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Executives: Leaders or Managers?

We need to stop viewing executives as leaders or managers because leadership and management are functions or activities, not roles. Executives occasionally lead and manage but so do all other employees.

For the sake of deeper engagement and faster innovation, employees need to be much more empowered than they are today. The key is to recognize that all employees can both lead and manage. If so, then we can say that leadership and management are activities not roles.

Calling an executive a leader makes leadership a top-down function, the exclusive territory of those in charge of others. This reinforces what Geert Hofstede calls the “power-distance” gap, the extent to which people defer to those in positions of authority. Deference to authority is disengaging because it induces dependency along with a mixture of fear and hero worship.

Leadership vs Management

The term “executive” leaves us free to regard leadership and management as occasional activities. Clearly, the executive role can be broken down into a number of sub-roles or activities. This opens the door to saying that leadership and management can be considered sub-roles or activities too.

Small business owners, by analogy, have no finance, marketing, sales, purchasing or human resource departments. They do it all themselves. So, whatever leading they do must be sandwiched in between all these other activities. If leading for them is an occasional activity then it is misleading to call them leaders simply by virtue of their being the boss.

Complexity and scale drive specialization, hence why large organizations have specialists handling many functions that small business owners must do themselves. The point of this analogy is that complexity and scale provide a good rationale for carving up the executive role into component activities.

How All Employees Can Both Lead and Manage

Take managing first. The definition of management as achieving goals in such as way as to make the best use of all resources covers managing ourselves: our time, career, finances and anything else important to us. Whenever we prioritize, we are attempting to achieve the best return on our resources, even if only our time.

If we define leadership as showing the way for others, either by example or by promoting a new direction, then this is something all employees can do simply by working smarter, communicating more openly, advocating change or doing anything different that induces others to follow their lead. In a meeting, all employees can have a brief leadership impact if their contributions sway the views of others, however slightly.

With these definitions, we can see that executives lead only when they are striving to influence others to change direction, such as when they promote a new vision. They are managing only when they are striving to get as much as possible out of all resources at their disposal, from financial to human resources. Leadership and management are tools that all employees can use. It is counterproductive to regard them as roles. Further, it is arguable that executives DO a lot of things that are neither leading nor managing, such as solving functional problems, liaising with external stakeholders and acquiring other companies.

Leadership as Selling the Tickets for the Journey

Kouzes and Posner’s thinking about leadership is based on the metaphor of a journey. Leadership, for them, begins with a vision, the journey’s destination. Promoting the vision sells the tickets for the journey but leadership supposedly carries on to help followers get to the destination. Leadership, on this view, entails two steps: selling the tickets for a journey and taking followers to the destination.

However we have an awkward anomaly: leading by example. When people follow an example, leadership is shown. But setting an example merely sells the tickets for a journey; it leaves followers to get to the destination on their own. Only some changes or new ventures involve a journey, such as John F. Kennedy’s early 1960’s vision of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

But suppose an employee works faster, safer or smarter and other employees follow suit. This is an immediate change, thus hardly a journey. Actually, leading by example doesn’t even require being in charge of followers, even informally. In any case, the main point is that leading by example is an odd kind of leadership because it doesn’t entail helping followers reach a destination.

Leading by example involves the leader taking a journey first, if there is one to take, and leaving others to follow on their own. In conventional leadership situations, leaders need to recruit others to help them get to the destination; they can’t literally lead the way by going anywhere first.

So, leading by example is clearly not an ongoing role. It is simply a one-off act of leadership, an isolated impact. This may sound strange but, if we define leadership as a type of influence, we simply need to recognize that there are all kinds of influence that work the same way as brief, one-off impacts that are not role-based.

In any case, leading by example is a very different animal. Note that following the example that leaders set doesn’t require us to join them, to be a member of their camp or to go on a journey with them. This fact makes it easier to follow the example of people whom we wouldn’t otherwise join or regard as suitable leaders in the conventional sense. In this case, content matters more than the character of the person leading.

That is, we can adopt a good idea that someone demonstrates even if we don’t admire or respect that person in other ways. Further, whole countries can lead by example, say by taking green initiatives that inspire other countries to follow suit. A conventional leader is normally an individual person but groups, as well as individuals, can lead by example. (For more on these themes, see Leading by Example? How Odd!)

Two Kinds of Leadership or One?

