Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a longstanding ambivalence about the distinction between leadership and management I blogged about it today over at HBR.org, under the title ""True leaders are also managers." Here is a taste and then I will talk about what motivated me to think more about why this difference is both valid and dangerous:
The brilliant and charming Warren Bennis has likely done more to popularize this distinction than anyone else. He wrote in Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader that
"There is a profound difference between management and leadership, and
both are important. To manage means to bring about, to accomplish, to
have charge of or responsibility for, to conduct. Leading is
influencing, guiding in a direction, course, action, opinion. The
distinction is crucial." And in one of his most famous lines, he added,
"Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing."
Although this distinction is more or less correct, and is useful to a degree (see this recent interview with Randy Komisar for
a great discussion of the distinction), it has unintended negative
effects on how some leaders view and do their work. Some leaders now see
their job as just coming up with big and vague ideas, and they treat
implementing them, or even engaging in conversation and planning about
the details of them, as mere "management" work. Worse still, this distinction seems to be used as a reason for
leaders to avoid the hard work of learning about the people that they
lead, the technologies their companies use, and the customers they
serve. I remember hearing of a cell phone company CEO, for example, who
never visited the stores where his phones were sold — because that was a
management task that was beneath him — and kept pushing strategies that
reflected a complete misunderstanding of customer experiences. (Perhaps
he hadn't heard of how often Steve Jobs drops in at Apple stores.)
That story is typical. "Big picture only" leaders often make decisions without considering the constraints that affect the cost and time required to implement them, and even when evidence begins mounting that it is impossible or unwise to implement their grand ideas, they often choose to push forward anyway .
You can read the rest at HBR.org. Here, I want to dig into some of my motivations for revisiting this topic.
The first came a couple months back when I did a workshop for a small group of Local CEOs on Good Boss, Bad Boss. The organizers of the workshop did advance interviews with the CEOs, and this difference came-up a lot in these conversations. One thrust was that they were interested in how to spot managers with leadership skills and how to help good managers develop leadership skills. My reaction, as you might expect from the above comments was that, yes, leadership skills are different, but doing and understanding management is such a crucial part of being a good leader, that they really needed to be careful not to over-glorify leadership or to treat management aS a less important skill. A couple of the CEO's of the biggest firms really latched onto this point, lamenting that young managers often seemed to want to get straight to being leaders without learning how to manage well first, and it resulted in naive and misguided decisions -- and, often, to be seen as bullshitters, or as one put it, "all hat and no cattle."
The second is sort of a working hypotheses that I have had at Stanford for a few years now about the difference between "Good MBAs" and "Bad MBAs." Although my primary appointment (and tenure) at Stanford is in the engineering school,we teach a lot of MBA's at the Stanford d.school, but because we are a unit of the Stanford Engineering School (see this rant on engineering and design thinking), individual faculty have pretty much complete authority over which students get into d.school classes and which do not. And thus far, we get a lot more applicants than we can serve from throughout Stanford.
Over the years, I have noticed that there is remarkable variance among MBAs, or more precisely, most seem to fall into one of two groups. There are the "good MBAs," who have wonderful leadership qualities, great presence and great big ideas, and jump in enthusiastically when it comes to less exciting and harder chores like planning and implementing the details of user research and prototyping. Then, there are the bad MBAs, the one's who love big ideas and always want to present the group's ideas, but avoid the hard work of planning, organizing, and implementing things -- and seem especially adept at avoiding anything that entails shit work.
I now talk pretty openly about this with MBAs, especially if they are lobbying to get into class -- and a few times, after describing this difference to an MBA who was arguing to get in a class, and asking him or her to self-select, they have mysteriously disappeared. I think this is very similar to the "all hat and no cattle problem," and bad MBAs may become those bad leaders that the group of CEOs was talking about. (As I am an engineering professor, I don't want to let my students off too easily -- yes, fewer of them are slackers and and bullshitters, but there are a larger percentage who lack interpersonal and leadership skills, but despite the stereotypes, there are plenty of engineering students who have great skills there as well.)
The third motivation was a comment that a Silicon Valley insider made to me about Mark Hurd versus Carly Fiorina -- and this was before Hurd was fired and there was any hint it was coming. She commented that, personal style issues aside, if you put the two together, you had a complete leader because Carly was good at the big picture stuff and Hurd was good at the management stuff, that in essence, Carly was a leader without being a manager and that Hurd was a manager without being a leader. Whether this is completely true or not (no doubt others have different opinions) it reminded me that looking for one boss who can do it all might be a fool's errand; rather, what you are looking for is a boss who can assemble a LEADERSHIP TEAM that can do leadership and management.
The upshot, in my view, is that asking if leadership or management is more important is like asking "what is more important, your heart or your brain?" Both are equally essential and if there isn't a connection between the two, you are in big trouble!