Leadership? Or Management? What’s the Difference?

An article in The Economist (March 30th, 2019, p. 67) said, in the opening paragraph, “Everyone can think of inspiring leaders from history, but managers who think they can base their style on Nelson Mandela, or Elizabeth I, are suffering from delusions of grandeur.”

First, did the reference to Mandela and Elizabeth I tip you off that The Economist is a British magazine? More importantly, do the words “leaders” and “managers” suggest that leaders are managers? Or that managers aspire to be leaders?  It got me thinking. Which means it nudged me to take out my Etymological Dictionary on the origins of words.

Leader – One who conducts others on a journey or course of action, keeping watch from above and providing defense, protection and guidance for the action below.

Manager – One who handles, controls, or administers a journey or course of action.  Note: the word “manage” is derived from “manus”, Latin for hand, as in “handling or steering a horse”, i.e., holding the reins.

So a manager is in control and steering the action, while a leader is protecting and defending the actors. Sounds like two different roles to me. Which job would you want?

If you are a manager and want to be a leader, here’s a tip from that article: Being “competent” involves one important skill – the ability to have dialogues, or what we call Understanding Conversations. This kind of leadership “communication competence” has three important ingredients:

  1. The ability to listen and understand, sometimes called empathy.  “Team leadership requires having sufficient empathy to understand the concerns of others.”
  2. Dialogue with people ‘below’.  “Employees are more likely to be engaged with their work if they get frequent feedback from their bosses and if they are involved in setting their own goals.”
  3. The ability to course-correct.  “When things go wrong, as they inevitably will, a good leader also needs the flexibility to adjust their strategy.”  This would be done in dialogues with others, both above and below the leader.

The article made some other good points:

  • On competence and charisma: “The biggest mistake is to equate leadership entirely with charisma,” and, “Competence is more important than charisma.”
  • On competence and confidence: “People tend to assume that confident individuals are competent, when there is no actual relationship between the two qualities.”
  • Most fun quote (read it twice): “Charisma plus egomania minus competence is a dangerous formula.” (This reminded me of someone who is much in the media these days.)

The article also mentioned a book by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, which should be a best-seller, based on the title alone: “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (and how to fix it)”. That one should be jumping off the shelves!

You’ve Got an Improvement Project?  First, Listen!

I’ve been working with a group of people who are focusing on how to improve the “continuing care” services in a “senior living” facility.  (Note: those quote-marked phrases are intended to avoid using the term Old Folks Home).  The people in the group divide nicely into two types of people. See if you can spot them in these comments from four of them:

  1. Aaron: “We need to pay attention to whether people are getting the right kind of social activities. And whether their diet is appropriate for their medical profile.”
  2. Bonnie: “When I was over there, walking through the facility, I noticed a couple of rooms where the beds were unmade and there were holes in the sheets. This is not good quality at all!”
  3. Frank: “Let’s do a survey to find out what the residents say is working well and what they want to improve. Sort of a satisfaction survey. Then we can come up with some goals.”
  4. Elaine: “I think what’s missing is a statement of mission and vision, and a good strategic plan. Maybe those need to be created or updated.”

The meeting spun around for a while with comments like these – the group leader let everyone talk – and when some of them began to get noticeably impatient, she intervened. Thank goodness. I was thinking that people like Aaron and Bonnie were too “deep in the weeds” of details and I didn’t want to spend more time there. Others, like Elaine and Frank, were more “big-picture”, probably a better place to start.

“I’m sure your suggestions are all useful,” the group leader said. “But let’s look at how we could arrange them to get pointed in the right direction. We can’t create our Facility Improvement Project to include everything, so how do we get clear on what we want to accomplish?”

Aaron said, “I like Frank’s idea of doing the survey. That would give us something to stand on, and a way to see what’s important to the residents.”  Then Elaine admitted that a strategic plan was going to need some clear goals and said that a survey could be useful to find out what those are.  Even Bonnie agreed, leaving the “holes in the sheets” behind for now.

Frank summed up the group’s insight, saying, “It’s important that we start by listening, asking the residents what they want most. That gives us some goals to work toward. But also (a nod to Elaine), it might help us refresh the mission statement and even come up with a strategic plan – or at least an action plan.”

Aaron agreed, saying, “Listening first – hey, that’s good. I want to put social activities and healthy diet questions on the survey, though.” Everyone looked at Bonnie until she laughed and said, “I’ll write the question about bedsheets, OK?”

Lesson learned: The group leader didn’t tell us what to accomplish – she asked us how to find out what to accomplish. We learn what will improve a situation by asking the people who are most directly affected. So, don’t just make up “improvement goals” and solutions for others without granting them the gift of your listening.

The Perils of a Too-High Hierarchy: All Talk No Listen

I studied an organization that had quite a few unhappy people at “the bottom” of one of its departments. After several meetings and some 1-on-1 interviews, I heard from people who were looking for another job due to favoritism and rudeness by their supervisors. That wasn’t the biggest problem, however.

Seventeen people made up a direct-service group with daily customer contact. “We call ourselves the Service Bottom”, one group member told me. “We are fending for ourselves down here with no connection to the top of the organization. We serve the customers as best we can, but we are definitely not a well-organized service team. We have 3 supervisors who are focused on their own job interests instead of our group performance.”

“That’s not true!” one Executive said (loudly) to me when I told him about that comment. “Our Supervisor Team collaborates to make plans and work with the service staff.”

My observations, however, showed the large distance between the Executive and the Service Bottom that prevented him from seeing what was happening. Seven layers filled that gap: Senior Director, Director, Manager, Assistant Manager, Service Chief, Supervisor, and Team Leader. Each layer was primarily focused on its own concerns, with most attention going upward in the hierarchy, not down to the people below. The Executive was certain that the 3 supervisors heading up the Service Bottom worked in coordination to support their people. But in fact, they were competing for promotion to replace the Service Chief who was leaving at the end of the month.

I gave the 17 people in the Service Bottom group our Group Workplace Assessment, to find out where the problems really were. Here are the top three workplace issues, as reported by group members:

  1. Lack of accountability: Instructions are given with no follow-up to see if they were carried out; there are no measures of good vs. bad performance; and there is no formal system for tracking customer satisfaction or complaints.
  2. Poor quality work: The lack of follow-up by Supervisors meant that they didn’t see the difference between good employees and ineffective ones, so training efforts were not improved to assist service staff.
  3. Incomplete conversations: Service staff did not have the opportunity to have a dialogue with Supervisors regarding what they saw as dysfunctional work patterns in their group. Communication with Supervisors and their staff was “all one-way, from boss down to worker”. Supervisors did not get useful feedback on the challenges staff members were facing every day.

I met with the Supervisors and shared this data with them. One said, “We stopped having regular meetings with staff about 5 months ago. I guess this is why we needed those meetings.” Another said, “It’s good to see the specifics about what is missing. Now I think I know what would solve this.” The third said, “Don’t show this to our bosses, okay?”

I said I wouldn’t , and that we could work together to improve staff effectiveness. Then I showed them the recommendations from the version of the Group Workplace Assessment that I used: the Manager Subscription. We scheduled three meetings with the Service Group members too study the communication changes identified in the recommendations. We’ve had one of those meetings already, and all participants are optimistic about the new communications they are now practicing.

Sometimes a hierarchy is just too high. Executives can see what’s on the horizon, but do not know what is going on in the deep, where staff meet the customers, contractors, and competition. A little diagnostic work and a few communication changes can bridge the gap.