The following is a guest blog post from Dr. David Foote, Assistant Dean at the Middle Tennessee State University Jennings A. Jones College of Business.
As a career Navy officer, I had the opportunity to work for some truly exceptional managers and some utterly horrible managers. That got me thinking about the whole management vs. leadership thing. After I retired from Navy life and started working on my PhD in organizational behavior, the issue of what distinguishes one from the other and what each is really about became a central theme in my studies. As you can imagine, when Jackie asked me to write a guest blog on the subject, I jumped at the chance. Most people are pretty well convinced that there’s a difference between leadership and management. There’s not much discussion on that one. However, when I ask people what that difference is, they’re often at a loss for words. Some typical responses include:
- “Well, you lead people; you manage things.”
- “Management is telling people what to do; leadership is getting them to do what you want and letting them think it was their idea.”
- “Managers have subordinates; leaders have followers.”
- “Managers maintain the status quo; leaders change things for the better.”
- “Managers tell people what to do; leaders influence them to do it.”
- “Leaders articulate a vision; managers carry it out.”
We’ve grown up in (and find it terribly difficult to break free of) a paradigm in which leadership means getting things done. We think of people who accomplish important things or who accomplish a great many things and say, “Wow! That person is a great leader – look at what s/he’s done!” The extent of one’s achievements determines becomes the measure of how strong a leader he or she is. The trouble is, we all know people who get a lot done, but leadership isn’t exactly the word that comes to mind in describing them.
In this paradigm, the difference between management and leadership seems to revolve around how you get things done. Leadership is like management, but somehow more virtuous. Managers as cold, uncaring, mechanical operatives who only care about the task at hand, whereas leaders get the job done, but take care of their people, too. In other words, managers and leaders both accomplish the same kinds of tasks, but leaders make you feel better about what they’re asking you to do. Unfortunately, it’s still all about getting things done.
Another common [mis]understanding is that leaders are people who are in charge of things. They hold positions of responsibility. When I press my students on the notion that simply being in charge of something makes you a leader, they often try to qualify the issue with something like, “Well, it doesn’t have to be a formal thing. Sometimes leaders just emerge from a group.” Of course, what they mean by this is that when people assert themselves in a group setting, the rest of the group begins to acquiesce to their influence and those people find themselves in charge by default. Still, being in charge doesn’t equate to leadership; it only means you get to tell other people what to do.
There’s a lot more I could say about why this paradigm persists, and why I think it’s dreadfully off-base, but I don’t have the time or space here to do that, so I’ll get to the point for now and perhaps I can address the rest of it another time.
Leadership has nothing to do with getting things done. It’s not about goals or caring or influence or vision or being in charge. Those things simply distinguish adequate managers from exceptional managers.
Think back to one of those moments in your life when someone asked a “why” question—a question about your own behavior—that exposed a conflict between that behavior and the values you say you believe in. Or, maybe it was a question about the values we all supposedly believe in. In the intervening seconds before anything else happened, perhaps you began to really think about the question and you took a good, hard, honest look in the mirror. Maybe you liked what you saw and decided that particular there was no conflict after all. On the other hand, maybe when you looked in the mirror you saw something you didn’t like…and you realized that things had to change. Either way, you engaged in the process of re-examining what really matters, and that was the result of someone exercising leadership.
Exercising leadership means opening the door for people to do the one thing in all of human interaction that they cannot be directed, coerced, partnered, manipulated, or otherwise directly influenced (i.e., managed) into doing, and that is to discard their current notions and start again from the beginning to reexamine their own understanding of what truly matters in any given situation. When that happens, lives change!
As a manager, there are all kinds of ways I can get you to do what I want done, but there’s absolutely nothing I can do to make you reconsider your values (the things that matter to you). I can even make you tell me you reconsidered your values, but I can’t make you actually do it. What I can do is create the opportunity for you to do it, and when I do, I’m exercising leadership.
In the end, no matter how noble you make it sound, management means getting people to do work in support of organizational goals. Exercising leadership means creating the opportunity for people to examine their values and, by doing so, to clarify what matters most in a given situation. That’s what makes leadership different from (not better than) management, and that’s what makes understanding and exercising leadership so important.
By the way…if you’re worth your salt as a manager, you take good care of your people, you use influence appropriately both up and down the chain of command, you work to change things for the better, and you clearly communicate a strong vision for those who work for you and with you, whether or not you ever exercise leadership.