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Why Be a Leader, Not a Manager?

We regard our most admired leaders as heroes while managers are seen as villains or antiheroes. Why the good-evil slant?

Our attitude toward managers is a problem because it causes us to overlook the value they can add. Also, by attributing work to leaders that managers do, we distort the meaning of leadership and fail to reap its full potential. We need a more positive image of managers to make full use of them.

Leader as Hero, Manager as Antihero

Our inclination to see leaders as heroes is demonstrated by the fact that we always envision “great” leaders when we try to define leadership. We don’t visualize everyday team leaders or factory supervisors.

Leaders are like heroes in other walks of life. We love sports heroes, those who score the big goals, especially in situations requiring heroic efforts to win. When we reminisce about great sporting events we may fondly recall winning teams but we really love the individual heroes who came through against tough odds.

For most people, their mother or father was their first hero, the all-powerful being who could work miracles at times. When our parents disappointed us, we switched our need for heroes to music or movie stars, sports heroes and great community leaders.

Interestingly, however, the antihero or villain in sports is the opposing team or individual. Unlike leaders and managers, there are no antiheroes on our own sports teams. Yet the organizations we work for seem to be stuck with leader-heroes and manager-villains.

We seem to need both heroes and antiheroes. They provide us with a contrast that helps us better understand what it means to be a hero. It may be easier to understand this issue by comparing leaders and managers to our parents than by reference to sports heroes.

We can classify our parents as either good or bad, hero or villain. A good parent is one who inspires, nurtures and develops us.  A bad parent controls and punishes us. We look up to the good parent and avoid the bad one.

It is thus no coincidence that our view of leaders and managers closely parallels how we feel about our parents. The odd thing, however, is that we classify all managers as villains, by definition. We say that there are good and bad leaders but managers seem to be bad no matter what they’re like.

How Did We Get So Crazy?

Our negative opinion of managers was formed in the 1980’s when Western business needed a scapegoat to blame for the commercial success of the Japanese. Managers were seen as bureaucratic, controlling, hence stifling innovation. This led to a great hue and cry to replace managers with leaders.

Many leadership gurus of the day, such as Abraham Zaleznik, John Kotter and Warren Bennis made their names by trashing management.  Warren Bennis’s famous clichés are only the most well known effort to kill off management:

  • The manager administers, the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy, the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains, the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structures, the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

We need to upgrade management to avoid these demeaning clichés and see how managers can be just as heroic as leaders. The truth is that both leadership and management fall along a continuum from everyday to heroic. In addition, management can be defined in a way that is totally style-independent, contrary to Bennis and his 1980’s cronies.

Management Upgraded

The key to defining management is to see it, not as a role in a hierarchy, but as a process or tool, one that everyone can use. We manage our time, our finances and careers, well or badly, every day. Employees, housekeepers and even the unemployed need to prioritize if they want to make best use of their time and get as much done as they’d like. Prioritization is just one of the tools in the management toolkit.

Management upgraded can be defined as follows: achieving goals in a way that makes best use of all resources. It is a process or tool to help us add the most possible value in any situation.

Managers occupy roles in a hierarchy but they make the same use of management processes as other employees; they just have more resources to manage. Clearly, individual employees can manage their own resources without being anything like the way that Warren Bennis describes managers.

Management is like investment. To get the best return on any resource we need to make wise investment decisions. However, managers differ from financial investors by taking an active part in facilitating, coordinating and developing their human resources. Financial investment is generally more arms-length.

Replying to Management’s Critics

Without going through each of Bennis’s clichés, we can make two key points. First, effective managers aim to get the best return on all resources, so they need to foster innovation. Whether they are personally innovative or not, they can stimulate and support innovative cultures.

Second, there is no reason why managers can’t be as people oriented as leaders. Again, to get the best return from people, they need to be emotionally intelligent, good coaches and developers of people. It is only our binary-thinking predisposition that forces us to think that, if leaders are good with people, managers can’t be.

A style-neutral definition of management leaves the question of how to manage and motivate people completely open.

The Manager as Hero

If we can’t get simple chores done without prioritizing, then what about highly complex projects like building a dam or making a movie? It’s easy to overlook the heroic manager. It’s a bit like being a doctor. We see doctors as a necessary evil, people to be avoided if possible. But doctors do make heroic efforts to save people’s lives.

It is possible to be heroic without being highly visible, by achieving great things against the odds while remaining behind the scenes. Great managers are like great sports coaches. We recognize the best coaches in sports but they aren’t as much in the limelight as the top goal scorers.

Heroic managers should be relatively invisible. If they excel at the roles of catalyst, facilitator, coach and developer of others then their teams should get the lion’s share of the credit for great achievements.

Thus management can range from heroic to everyday. We engage in unheroic management every day of our lives. The heroic manager gets large, complex tasks done against the odds in a way that makes best use of all resources.

The Unheroic Leader

Just as some managers are heroic, some leaders are not. Front line supervisors might be perfectly effective leaders but in a less heroic way than so-called “great” leaders.

More importantly, we can define leadership as a process, just as we did management: showing the way for others either by example or by advocating a better way. All employees can show leadership in this manner, as it is a process not a role.

Whenever you convince your colleagues to think or act differently in a meeting, you have shown relatively unheroic leadership.

In conclusion, managers play a vital role and they can be as heroic as any doctor. We just need to get rid of our negative image of them to better understand how both leadership and management work.

The bottom line is that executives spend most of their time managing, only occasionally leading. This is important because we need to recognize that all employees can occasionally show leadership, both to their colleagues and bottom-up to their managers.

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