level’ managers figure out how to organize the human rights movement? Of course not!”

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