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3 questions that tell you when to lead (instead of manage)

change leadership leadership Jan 12, 2020

Written by Ed Cook

The words leader and manager are often used interchangeably and with that, their individual meaning is lost.   Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis are often quoted as saying:

“Management is doing the things right and Leadership is doing the right thing.”   

It’s pithy and points to deeper insights.  Management is about making things happen. It is literally about manipulation.  The words management and manipulation both come from the Latin word manus meaning hand.  If done well, there are efficiencies gained and improvements made in every aspect of what the managers’ organization is doing but that success is circumscribed.  Great managers are still working inside the confines of constraints that have been given to them. They can be awesome but only with what is given to them. Leadership is about seeing beyond the confines and stimulating a vision for something better.  The origin of the word is very different. It comes from Proto-Germanic, laidjana meaning to go.  Leaders take their teams somewhere else.

When should you lead and when should you manage?

There are three key questions to ask and if any of those are true then it’s time to move from being a manager to a leader.

1) Do we need to make a change in order to grow or even survive the future?

Amazing managers can optimize and improve, but if the situation requires a change then it's time to throw away the manual (another word that comes from the Latin, manus).  A leader needs to show up.  On January 15th, 2009 as US Airways Flight 1549 climbed over New York city it had the disaster of double engine failure from multiple bird strikes.  Having quickly exhausted the procedures in the manual, there was no more managing left to do. Capt. Sullenberger made the decision to land in the Hudson River saving every person onboard the aircraft.  Beyond being a remarkable feat of flying, it is an exemplary bit of leadership. Applying six-sigma, exercising management-by-walking -around, or even holding a brainstorming session, were not going to work.  Only a Leader as Change Agent was going to save the day!

"In a battle between two ideas, the best one doesn't necessarily win. No, the idea that wins is the one with the most fearless heretic behind it." --Seth Godin

Since most of us will not need to apply leadership in life and death situations, a useful question to ask is “what is the best I can hope to achieve with management tools?”  If it all was fully optimized and efficient and lean and all the other important terms of management, then where would you and the team be? This is a powerful question if truly applied.  First, it means that to be successful as a manager you must master these tools so it is possible to answer the question. Second, you must develop a true honesty with yourself about the ability of you and your team to hit the maximum value with these tools.  That is rare. Don’t bet on always being the best and hitting the near-impossible goal every time. 

2) Are the people on my team able to drive change without me?

If you are the only one that can drive change, then again you and your team are limited by your abilities.  It’s time to start coaching your team members to advance their own skills. Creating a high-performing jazz ensemble is a wonderful example.  In this essay David Berger, a high-school music teacher gives a masterful example of management and leadership, particularly coaching.  He talks about how jazz was traditionally learned from experienced players but in the high school setting, there is only one, the teacher.  So he arranges the seating of the ensemble to allow them to better hear and learn from each other, management. He then goes on to describe how to help his bassist feel confident without an amplifier, coaching.  And then further describes the changes that every other player can make now that the bassist is no longer amplified and drowning the other players out. It is a masterful example of Leader as Coach.

“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be." --Rosalynn Carter

A wonderful example offered by music performance is the difference between a symphony conductor and a jazz leader.  A conductor needs to manage the performance all the way to the end. To be certain, conductors can be leaders, but on the stage, they manage.  Note in jazz, the term “leader” is used not “conductor.” At the time of the performance, most of the management is done. The successful jazz leader has been coaching the ensemble so that they can now make decisions and adapt as the performance evolves.  Done well, the result is a moving piece of art unmatched in other genres.

3) Do my people have meaning at work?

A great manager will have laid out what skills each person on the team needs to be successful.  A great manager will carefully define the competencies required for each job and then match employees to those jobs.  A great manager will give instructive feedback about how each person on the team is doing and how the team is doing as a whole so that action can be taken to continually improve.  All of that work is wonderful, but done at the top-level of managerial performance with the subtle and impactful conversations, it will still not be a process Creating Meaning at Work.  Only a leader can provide that meaning.   

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."  --Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Whether it’s research from 15 years ago or more recent popular books, Creating Meaning at Work continues to elude so many.  Why?

On the surface, creating meaning at work is in tension with business profitability.  The business is about the service or goods it produces not about being a meaning generator for employees, right?  In the moment-by-moment decision-making that is true for every manager, the pressure is to handle the solution to the immediate problem.  Creating meaning for those on your team is great but you have a problem to solve now! This is another distinguishing characteristic between the leader and the manager.  

Managers solve immediate problems. Leaders solve future problems.

Creating meaning at work is a way to energize your team so that they drive the work without you.  Much like a Leader as Coach or Leader as Change Agent, Creating Meaning at Work is an investment in the future and that’s what leaders are about.