Everyone a Leader - Another Fad?

Writing in a previous issue of Business Week, McGill University Management Studies Professor Henry Mintzberg laments that today’s organizations are over-led and undermanaged. Professor Mintzberg says that . . . “we should define ‘leadership’ as management practiced well.”

As an organization development consultant I frequently encounter this situation. And, in my opinion, much of the fault lies with our profession and the media. Leadership “coaches” ply their wares on the web, in business publications, at networking events, and anywhere else they can find an audience. How all these people, many in their early 20s got to be “coaches” boggles my mind. I’m not saying that these folks can’t be helpful. An objective viewpoint can be valuable. Without life experience and some “seasoning,” however, I’m hard pressed to believe that the CEO of a multi-national can be coached by a neophyte with a “certification” in Leadership Coaching.

Back to the point of “undermanaged.” It appears that a high percentage of consultants are spending their time and effort, at the behest of the organization’s “leaders,” counseling mid-level and supervisory management people on leadership skills, not management skills. Many of these people were promoted from “superworker” to supervisor without an ounce of management development or training. When they left work on Friday, they were part of the workforce. When they arrived at work on Monday, they were magically, “the boss”. And they are now getting leadership coaching? It’s no wonder that Professor Mintzberg is unhappy.

Particularly in the SMB arena, the fad of the month, quarter, year is leadership. CEOs exhort their managers to be strong leaders; to “show your people the way,” to “lead by example.” Many CEOs and Presidents get caught up in the book trap. They read the latest and greatest book on leadership principles that claims to be the panacea for all organizational ills. The management team is directed to read the book and “be prepared to discuss it at our next management meeting.” This is preparation for leadership? In six months the next solution will hit the bookstore shelves and the cycle repeats. The first one is long forgotten. But, the management team doesn’t forget that the organizational leader switched his allegiance from author A to author B. Whatever direction is given is heavily discounted, if not ignored.

Paraphrasing John Kotter of Harvard, I believe that “management is about dealing with complexity.” In a managerial role, that would mean implementing, executing, setting and tracking goals, developing people’s competencies, training through delegation, managing projects, establishing systems, and much more “running the business” stuff. After all, isn’t that why we even have “managers?” If an organization ran without human intervention, there would be no need for anyone except the founder. Who would that person be leading?

Our language also contributes to this confounding circumstance; as do our societal values. Being a “leader” sounds more powerful than being a “manager.” Status bestowed by title. Easy to do. Pleases all concerned. Creates myriad problems. It brings us right back to undermanaged. If I believe that as a leader I’m supposed to tell others what to do, to only analyze, review, provide guidance, then how does the management of the system or systems get done? My coach tells me that I’m a leader. OK, how about I learn how to manage first. I’m paid to get results and my people are giving me fits!

I believe we are confusing our management people. We ask them to get measurable results that ultimately impact the bottom line. (Non-profits also have a bottom line, called surplus). We give them the authority to make decisions that both cost money and make money. We ask them to manage processes and people that are engaged in productive behavior. They are supposed to appraise the performance of their people to identify both areas of need and praise, on which are based bonuses, pay raises, promotions, training, development, etc. They are asked to identify better ways to get things done more quickly, at less cost and at higher quality. They are told that the customer must be satisfied. All of these are elements of the anfractuous nature of an organizational entity. They are dealing with the complexity of a socio-technical system.

This is a full time job that requires one’s full attention if it is to be done well. Now we tell them, “while you’re at it, be a leader, too.” Different skills, different attitudes, different expectations. Do we want these people to produce results, or to carry the flag? Tossing the baton and playing the trombone simultaneously is a bit difficult. We need leaders. We also need managers. Some people have the requisite attributes for both functions. Most do not. It may be true that both skill sets can be learned. Let’s be sure that one is in place and being implemented effectively and consistently before we impose a requirement for the other.

Written by Richard Lewine


Manage Systems, Not People.