Reflecting a bit more on managers and leaders

Reflecting a bit more on managers and leaders


Last week, I wrote of my intention to share some of the images I particularly like, metaphors that explain the classic distinction between leaders and managers. As I think about this, though, it may make more sense to first discuss here the historical context of the manager vs. leader debate. Then, in the next post, I will present the “promised” images, and we will see if they still make sense when applied to the modern organization.

In fact, the act of identifying some characteristics as those of the manager and others as those of the leader may have made more sense in the Age of Industry than in today’s information economy. With the gradual evolution of the industrialized world toward technology-intensive knowledge work, organizational structures began to change, and the “manager vs. leader” discussion took a new direction. So first, let’s take some historical perspective.

Work in the industrial world: If one considers how daily life was organized in the industrial corporation, for example in the celebrated and widely studied factories of Henry Ford, line workers were relatively unskilled. They performed repetitive tasks, were easily replaceable, and were not expected to use their brains much. In fact, Ford was famous for stating that the biggest problem on his assembly lines was that each time he needed a good pair of hands, it came with a body and a mind attached to it. 

Most factory workers were part of an assembly line, a vast system of mostly interchangeable parts.  Above the factory floor, large numbers of “organization men” controlled every step of each process. As the science of manufacturing evolved, layers of managers were added to provide ever-increasing and more precise control. Since the goal was efficiency of physical assets, systems for measuring output became progressively more sophisticated, management ever more scientific, and hierarchies increasingly vertical and bureaucratic.

The Industrial Age was the golden age of physical capital. A company’s success was largely the result of its ability to use its tangible resources efficiently, and then to grow its production capacity. As such, streamlining production processes became job number one. In this environment, strict vertical hierarchies–even bureaucracies–made lots of sense. Well run bureaucracies are good at organizing and executing things that are predictable and that require mass efforts to effect economies of scale.

How the Information Revolution changed the world of work: Consider the iconic organizations that have succeeded in the Information Age, companies such as Google, Apple, or Microsoft. Far from the world of assembly lines and vast production facilities where efficiency depended on Ford’s famous “pairs of hands”, these companies have flourished due to the quality of their knowledge workers. These days, success is all about marshaling human brainpower.

Rather than physical capital, the Information Age corporation came to rely on the productivity of its intellectual capital and its social capital. In a world where compelling ideas—rather than imposing physical resources—are more likely to lead to prosperity, the key to creating value lies less in top-down vertical efficiency than in motivating self-directed professionals to work with one another horizontally across organizational lines. 

Given the needs of the Information Age, it makes sense that the modern-day corporation would develop models with far flatter structures than their predecessors.

Today, an organization’s biggest challenges are not those of managing and controlling its physical resources, but rather those of maximizing the organization’s potential by inspiring its human resources. Rather than constrain people with systems and structures, companies need to find ways to release their employees’ energy, passion and creativity.

What does all this mean to our discussion of managers and leaders, and how can we apply the distinction to today’s corporation? One quick conclusion is that in the industrial corporation, the lines between managers and leaders were more clearly defined than they are today. Next time, I will present some of my favorite images to describe managers and leaders–for example, that leaders decide what mountains we should climb, and managers determine the techniques and approaches to insure we get there–and we will see how useful they are in our current time.


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