Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Manager vs Leader Misses the Point

"Are you a manager or are you a leader?"

If you have been in a management role for more than a few years, you are certain to have come across this question. You have may have been in trainings where you learned your "management style" by taking a 15 or 20 question quiz. You learned that different features are important at different levels of management (something like: "communication oriented" is the 15th most important trait for a frontline manager, 8th most important trait for a director-level position, and 2nd most important for an executive). It can be fun to have these academic debates about management personalities. It is useful to philosophize occasionally about "who you are" as a manager. 

We do it far too much. The current managerial culture is 90% thinking about the philosophy of being a manager/leader and 10% thinking about doing manager/leader activities.

That's the opposite of how we should focus our time. No other profession spends most of its time describing how to be that thing. Do computer programmers spent all their time talking about how to embody the core philosophy of a computer programmer? Of course not. They talk to each other about specific strategies for solving this or that issue with the code. Management professionals need to do the same and spend most of our time learning about practical application of effective managerial behaviors.

The "manager" vs "leader" debate frequently shows up as part of professional development. I call it "how to be" training, in contrast with "what to do" training. There are two huge problems with "how to be" training. 

First, it paints you into a box. These trainings about “leader” vs “manager” vs whatever else are always about some kind of essential quality. It tells you who you are. Your results are effectively a personality trait, something about you that is largely immutable. If you don't happen to align with the traits of an executive leader, there is nothing you can do. (This is closely related to the biases that keep an overrepresented percentage of tall white men in CEO roles)

Second, "how to be" training is not actionable. Perhaps the training is not as bleak as I described. Instead of just telling you what kind of manager you are, maybe it purports to transform your leadership style into something (they claim) is compatible with executive leadership. In that case, you get grand-sounding vagaries about how you should act. Here's a quote ascribed to Steve Jobs: "Management is about persuading people to do things they do not want to do, while leadership is about inspiring people to do things they never thought they could." The quote pits management against leadership, clearly suggesting that the leadership strategy is the one we should strive for. It is beautiful and idealistic. But most work is nuts and bolts stuff, not reaching for the stars. Your business would fall apart in a matter of months if your management team tried to avoid persuading people to do things they would rather not do. Furthermore, it is not clear what one should do to "inspire people to do things they never thought they could."

Given that it is far, far less useful than "what to do" training, how come is there so much "how to be" content out there? 

  1. It sounds profound. I follow "Leadership First" on LinkedIn. It is a page that posts inspirational quotes along the lines of "Become so confident in who you are that no one's opinion, rejection, or behavior can rock you." I follow it because I like many of the quotes. They remind me that there is something honorable about good management. But it is empty calories. Looking for deeper meaning, you might ask, "What do I need to change in order to improve?" There is no substantive answer (The quote I pulled here kind of suggests that you become an uncompromising narcissist if you think about it). 
  2. It is inoffensive. When you provide "what to do" training, you plant a flag in the ground. You open yourself up to criticism in a way that you do not with "how to be" training. Once you claim to have the most effective way to give feedback to an employee, you have created sides. But how can you take sides against the concept of being a "servant leader"? No one would argue with that. 
  3. It is easy. To provide "what to do" training, you have to develop a plan. If you want to claim that it is the right or best way, then you have to work even harder. You have to compare your plan to other plans and make the case that your system is an improvement over another. "How to be" training requires no such work. You can say virtually anything as long as it sounds positive and agreeable. You can even get away with saying two things that are behaviorally opposed and most people won't mind or notice. Here is one I just made up: "A leader needs to be supremely confident and supremely humble."

The debate around being a "manager" and being a "leader" is about as impactful as debating whether a hotdog is a sandwich. It is an interesting mental exercise. It challenges our assumptions about language and categorization. It may lead you to an occasional insight. And after you've gone through it once or twice, it becomes a feel-good waste of time.

I side-stepped this conversation entirely by using the word "boss" on my website. Everybody is uncomfortable with the word boss. That makes it the most accurate word to use. A rose is a rose. The person who controls your paycheck is the person who controls your paycheck. It doesn't matter whether you style yourself Manager or Leader or Grand Poobah. Spend less time thinking about what to call the job and more time thinking about how to do it well.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts