What Leaders Really Do: HBR Must Reads on Leadership Review #3

Are leadership and management two different things? According to John P. Kotter’s What Leaders Really Do, “leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action.” Leadership and management are not really to be compared against one another, but used together as complimentary components.

“The real challenge is to combine strong leadership and strong management and use each to balance each other.” John P. Kotter

Kotter makes a great point, that while most corporation’s apprenticeship model for developing what he calls “leader-managers” is reasonable in theory, it does not guarantee quality leadership, or even good management.

Two Definitions of Management and Leadership:
  1. Management = Coping with complexity to bring order and predictability to a situation (e.g., planning and budgeting, setting targets or short-term goals for the future, establishing steps to achieve targets and allocating resources to accomplish plans).
  2. Leadership = Adapting to change (e.g., setting direction to achieve a vision of the longer-term future with strategies to produce the change needed to achieve the vision).

There are two major disconnects here when we look at this through the lens of strengths.  The first has to do with the hierarchical approach.  While it is reasonable and healthy to consider management and leadership as two separate constructs or roles, it is simply erroneous to impose a dichotomy between the two layers in ways that suppose hierarchy.  It presumes that the skills of the manager are not needed for leadership and, conversely, that leadership is not necessary to manage.  Neither is correct. The reason so many people struggle to differentiate leadership from management is because of how embedded inside of one another they are.  Separating them for the sake of definition is fine, but doing so for the sake of hierarchical differentiation is foolish. To do so, and to leave complexity to “managers” and “leaders” to bear sole responsibility for navigating change is nothing more than a setup for failure.

The second disconnect has to do with the idea that leadership, being responsible for adapting to change, requires specific talents, a diverse view, and strong selection and grooming from past leaders, as Kotter makes clear throughout the article.  This has numerous issues – most notably the denial of the fact that everyone is a leader in their own right.  To presuppose that strong leaders can be selected for, leads to the inevitable belief that others are not cut out for leadership.  This is false.  Further, when we approach leadership through the lens of strengths and understand that real leadership comes from deep understanding of the “why” of an individual and/or organization, then adapting to change, which is almost always the “what” and on rare occasions, the “how”, becomes much easier, if not outright obvious.  So, even accepting the definitions as given by Kotter what is absolutely missing is the idea that adapting to change is not a skillset in and of itself, but rather comes from clarity of self and of the true intent of the organization.

This model is the Corporate Mindset, in that it:

  • Perpetuates a false dichotomy between management and leadership that does not account for industry, phase of development of the organization, strategic focus, influence of the external environment (e.g., politics, regulations, movements, technology, etc.).
  • Negates the fact that the core responsibility of many CEOs is up to the Board or Shareholders and may vary across the evolution of the organization, as dictated by market, political, regulatory, and/or cultural forces.
  • Is only true in a traditional and antiquated survival-of-the-fittest, one leader at the top, big box kind of organization.
  • Ignores the critical importance of clarity of self and strengths to allow leaders to successfully adapt to change.
“Don’t take shit. Do epic shit!”TandemSpring

To be clear, and fair, Kotter does state that the distinction between manager and leader is a result of the development of the large corporation.  He also speaks at length about the importance of mission and vision for organizations. So, that does provide a modicum of clarification.  However, what is not sufficiently addressed is the fact that the difference between management and leadership only becomes real within the Corporate Mindset.  Similarly, the path to creating and living into real mission and vision, and what that means for the rest of the organization, is left insufficiently explored.

We point all of this out to demonstrate that this conceptualization of leadership is so often the very bottleneck of modern corporations. It is this mindset that has led to the stereotype of visionary leaders who are so disconnected from the rest of the organization that their visions are often unreasonable, bordering on irrelevance, disconnected from the heart, let alone arms and legs, of the organization. These leaders are left to be visionaries all on their own, because it is now expected of them as they have been preselected for this ability, somehow.  It is this mindset that creates the leader whose visions endlessly frustrate middle management, who are then reinforced to just show up at work to shove the never-ending stream of “shit” “downhill”, to the next level of the hierarchy. If shit is rolling downhill, and the organization is steeped in hierarchy, it should come as no surprise when blockages happen in some forgotten department deep in the bowels of the organization, far removed from anyone who has the power to do anything about it. We’ve all seen it, and we’ve all experienced it: the business process that simply no longer makes sense, but can’t be changed. Thankfully, organizations are moving away from this type of model as it is clunky, rigid, and simply unprofitable. But, the process of change is long, and often painful when endeavored through such a similar lens as it leaves organizations to see these issues as deeply complex and unable to adapt to changing times.

In an increasingly rapidly changing world, with so much complexity and adaptation to change that is necessary at every level of the organization, there just is no time for shit to roll, one way or the other. Complexity and change exist everywhere, within every level of the organization, and within every job. It is more critical that, ideally through strengths, we understand the nuances of complexity at each level (C-suite, middle management, front-line staff), across contexts (e.g., internal to the organization, external, or the intersection of the two), and among types (e.g., human-capital, line production, process improvement, etc.). To be adaptive as an organization, there is no responsibility that can fall on just any one person’s shoulders.  It takes everyone engaged in a unified vision, rowing the boat in the right direction, together, charging forward to “do epic shit.”

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