Leadership is all the rage these days. The lionization of leaders from Jack Welch to today’s pantheon that includes Jeff Bezos, Howard Schultz, and Elon Musk continues undimished. While much of the emphasis placed on great leadership is surely warranted, scant attention is paid to the value of good management or the pivotal role of the manager.
There are many “top ten” lists of the greatest leaders in business or of all time, but no such list for managers. Great managers are seldom if ever noticed by the business press, and human resources departments are more preoccupied with developing the “leadership pipeline” than focusing on what it takes to grow good managers.
It wasn’t always this way.
Great managers were the most desired products of business education since the time of Henry Ford. But as Duff McDonald wrote in The New York Times, this changed in the mid 1970’s when Abraham Zaleznik of Harvard published a paper entitled Managers and Leaders: Are They Different? “The answer was an emphatic yes. Leaders were visionaries who got the troops excited to march into battle. Managers were platoon sergeants who actually marched them into battle.”
Since that time, when leadership and management were compared and contrasted, managers consistently drew the short straw.
For example, the leadership guru Warren Bennis made the following observations in his book, On Becoming a Leader:
- A manager administers while a leader innovates.
- A manager is a copy while a leader is original.
- A manager relies on control while a leader inspires trust.
- A manager focuses on systems and structure while a leader focuses on people
I say that this is stale thinking and does not reflect what good management is about. Consider this:
- While leaders may drive innovation, most actual innovation happens at the employee level, and it takes a good manager to encourage it.
- While leaders focus on people in general – particularly the high-potentials – good managers focus on everyone – up close and personal.
- Trust is necessary for both roles: without trust, one does not willingly take direction from either a leader or a manager.
- And great managers are as unique in their own way as great leaders are.
In sum, the clearest distinction that does justice to both leaders and managers is this: leaders set the strategy but managers make it happen.
Good Management Is Hard
The comparisons between leaders and managers, some of which come across as pejorative, are extreme generalizations. And like all generalizations, they are wrong when you get to specific cases.
In truth, many managers operate in the old-school ways of telling rather than selling, controlling rather than enabling, and correcting rather than facilitating. However, not all of this is the fault of the manager, since these behaviors are either not discouraged or are rewarded by leadership higher up.
Another reason managers suffer in comparison is that being a good manager isn’t easy. David Deacon, Chief Talent Officer at MasterCard, summed it up this way: “I walk up to the doors of the building almost every day thinking about how today I can help my people do something great or be successful and impactful; but the reality is that by the time I have addressed the priorities and pressures of the day, they may not have any evidence that this was my intention.”
In our many studies of some of the best managers in Fortune 500 companies, many of the same challenges are mentioned that prevent well-intentioned managers from doing what they are expected to do.
As you will see, though managers’ lack of skills is often blamed for their shortcomings and inability to deal effectively with these challenges, there are also contributing issues that are part of the system and not the manager’s fault. And despite what you might expect, being a great manager is not all about competencies.
Consider these challenges common to many managers:
- Translating strategy into action. This is usually difficult because there is