In my reviews of the writings and research, I kept bumping into an old and popular distinction that has always bugged me: leading versus managing. The brilliant and charming Warren Bennis has likely done more to popularize this distinction than anyone else. He wrote in Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader that “There is a profound difference between management and leadership, and both are important. To manage means to bring about, to accomplish, to have charge of or responsibility for, to conduct. Leading is influencing, guiding in a direction, course, action, opinion. The distinction is crucial.” And in one of his most famous lines, he added, “Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing.”
Although this distinction is more or less correct, and is useful to a degree (see this recent interview with Randy Komisar for a great discussion of the distinction), it has unintended negative effects on how some leaders view and do their work. Some leaders now see their job as just coming up with big and vague ideas, and they treat implementing them, or even engaging in conversation and planning about the details of them, as mere “management” work.
Worse still, this distinction seems to be used as a reason for leaders to avoid the hard work of learning about the people that they lead, the technologies their companies use, and the customers they serve. I remember hearing of a cell phone company CEO, for example, who never visited the stores where his phones were sold â€” because that was a management task that was beneath him â€” and kept pushing strategies that reflected a complete misunderstanding of customer experiences. (Perhaps he hadn’t heard of how often Steve Jobs drops in at Apple stores.)
I guess this is one of the themes that I have written about before, especially in The Knowing-Doing Gap (with Jeff Pfeffer). But it is bothering me more lately, as I’ve had some conversations with project managers who have been assigned tasks by naive and overconfident leaders â€” things like implementing IT systems and building software.
When they couldn’t succeed because of absurd deadlines, tiny staffs, small budgets, and in some cases, because it simply wasn’t technically possible to do what the leaders wanted, they were blamed. Such sad tales further reinforce my view that thinking about what could exist, and telling people to make it so, is a lot easier than actually getting it done.
One of the most important duties a leader has, in my view, is one s/he performs after the big idea has been proposed: Following up on your proposal and convincing everyone in the organization, manager or front-line worker, that it’s in everyone’s best interests, is absolutely key.