As my recent blog posts suggests, I've been reading a lot about leadership lately. The last time I reviewed that literature was about four years ago when Jeff Pfeffer and I were writing Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense. It is impossible to read it all. Tens of thousands of books have been written on the subject and there are several academic journals devoted entirely to the subject, including The Leadership Quarterly and The Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies. Perhaps the most definitive review and integration of the leadership literature was Bass and Stogdill's 1200 page Handbook of Leadership, which was published in 1990 (and still does the best job of making sense of the literature, for my money). But if you really want a long book on leadership, you can get the four volume Encyclopedia of Leadership, which is 2120 pages long, weighs about 15 pounds, and costs a whopping $640 on Amazon! So the task of reviewing the leadership literature -- and acting on it as leader -- isn't to understand it all (that is impossible), but to develop a point of view on a few themes that matter most.
As I have been reading these writings and research again, I have been bumping into an old and popular distinction that has always bugged me: leading versus managing. The brilliant and charming Warren Bennis has likely done more to popularize this distinction. 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 his most famous lines, he added, "Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing."
As I have been reading the leadership literature again, it is becoming more clear to me that -- although I think this distinction is more or less correct, and is useful to a degree (one emphasizes the focusing on the bigger picture and the other on the details of implementation), I also think that it has unintended negative effects on how some leaders view and do their work. Some leaders see their job as just coming up with big and vague ideas, and treat engaging in conversation about the details of those ideas or the details of implementation as mere management work that is "beneath" them, as things for "the little people to do." Moreover, this distinction also seems to be used a reason for leaders to avoid the hard work of learning about the technologies their companies use and the people that they lead and to make decisions without considering the roadblocks and constraints that affect the cost and time line, and even if it is possible to implement their grand decisions and big ideas.
I am all for dreaming, and some of the most unlikely and impressive things have been done by dreamers. But one characteristic of the successful dreamers I think of -- Francis Ford Coppola, Steve Jobs, folks at Pixar like Ed Catmull and Brad Bird -- is that they also have remarkably deep understanding of the industry they work in and the people they lead, and they often are willing to get very deep into the weeds. This ability to go back and forth between the little details and the big picture is also evident in the behavior of some of the leaders I admire most who aren't usually thought of as dreamers. Anne Mulcahy's efforts to turnaround Xerox were successful in part because she already had such detailed knowledge of the company, and she was very detailed oriented during the crucial early years of her leadership. I also think of Bill George, one of Jim Collins' level 5 leaders, who told me that, when he was brought in as CEO of Medtronic (a medical device company), he spent about 75% of his time during his first 9 months on the job watching surgeons put Medtronic devices in patients and talking with doctors and nurses, patients, families, and hospital executives to learn about customers and users of his products.
I am all for grand visions and strategies. But the people who seem to make them come true usually seem to have deep understanding of the little details required to make them work -- or if they don't, they have the wisdom to surround themselves with people who can offset their weaknesses and who have the courage to argue with them when there is no clear path between their dreams and reality. I guess this is one of the themes that I have written about before, especially in The Knowing-Doing Gap (with Jeff Pfeffer). But it is bothering me more lately, as I've had some conversations with project managers who have been assigned tasks by naive and overconfident leaders -- things like implementing IT systems and building software. And when they couldn't succeed because of absurd deadlines, tiny staffs, small budgets, and in some cases, because it simply wasn't technically possible to do what the leaders wanted, they were blamed. Such sad tales further reinforce my view that talking about what people ought to do and telling them to do it is a lot easier than actually getting it done.
I am not much rejecting the distinction between leadership and management, but I am saying that the best leaders do something that might be most properly called a mix of leadership and management (a great example is HP CEO Mark Hurd) , or at least, lead in a way that constantly takes into account the importance of management. And some of the worst senior executives use the distinction between leadership and management as an excuse to avoid learning the details they need to understand the big picture and to select the right strategies.
In Bennis speak, I guess I am saying: To do the right thing, a leader needs to understand what it takes to do things right."