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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"I'm a leader, not a manager!"

One of Kent's friends — we'll call him Roy — is a master craftsman who owns a small business that makes custom wood furniture. After making some cutbacks in 2009, his little company still employs three fine woodworkers, an office supervisor/customer service rep, and an apprentice.

What makes Roy unusual is that when he founded his firm a dozen years ago, he realized he knew nothing about business. And so he began reading serious books on the subject, as well as the Harvard Business Review and two or three business magazines.

What he's learned in the past few years is that, as he says, "I'm a leader, not a manager. I'm really good at innovation and pointing out new directions. You know, the vision thing. But I hate everything I have to do to keep the doors open and the lights on. When business was good, I could get other people to do all that while I was out designing new pieces or installations for customers, but now I have to do more of it."

Management vs. leadership — it's a distinction we all hear over and over these days. It says management focuses on getting work done on time, on budget, and on target — in other words, steady execution and control — while leadership focuses on change and innovation.
Some years ago, management was the more inclusive term and included leadership — along with motivating, planning, communicating, organizing and the like — as one of many functions necessary to make groups of people productive. Then in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the perception took hold that the U.S. was in danger of falling behind innovative competitors (Japan, in particular) because traditional management as practiced by U.S. businesses didn't promote change and innovation. The solution was leadership, which was singled out as the ability to do exactly that. Thus was born the new age of leadership in which we've heard even senior managers say, like Roy, "I'm a leader, not a manager!"

Most writers about leadership then and now explicitly note the continuing importance of management. Success still depends on execution, controls and boundaries, systems, processes, and continuity. Without all that, leadership only produces dreams. Nonetheless, being a leader has taken on a shiny, romantic aura these days while management has been given an undertone of grubby practicality. Leaders are superior beings who inspire the rest of us to greatness while managers are dull business functionaries obsessed with budgets, schedules, policies, and procedures. This thinking is at least partially behind the attitude of Kent's friend. Roy considers himself an artisan, a creator of beauty in wood, and seeing himself as a leader fits easily with that self-perception. But making sure the bills go out on time, keeping the machines working, and dealing with the employee who cuts corners and doesn't meet customer specifications aren't nearly so romantic.

Both leadership and management are crucial, and it doesn't help those responsible for the work of others to romanticize one and devalue the other. To survive and succeed, all groups and businesses must simultaneously change in some ways and remain the same in others. They must execute and innovate, stay the course and foster change. Yes, the guidance, group skills, and mindsets required for serious change and innovation differ from those needed for continuity and steady execution. But that only means those in charge must be able to act as both change agent and steward of continuity, manager and leader, as the situation requires. The challenge is to discern when one versus the other is needed. To idealize leadership and demean management only makes that challenge even harder.

To avoid all the positive and negative connotations around "leadership" and "management" today, we often use the term "boss." It's not a perfect title — no one likes to be "bossed around." To paraphrase Mary Parker Follett, a management writer in the early 1900s, the mark of a good boss is how little actual bossing he or she must do. Still, "boss" or its equivalent in other languages is widely used across generations and cultures to refer neutrally to the person in charge, the one responsible for the work of others, the one to whom each of us must answer at work.

If you're a boss, think of yourself as the one responsible for the work of others, the one who must manage and lead as necessary, without favoring one over the other. Focus on whatever is required of you to make your people productive. Most of all, take care not to conceive of yourself as the glorious leader always blazing new trails while leaving the gritty, mundane details of making it all work to lesser beings. Kent's friend may say, "I'm not a manager," but the survival of his business probably owes as much to his management skills as it does his leadership talents. 
by Linda Hill & Kent Lineback ; taken from harsaconsulting@gmail.com
*illustration is powered by google

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