Fast Company has been reprinting excerpts from the new chapter in the Good Boss, Bad Boss paperback. The fifth and current piece 'Why "Big Picture Only" Bosses Are The Worst' deals with a theme I have raised both here and at HBR before: My argument is that, although the distinction between "management" and "leadership" is probably accurate, the implicit or explicit status differences attached to these terms are destructive.
One of the worst effects is that too many "leaders" fancy themselves as grand strategists and visionaries and who are above the "little people" that are charged with refining and implementing those big and bold ideas. These exalted captains of industry develop the grand vision for the product, the film, the merger, or whatever -- and leave the implementation to others. This was one of Carly Fiorina's fatal flaws at HP: she loved speeches and grand gestures like the Compaq merger, but didn't have much patience for doing what was required for making things work. By contrast, this is the strength of Pixar leaders like Ed Catmull, John Lasseter, and Brad Bird. Yes, they have grand visions about the story and market for every film, but they sweat every detail of every frame and worry constantly about linking their big ideas to every little detail of their films.
As Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer show in their masterpiece The Progress Principle, the best creative work depends on getting the little things right. James March, perhaps the most prestigious living organizational theorist, frames all this in an interesting way, arguing that the effectiveness of organizations depends at least as much on the competent performance of ordinary bureaucrats and technicians who do their jobs well (or badly) day in and day out as on the bold moves and grand rhetoric of people at the top of the pecking order. To paraphrase March, organizations need both poets and plumbers, and the plumbing is always crucial to organizational performance. (See this long interview for a nice summary of March's views).
To be clear, I am not rejecting the value of leadership, grand visions, and superstars. But just as our country and the rest of the world is suffering from the huge gaps between the haves and have nots, too many organizations are doing damage by giving excessive credit, stature, and dollars to people with the big ideas and giving insufficient kudos, prestige, and pay to people who put their heads down and make sure that all the little things get done right.
Our exaggerated faith in heroes and the instant cures they so often promise has done a lot of damage to our society too -- not just to organizations. In this vein, I wrote a piece in BusinessWeek a few years back after re-reading The Peter Principle. I argued that the emphasis on dramatic and bold moves and superstars, and our loss of respect for the crucial role of ordinary competence, was likely an underlying cause of the 2008-2009 financial meltdown:
If Dr. Peter were alive today, he'd find that a new lust for superhuman accomplishments has helped create an almost unprecedented level of incompetence. The message has been this: Perform extraordinary feats, or consider yourself a loser.
We are now struggling to stay afloat in a river of snake oil created by this way of thinking. Many of us didn't want to see the lies, exaggerations, and arrogance that pumped up our portfolios. Instead we showered huge rewards on the false financial heroes who fed our delusions. This is the Bernie Madoff story, too. People may have suspected that something wasn't quite right about the huge returns on their investments with Madoff. But few wanted to look closely enough to see the Ponzi scheme.
I am not saying that we don't need heroes and visionaries. Rather, we need leaders who help us link big ideas to the little day to day accomplishments that turn dreams into realities. To paraphrase my friend Peter Sims, author of Little Bets, we need leaders who can weave together the "birds eye view," the big picture, with "the worm's eye view," the nuances and tiny little actions required to make bold ideas come to life.