Images of management and leadership

Images of management and leadership

As a long-time student and writer about leadership and storytelling, I have developed a keen interest in metaphor and imagery. This week, I take a look at some of my favorite language surrounding the concept of managers and leaders. As it turns out, the notion of leaders and managers does lend itself to images that are at the same time colorful and instructional.

I must begin with two observations. First, I have long ago forgotten the exact sources of some of the expressions I will use, as they come from a wide variety of reading, listening and classroom experiences over a twenty-year period. Among those whose ideas I have “stolen” and adapted, I would mention Warren Bennis, John C. Maxwell, John Kotter, and Tom Peters, in addition to Abraham Zaleznik’s classic article I referenced in recent posts.

Second, the comparisons I employ may sound somewhat schematic or even caricatural at times, as if we were seeking a dualistic way of considering the world in terms of two distinct species. In practice, of course, it is never this way. Almost everyone in charge of a group endeavor will exhibit a combination of characteristics from each of the two “camps”. Nonetheless, studying some of the dualistic language about the “ways and attitudes” of managers and leaders can provide insight and fodder for thought and discussion.

Managers work “in the system”, while leaders often work “on the system”: I like this image because I believe it encapsulates the essence of the issue in a small number of words. Managers are problem solvers who like the assurance of well-defined processes. They embrace stability and control, and they loath chaos. As such, they are comfortable working within systems to streamline them, to eliminate waste and increase the efficiency of output. Good managers are constantly searching for a better way: to work, to organize, to improve what exists.

Perhaps another way to view this phenomenon is to state that managers get satisfaction and show their value by perfecting the known. Leaders, on the other hand, are more comfortable with venturing into the unknown. Effective leaders tolerate or even embrace chaos. They are concerned with deeper significance as well as daily performance. Leaders are more likely to innovate and propose changing an entire process or system, as opposed to making incremental modifications to existing procedures.

Managers require; leaders inspire. To me, this short sentence lends some understanding about what happened in the transition from the industrial economy that characterized much of the 20th century to the information economy of today. In the Industrial Age, with its vertical hierarchies and its focus on controlling physical assets and production processes, visionary leadership came from a relatively small number of people at the top of the pyramid. Virtually everyone else was either line worker or manager.

Managers could “require” workers to perform work efficiently because most tasks were purely physical and easy to measure. When anyone in the vast chain did not perform up to standard, unit bosses could demand better performance, often citing statistical averages from time-and-motion studies. Thus, management became mostly a science of analysis and control. In industrial society, we came to understand more about managing tasks, processes and output than about leading and inspiring human beings.

As we gradually moved into the information economy of the latter 20th century, and as many “line” workers evolved into knowledge workers, the management game changed. Organizations became flatter, often organized into project teams. As work became more intellectual than physical, the people in charge of such teams were more effective if they developed their leadership skills. Since a human being’s thinking is more difficult to measure than his or her physical output, inspiring people to put their energy into the work became a more effective technique than requiring them to do so.

Today, the biggest challenge is not managing the organization’s physical capital, but rather maximizing the organization’s potential by inspiring its human capital. Rather than constrain people with systems and structures, we need to find ways to release their energy and creativity. So, the “middle manager” can no longer simply manage, and the lines between leader and manager become somewhat blurred.

It is the job of the leader to decide which mountains we should climb; while the manager’s role is make sure we get there. I am particularly fond of this metaphor because of all the time I have spent skiing, hiking and climbing in mountain environments. And, I think it does capture the classic distinction between manager and leader. However, in well run companies and workgroups today, traditional concepts of leader and manager are often blended, and anybody with a good idea can suggest new mountains to climb. We might even expect them to do it.


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