it isn’t “either/or”

I’m uncomfortable with the manager vs. leader dichotomy that’s bandied about lately.

Most of the time, the conversation is reduced to a sound bite: “Managers do things right, leaders to the right thing” (from a Warren Bennis quote).

Cute, but not helpful.

There is no single definition of management or leadership. How you define either term depends on your view of human nature and motivation.

Some people would define management as the process of dealing with or controlling things or people. On the other hand, Drucker would say the two central tasks of management are helping workers to achieve and moving capital from less to more productive areas.

When we talk about leaders, are we talking about charismatic leaders who gather followers to support them in implementing their own vision? Or are we talking about people who help people find their own power and creativity?

How management and leadership is practiced depends on the predominant beliefs of the organization and the mental model and skills of individuals. I believe that leadership doesn’t exist only in a role. It’s in taking action that make it possible for people to bring their best thinking and creativity to bear in solving problems and creating value. And frankly, I don’t see the title (or role) of manager going away any time soon. For one thing, there are legal and financial implications of doing away with the role.

Rather than denigrating the role (and by implication the people in that role) I would find it more useful to talk about what sort of support teams need, what skills are needed to provide that support and then design roles around that.

Maybe we can start a different conversation.

Here’s one starting point to think about the skills that people in management roles and leaders at all levels need (from Welter and Egmon):

Eight Essential Skills of a Prepared Mind:

  • Observing
  • Reasoning
  • Imagining
  • Challenging
  • Deciding
  • Learning
  • Enabling
  • Reflecting

I add:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Ability to see systems
  • Interpersonal skills

What sort of support does your team need?

What skills and attitudes will enable that support?

What might that role look like?

What does the organization as a whole need from that role?

8 Replies to “it isn’t “either/or””

  1. I often think of Management as the administrative function of leadership. Both are required, management however is not always leading as most people can see by the poor choice in managers some companies face. Great post.

    • Hi, Lance –

      Yes, there are some people who don’t have the skills to be managers or lead from that role. Teams and organizations need leadership –lots of it–from all levels of the organization. On problem with embodying leadership in a role is that it deprives others of contributing and engaging in day-to-day acts of leadership.

  2. I fully agree Eshter!

    Hearing so much talk of L&M shows how little insight people have, including consultants. In my opinion this L&M division is not very productive starting point for learning.

    Especially labelling people as “Leaders” and “Managers” is dysfunctional. Also using these labels as excuses of one’s own actions.

    Leadership and management are tools for differentiation of observation, or pattern recognition. This may be useful sometimes, but far less often than is tried. Every real act contains elements of both leadership and management perspectives.

    A better pair would be to study creativity and control, or emergence and system. Or empowerment and the constraining characteristic of power. This would move the attention from the person of leader to the relation and system.

    Best Wishes

    • Hi, Ari –

      I like your idea of looking at creativity and control, or emergence and system, empowerment and the constraining characteristic of power. There’s a balancing act in each of those. Thinking about how to navigate the balance could lead to useful insights about how we define the roles of people who work on the work system and support teams.

  3. I love the concept of leader as one who inspires. But the only useful role for a manager I see is to advocate for the people doing the heavy lifting, like a water boy or a cheerleader does in a sports event.

    I’m a shades-of-gray person, but management and leadership are typically at opposite ends of the gray-scale for me.

    If one can’t create, and/or one can’t inspire (lead), then one had better be satisfied carrying someone else’s water (manager). I apologize if this denigrate managers, I just foresee a radically reduced role in the future (in terms of scope and compensation).

    Can we agree to disagree on this one? Keep up the thought-provoking work!

    PS. I like the updated design of your blog (very clean w/ ample whitespace).


    • HI, Bob –

      Hmmm. Polarities are interesting. When people apply either/or to polarities, it sets up an oscillating pattern. For example, a common one is distributed vs. centralized control over decisions. The organization experiences the down side of centralized control of organizational units (slow decision making, lack of initiative) and wants the upside of decentralized control (faster decision making, creativity to deal with local conditions). But when they get into decentralized control, they also experience the downside (lack of uniformity, appearance of inefficiency), and yearn for the good old days of central control.

      In reality, it’s a balance, a situation to be managed as both/and, being clear on what decisions need to happen centrally, and which are distributed.

      Maybe it’s a shift in the content of the role. The part of the role that is about telling other people what to do and administering performance evaluations will diminish (or go away completely). The part of the role that’s about creating work environments where people can thrive and engage will get bigger.

  4. Hi, Esther,

    Great point. I wanted to write more about this in a post I wrote on my blog about the leader/manager dichotomy ( though I didn’t feel I had the room. I gave one sentence about it being necessary to have both skill sets, and left it at that. To add to your point, leadership without management is all talk. Management without leadership is no heart. If any person with authority is one without the other they had better have a great partner to pick up the slack, or they will simply fail miserably. In my post I focused on managerial triumphs because I feel that management gets the short end of the stick in the leader manager debate, but you are right – to be a successful manager or leader you must use both skill sets.


Comments are closed.