Did We Spend Too Much Time Talking About Leadership And Not Enough Doing Management?

[Warning: the following paragraphs contain graphic scenes of leadership training that may be upsetting to some readers. None of it happened at the organisation that currently employs me. Neither at the last one I worked for. The organisation where it did take place is now a very different organisation under very different, erm… leadership.]

Picture a generic conference venue. Between 100-200 “Senior Leaders” of the organisation are dotted around the big room trying to eke out a few more minutes of their tea break, grabbing another free cup of tea and another cookie.

But there’s no such thing as a free tea. The Leadership Coach paid to deliver the next session has other ideas. She strides onto the stage and sends a piercing whistle across the room. Not for her the more customary way of calling the meeting to order – that would be grabbing a microphone and saying things like, “er, excuse me, could you all… excuse me… could we get back to our tables please? Hello… everyone?” for a while.

No, the Leadership coach has a purpose, a can-do attitude, she’s not a conformist and so she whistles at people. It certainly has some kind of effect. People are back in their seats as she talks, punctuating certain words with a shouty rise in volume: “You have a RECEPTIONIST in your organisation who RECOGNISES me when I come in and KNOWS MY NAME!” This is good work, underlining her point that everyone in every organisation can be a leader in some way or other, and at the same time subtly hinting that she is a frequent visitor to the building, leaving it to the imagination what important talks she’s having at the most senior levels on those occasions.

And that wasn’t the only such occasion. A few months earlier or later, at another “Senior Leaders Conference” much the same group of people was told to by a different leadership expert to “be themselves, but more” as a path to charismatic leadership. And this time the speaker underlined his point by putting up a slide showing Nelson Mandela in the famous rugby shirt episode. It’s not like coming up with this example took a PhD in leadership studies. The episode had only just been a focus of a major motion picture. But to be more like Nelson Mandela was a big ask of the audience – pale, stale and prone to fail, as one unkind and overly cynical colleague described it.

At around the same time the favoured leadership coach of the top civil servant in the country was giving training sessions to people at every level of seniority on the importance of being a leader. Everyone can and should be a leader in every part at every level of the organisation. And those leaders, in his mind, were clearly active and athletic. Because leaders are people who “are up to something,” whatever it is, and they train their “leadership muscles.”

The cumulative messaging was clear:

  • Leadership is going to be what allows us to succeed in these times of shrinking budgets and increasing global challenges.
  • Everyone can and should be a leader.
  • Being a leader means being charismatic, inspiring others, transforming things.

And always leadership was contrasted with management: Leadership is sexy, management mundane. Leadership comes after “transformational” or “charismatic,” management after “middle,” “micro-” or before “bullshit.” Leadership is where we inspire, management where we use a bureaucracy of forms and processes, at worst to rein in the leadership potential of others.

And I’m sure this talk of leadership gave many people a warm glow, an optimistic feeling that they could inspire their teams to give more, and an increase in motivation to give more themselves. But that sentiment never survived contact with the desk, the office environment or members of the team. The inevitable written down leadership statement or personal action commitment from the conference was quietly disposed of in the recycling bin, as the urgent priorities of business-as-usual took over.

But the problem was that leadership was vague. Whether leaders made progress in their “leadership journey” was hard to measure and true transformation at an organisational level didn’t seem to happen. And while the abstract art of leadership was being discussed, the science and techniques of management were being neglected. It was assumed that milestones only ever move to the right, people had work objectives which couldn’t be used to hold anyone to account or to manage performance meaningfully. So performance management systems were ratcheted up to force people to manage others more harshly. Risk registers were there to provide a bit of colour to papers for meetings though much of it was red and amber. Governance of decision-making was undermined by corridor conversations between leaders who were up to something.

What if this over-valuation of leadership at the cost of management was all based on a massive misunderstanding? The other day I stumbled upon a piece of evidence, almost thirty years old, that suggested just that to me. The rise of leadership and the fall of management happened, but it was never meant to happen.

In the 1989 self-help, self-development and leadership classic, The 7 Habits of Effective People, Stephen Covey writes things like the following:

“Management is a bottom line focus: How can I best accomplish certain things? Leadership deals with the top line: What are the things I want to accomplish? In the words of both Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall.”

“You can quickly grasp the important difference between the two if you envision a group of producers cutting their way through the jungle with machetes. They’re the producers, the problem solvers. They’re cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out. The managers are behind them, sharpening their machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved technologies and setting up working schedules and compensation programs for machete wielders. The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, ‘Wrong jungle!'”

“At the final session of a year-long executive development program in Seattle, the president of an oil company came up to me and said, “Stephen, when you pointed out the difference between leadership and management in the second month, I looked at my role as the president of this company and realized that I had never been into leadership. I was deep into management, buried by pressing challenges and the details of day-to-day logistics. So I decided to withdraw from management. I could get other people to do that. I wanted to really lead my organisation.”

You can see that leadership is being recommended as a thing that makes people effective. But Covey also talks about management habits. You can see that it takes occasional reflection to see whether the ladder is up the right wall. But you still need to climb it. And the jungle likeness doesn’t envisage everyone suddenly leaving the work their doing to climb up a tree. And it doesn’t envisage a situation where everyone disagrees with everyone else about which jungle they should be in and productivity grinds to a halt. The president of an oil company didn’t feel that management would be unnecessary in his organisation. Just that others should do it and he should do less of it. And the kind of leadership that Covey and Drucker had in mind wasn’t a vague notion to do with unleashing the authentic self, or being charismatic. It entailed things like disciplined analysis of the external broader environment, the state of the sector and the purpose of the organisation.

My Kindle tells me that almost 4500 people highlighted the quote from Drucker and Bennis in Covey’s book. And that’s just in the most recent digital 25th anniversary edition. My hypothesis is that from 1989 onwards statements such as these were enthusiastically, developed, simplified, exaggerated,  precisely because the rhetoric of leadership provides such a feel-good factor. And leadership, as well as management, ended up in a jungle where they never meant to be.

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