Now, do we have two kinds of leadership, one where the leader goes first and one where the leader needs to recruit followers to go anywhere? If we want to say that there is only one kind of leadership, then we must define it so that it includes leading by example. This can be done by saying that leadership, in all cases, stops at selling the tickets for the journey. This move then frees us to say that helping people get to the destination must be explained in some other way, say as a management function where management is viewed as a supportive, facilitative, enabling process.

So what? Why does this matter? Well, if we want to see how all employees can lead, especially bottom-up, then we need a concept of leadership that entails nothing more than selling the tickets for the journey. For instance, when front-line employees convince management to adopt a new product idea, their involvement might be over the minute that management buys the idea. Execution could be delegated to a product development team that does not include the idea’s originator.

The crux of the issue is that we now have two choices: we can continue to see executives as leaders provided they are effective in their roles or we can reject this notion and say that leadership is an occasional activity in which all can engage, not an ongoing role. Complexity and rapid change support the latter. Complexity and scale demand specialization, suggesting that we need to divide the executive role into a variety of sub-components.

Leadership Depersonalized

If leadership is a discrete act of influence, then it has nothing to do with being a type of person. What it takes to lead a particular group of people, in the sense of simply influencing them to think or act differently, is totally contextual. In a high tech environment, for instance, hard facts, even if abrasively presented, might induce people to change.

Keep in mind that, with leading by example, content matters more than character and groups can lead by example where it is clearly not about being a certain type of person. This is not to say that character is never a factor in leading by example. If the example being set is related to an ethical issue, then the person setting it should exemplify that code of ethics. This reinforces the point that the type of influence needed to lead others, varies according to the issue and the receptivity or needs of prospective followers. Thus we can’t say either that character never matters or that is always matters.

Leadership is thus an influence process, a tool that anyone can use. It is depersonalized in the sense that it's not defined in terms of being a certain type of person. After all, criminals and terrorists can show leadership too. Of course, what it takes to influence certain people on a particular issue may depend on personal credibility. But that is true of sales too. It doesn't matter what kind of person you are to sell on e-bay but it does to convince people to invest their life savings in a high risk, high reward venture. The point is that being a certain kind of person is not an absolutely necessary condition to show any, and all, kinds of leadership.

Associating Leaders With Parent Figures

Our inclination to call executives leaders is based on our feeling that a leader is a certain type of person. We tend to admire special people, whether stars of sports, movies, music or politics. When someone does something admirable, we tend not to separate our admiration of the act from our regard for the person. We are not going to change this basic human psychology.

But leaders, as conventionally conceived, are not simply admired; they are also father figures. We expect them to take care of us, give our lives meaning, inspire and nurture us. Again, we may never rid ourselves of our adult longing for powerful, nurturing parents. However, for complex, innovation driven businesses to be successful, the association of leadership with our need for a parent figure is dangerously out of date.

The argument that leadership and management can be viewed as occasional activities in which all can engage could be seen as an exercise in conceptual clarification rather than an actual change in the concept of leadership. However, asking people to stop viewing leaders as parent figures does amount to calling for a major change in the way we think about leadership.

The parental model of leadership is as primitive as our biological tendency to form ourselves into hierarchies, just like other higher animals. It may have evolved to enhance our survival but the world has changed. It is now more dynamic than static, more fluid than hierarchical. Authority is increasingly called into question in a postmodern world where everyone is now his or her own authority.

Wherever organizational success depends on rapid innovation and the engagement of intelligent knowledge workers, we need to associate leadership with knowledge, with the ability to find and promote a better way, based on new content. This is the only way to win a war of ideas. But ideas can’t be monopolized. This may be an obvious point but the implication is that leadership can no longer be about dominating a group: ideas are ephemeral and they shift to others too quickly. Hierarchies are made up of roles, but leadership is now an occasional impact, a discrete act of influence that can come from any direction: down, up or even from outside the organization altogether.

In conclusion, those in charge of people in organizations are executives. They are not leaders simply by virtue of their role. They have a huge responsibility for massive resources and are effective if they achieve their goals. Some may succeed by being great managers, thus by making best use of the resources at their disposal. This doesn’t mean preserving the status quo. Management can include innovation where the executives foster creative thinking. But this is not leading if it doesn’t explicitly show the way for others. Cultivating a culture of innovation is a facilitative activity. It is what management is all about, suitably upgraded.

Where success depends on change, executives can show leadership or it can be shown bottom-up by front line employees. This change of perspective is essential to achieve full employee engagement, more widely shared ownership and faster innovation.

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