“You manage things; you lead people” – Rear Admiral Grace Murray Hopper
Imagine an 18th century English cotton mill. The roles of the workers, supervisors and the boss were clear. The owner had the vision for the business, developed strategic partnerships, hired and fired, and decided where the final product would be sold. The supervisors followed orders, organized work and assigned work to the right people. The workers washed the wool, spun into thread, and made carpets, cloth and other textiles. It was clear as to who did what and when.
Today, the knowledge economy creates a great deal of ambiguity in the roles of leaders and managers. Unless you are in the top 5 percent of the company, your role will require a mix of management and leadership. You need to develop a comfort and proficiency to dance between the two.
We confuse management and leadership. We conflate the terms and use them interchangeably. Given how little we invest in capabilities in our industry that aren’t related to technical competencies, the resulting misunderstanding of the role of leadership is hardly surprising. Most appraisal processes add to the confusion and in my experience, the language we use to communicate on the topic within the company doesn’t help.
Let’s experiment for a moment. Think back on your last week and reflect on the variety of meetings you attended, emails you wrote and actions you took. Pick three situations, and in each of these, answer the following:
…did you create the vision or implement efficient processes?
…did you cause change or accept the status quo?
…did you seek opportunities or control risk?
…did you inspire and energize people or co-ordinate effort?
…did you delegate to free up time for visioning or focus on the executing?
If in that situation you were creating rather than reacting, and visioning rather than focusing on processes, you were leading. If you were coordinating effort and ensuring the execution, you were managing. Neither is better than the other – the organization requires both.
The role of leadership is often lionized, but the organization needs both managers and leaders. If leadership is the heart of business, then management is the brains. Neither survives without the other.
Managers are experts in their fields, and are often the best at what the team is tasked to do. The focus of the manager is short-term and is about executing the strategic plan. As an example, the IT development manager is likely an excellent programmer with a deep knowledge of the relevant methodologies and programming tools. He/she is focused on a core systems implementation that is deemed necessary for the company to meet its strategic objectives.
Leaders are focused on understanding the context of the current environment, evaluating the long-term impact of choices and setting the strategic direction of the entire organization.
For many of us, our roles require a combination of management and leadership. The challenge is to be intentional in the role you play in that moment. This may sound obvious but with years of experience in being the manager, it’s often what we default to, as it’s the role most familiar to us.
In progression up the organization, the role will require more leadership and less management but the duality will persist. This duality and shifting balance seems to be an unspoken reality. It’s a truth that no-one will share with you until you get the balance wrong.
The challenge is to know what balance of management and leadership is required in your role, and to be aware of your default style. The industrial age is over and we are in a new world of more nuanced roles. We need to have more open and honest conversations about the balance, and we need cleaner language about what leadership looks like for the organization. We’ve been modernizing our technology landscapes for several years now. It’s now time to modernize the discussion of leadership.