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Leadership vs Management - are managers the poor cousins?

Published on Oct 26, 2020

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Be a great leader. That’s the answer to success isn’t it? Lead your team, demonstrate leadership skills, invest in leadership education, maybe even hire a leadership coach!

Yes it's important, but it's not the full picture. Has the art of management been neglected in the rush to learn how to be an amazing leader?

A quick story. Around 10 years ago I was a student on a highly regarded, two year leadership program that allowed me to meet some fantastic people and learn a bit about leadership. My summary reflection of the experience was that leadership theory was not for me. I am a hands-on learner and where the balance leans more to academic theory rather than practice I tend to switch off.

However, one of my strongest, most positive memories of the course is when I partnered with a few others to write a short paper on what we called “The Fraud of Leadership”. I don’t recall much of the specific content, but we analysed firms like Enron who had espoused businesses built on purity, while their leaders behaved like charlatans.

Since then, I have often thought that much leadership education primarily seeks to satiate academic or commercial interests, rather than improving employee experience and reducing regrettable turnover. As a result, those somewhat fraudulent, ego-driven executives and/or board members often end up focusing on leadership over management development, because that’s the answer isn’t it?

But what about those managers who carry the hopes, dreams and career aspirations of their team members close to their heart?

Managers have a really tough job, they are often caught in the middle between demand from their team for support, information, inspiration and recognition, and demand from their bosses for reports, performance updates and explanations.

So if it’s such a tough gig, why do it?

Maybe, like me, you have always felt that managing and developing people is what you wanted to do. Perhaps you are fundamentally more aligned to team rather than individual outcomes? Maybe you derive as much (if not more) satisfaction by helping others to unlock their potential and achieve their goals, as you do celebrating your own successes?

Or, maybe your organisation and leadership have created a culture where you feel the only way to progress is to manage and lead teams? Because of this, it has become the default career progression route and the only way for you to generate the recognition and reward you aspire to.

After spending 20 years in the recruitment industry, where I witnessed top sales people being routinely placed into management roles, then failing spectacularly, I began to realise that the drive for short term results led to a culture of keeping your top “performers” at any cost. The result was a lack of positive, constructive and supportive management relationships in the business, resulting in unproductive and unhappy team members.

But why do businesses continue to make the same mistakes time after time?

I’d argue that they have not yet landed on a clear people philosophy that underpins how they will run their business. Some may talk about truly caring for their people, having a “people-centric” culture, but then behave in a way that reflects different priorities. If your key priority is financial return at any cost, then call it! Don’t be shy, don’t bullshit the people you are hiring into believing that their wellbeing is your #1 focus. Their work output is! Be transparent and be honest. Position your business as a place to run fast, gain experience quickly, maybe even earn above average dollars, but not as a place where you can expect significant personal development support or team collaboration. It’s a valid strategy and one which has borne much success to this point, however I’m much less convinced of its sustainability!

On the other hand, if you have worked out that you want to grow your business “with” and not “through” your people, then take some time to consider how you are growing and supporting your managers. They are your leaders too! Some tips:

  • Take time to hire well - put the right people into these roles.
  • Give them clear accountabilities, expectations and frameworks that will allow them to do a great job.
  • Ensure they are clear on your people philosophy and how it translates into day-to-day management and leadership behaviours.
  • Support them! Build a management cohort where they can share experiences and ideas.
  • Align them with coaches or mentors.
  • Most of all, listen to them!

Take a moment to reflect on your personal and organisational leadership vs management biases, and consider whether you are investing sufficiently in your managers. After doing that, go and say thank you to one of them - these poor cousins truly deserve your appreciation!