Thursday, 29 August 2013

Leadership vs Management

This post represents what I hope to be a return from my recent hiatus. Life has been a little challenging over the last 3-5 months and thanks to various people who have checked in. As always, I keep my Twitter relatively active when I’m able.

Leadership is a concept which has long fascinated me, since it’s a highly desired quality which seems to be in very limited supply. Definitions of leadership are many and varied, but one I like is this from Kevin Kruse, writing in Forbes:
Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.
He breaks this definition into the following elements:

  1. Leadership stems from social influence, not authority or power
  2. Leadership requires others, and that implies they don’t need to be “direct reports”
  3. No mention of personality traits, attributes, or even a title; there are many styles, many paths, to effective leadership
  4. It includes a goal, not influence with no intended outcome

He also includes the “force multiplier” effect of a good leader in the sense that they maximise the effort (output) of employees, generating what he calls “discretionary effort”, a critical quality in a leader.

So why the scarcity of leadership?

My contention would be that the distinction between leadership and management has broken down (if it ever truly existed) and the emphasis has been on training those who should lead in how best to manage. That is not to denigrate management as a discipline, solid managers are an incredible force for good within an organisation, marshaling resources and ensuring that the process works and does so with the absolute minimum of friction. Managers dispel the fog of war in your day to day work with their knowledge of all facets of a project and how best to resolve issues.

Management however is not a force multiplier, nor does it tend to generate innovation in and of itself. Management functions best as a method for smoothing out and refining an existing process. Leadership fulfills the role of creating new approaches and blazing new trails for managers to further refine.

One reason I like military writers on these topics is that they tend to be able to draw a far clearer distinction between management and leadership. Soldiers, particularly those in high intensity environments like combat, do not expect to be managed, they expect to be led. As such military writers of all stripes are able to clearly distinguish between the two concepts without conflating them.

Tony Carr of John Q. Public has a rather excellent piece up on the topic of leadership which speaks to many of the core values necessary in a leader and is as relevant to a civilian audience as a military one. He offers the following as suggestions on how best to lead an organisation:

  1. Set a vision, unify your people around it, resource them to achieve it, and then do your best to sink into the scenery and let them take ownership.
  2. Identify, invest in, build up, and rely upon your key players. Let them lead the unit day-to-day, intervening less than might be your impulse but enough that your people feel your hand on the reins.
  3. Work hard to make your communications as impactful as possible. Don’t stand silent on things you know your people are talking about. Whatever you do, tell the truth, even if it means you differ from the corporate line — it’s quite alright to differ respectfully while telling everyone to keep rowing.
  4. Care, and make sure — without being too obvious or hackneyed — that your people know you care. Fight for them, even occasionally when you know you will lose … it engenders loyalty, and sometimes you need that to hold them together when the “big” reasons for all they’re giving just aren’t enough.
  5. When the situation calls for it, be tough. Tough as nails. This is part of taking care of your people, and the good ones will appreciate and admire you for it. They’ll fight hard to maintain the standards you set when they see you safeguarding the standards they care about.
  6. Perhaps most important, do your best to deflect the pressures directed at your people from higher, rather than magnifying them. This is a tough thing to do, but if you don’t effectively guard the gate of your organization, external actors will conspire to dominate the time and mission focus of your people.

Please read the whole piece, as a simple summary of these points reduces the granularity and detail Tony has put in.

The most noticeable thing for me is that Tony’s leadership qualities emphasize a light touch, with goal setting, the identification of quality people to carry out those goals and ensuring that those operating under you are protected and well resourced. Efforts are focused on creating a secure “space” within which people can operate freely and effectively.

Something I might add to this as its own distinct point would be the requirement that leaders create a safe space not just to do the right thing, but also one in which mistakes are permitted and where and punitive action is absolutely minimised. In the environment within which I work I think there are two rules:

  1. If the client doesn’t need to know about the mistake then it is something to be treated as a learning experience
  2. The first time something goes wrong it is not a problem, if the same process is leading to repeated failures however, there is a fundamental issue that needs resolving
There is no system which is 100% effective, and attempts to create utopic workplaces where no mistakes are made are doomed to failure and bitterness. Leaders can tell the difference between a meaningful and meaningless mistake, and figure out the best way to adapt and develop so that no mistake is made twice.

UPDATE: I was sent this article which has rather neatly summarized how a leader deals with failure:
Because if you know what you want, and can say “well, that happened, here’s what I need” without the step of “hey, buster, you screwed the pooch on this, right?” people will do almost anything for you. The gratitude a person feels when they do not have to admit wrongdoing is limitless. Embrace it! Having someone say “you were right, I was wrong” is lovely, but it’s fundamentally ego-driven and unnecessary. You’re not wrong to want it, but if you can free youself from demanding it, you can actually get more concrete things than you would if you forced someone over a barrel to say they fucked up. TRY IT. It’s a golden ticket.
We shouldn’t lose track of the fact that both leadership and management can be taught and that both are required. We should not denigrate one while artificially inflating the other. What we should recognise is that one is not the other, and adapt accordingly.
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