Why Everything You Were Told About Leadership Is Wrong

  1. Image by Luis E. Romero

For decades, the mainstream paradigm has been that leaders and managers think and behave so differently that, in most cases, there is a conflict of interest between them. On the one hand, we are told that leaders are visionary, creative, empathetic and disruptive. On the other hand, we are told that managers like control, rationality, stability and predictability. Despite these seemingly irreconcilable differences, though, most organizations require their managers to develop leadership skills in order to move up the ranks. Likewise, organizations appoint high-ranking leaders with a truckload of management responsibilities. Consequently, there must be something wrong with the ruling paradigm. Let’s see why.

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The Origin Of The Theory

In 1977, Prof. Abraham Zaleznik published his famous article “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different“ in Harvard Business Review. There, he claimed that leadership and management are two completely separate skill sets. He also argued that organizations focusing on hiring and training good managers may also inhibit the development of good leaders, and vice versa. Furthermore, he implied that people who get to develop expert-level management skills may, as a result, hinder their own leadership potential, and vice versa. With all due respect to Prof. Zaleznik, such statements contradict what I have experienced and witnessed as a management consultant, business coach and entrepreneur.

Let’s review Zaleznik’s contentions further. Let’s analyze three short excerpts from the article in question in light of today’s actual business demands. The first excerpt reads,

“It is easy to dismiss the dilemma of training managers […] by saying that the need is for people who can be both [manages and leaders]. But just as a managerial culture differs from the entrepreneurial culture that develops when leaders appear in organizations, managers and leaders are very different kinds of people. They differ in motivation, personal history, and in how they think and act.”

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The foregoing statement may be true for some people, but it is definitely not true for many others. It ignores the existence of thousands of business leaders worldwide who, on the one hand, are ultimately responsible for introducing disruptive innovations and developing an entrepreneurial culture in their organizations while, on the other hand, are also ultimately responsible for ensuring compliance on all fronts, meeting deadlines and keeping a healthy bottom line. From manufacturing companies to telecomm giants to professional services firms, there are plenty of business leaders who are in charge of envisioning a brighter future while safeguarding a feasible present. That is, they are simultaneously good leaders and good managers.

In his article, Zaleznik goes on to say,

“Managers tend to adopt impersonal, if not passive, attitudes toward goals. Managerial goals arise out of necessities rather that desires and, therefore, are deeply embedded in their organization’s history and culture.”

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Today, the foregoing would be a description of a mediocre manager—a soon-to-be-fired underperformer. If you have any real management responsibilities (i.e. influence and control over significant aspects of the operation that affect the bottom line), you would be a corporate liability if you met the previous description. And if you do meet such a profile, though, you either work as a paper-pushing bureaucrat or you had better shape up unless you want to be let go.

Further, Zaleznik states,

“Managers relate to people according to the role they play in a sequence of events or in a decision-making process, while leaders, who are concerned with ideas, relate in more intuitive and empathetic ways. The distinction is simply between a manager’s attention to how things get done and a leader’s to what the events and decisions mean to participants.

Firstly, real-life leaders are not concerned with ideas only. If they were, they would fail miserably. Secondly, just as real-life leaders have a very clear idea of what they want to achieve, they also know how they want to achieve it and are willing to change the path and the means as many times as necessary until victory is achieved. Thirdly, leaders, not only managers, must know how to relate to people according to the role they play at work; otherwise, how else can they feel and display the necessary empathy Zaleznik speaks of. Again, the mainstream paradigm does not hold water.

Steve Jobs Would Also Disagree

Let’s talk about this generation’s business hero, Steve Jobs. Was he a good leader or a good manager? We all know he transformed the commercialization of music, movies and TV content, while also disrupting the mobile telecommunications industry. Was he a visionary? Yes. Was he an industry disruptor? Yes. Now, was he an effective manager? To answer this question, let’s refer to the testimonies of some of the people who worked with him and have researched his legacy.

In the Bloomberg TV series Game Changers, Alan Deutschman, author of The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, clearly stated, “[Steve Jobs] can be outrageously ambitious and idealistic, but he can also be practical when he has to; because this man is a survivor.” According to Zaleznik, only a good leader can be outrageously ambitious and idealistic whereas only a good manager can be practical. According to Deutschman, however, Steve Jobs seems to have been both. This argument aligns very well with what I have seen in the real world—that people who are truly talented at doing business are both good leaders and good managers. They have to—it’s a matter of survival. They have both skill sets well developed and are able to switch hats depending on the circumstances.

Ken Segall, former Apple Creative Director, was responsible for the “Think different” campaign that relaunched Apple in 1997. In “Game Changers,” Segal explained,

“Steve was aware of every detail. I mean, literally every word, every image. Working with different companies […] like Intel, Dell, IBM […] you don’t get that sense. I mean, […] the top guy at one of those companies is not going to know about the third paragraph of copy and the ad that is running in “Newsweek” that week.”

Why did Steve Jobs get involved to that level of detail in the “Think different” campaign? Was he obsessed with control? Maybe, yes. But according to Prof. Zaleznik that made him a good manager. Nonetheless, it was also Steve Jobs who envisioned and materialized the return of Apple on a scale grander than anyone else could have imagined. According to Prof. Zaleznik, that made him a good leader. As we can see, people can be both great leaders and great managers, they just need to have the vision, the passion and the willingness to work harder than anyone else.

The Uniqueness Argument

Was Steve Jobs unique? No. He was rare but not unique. There are similar documented accounts about Henry Ford, Walt Disney and Jeff Bezos, just to mention a few famous entrepreneurs. Most importantly, there are thousands of anonymous successful organizational leaders worldwide today who also engage very effectively in management functions on a daily basis. In fact, that is the main reason they are successful. I always say, “show me a really good leader and I’ll show you a really good manager. They are one and the same.”

I am not saying that business leaders should micro-manage all processes and not delegate responsibilities. What I mean is that good business leaders know very well all the major managerial aspects of their business. And, more importantly, they are equipped to add value in any of those areas when necessary by providing the kind of technical expertise that only well-polished, highly-experienced business professionals can provide. A so-called leader without management skills is a ticking time bomb.

Peter Drucker And Jack Welch Would Also Disagree

In my professional experience, good leadership is the result of combining positive influence and effective management. Every act of leadership, in order to be successful, must address both the human and technical aspects of the problem being solved or the objective being sought. On the one hand, leaders must incarnate the behaviors, attitudes and speeches that motivate others to follow, support and engage. On the other hand, leaders must also possess and clearly articulate the technical expertise necessary to judge the feasibility of the path being followed—otherwise they would just be cheerleaders, not business leaders.

It was Peter Drucker who wrote, “The manager is the dynamic life-giving element in every business. Without his leadership the ‘resources of production’ remain resources and never become production” (1954). As we can see, the father of modern management theory believes that good leadership demands good management. In fact, he specifically states that it is the manager (i.e. the one responsible for the actual operation) who must develop the leadership necessary to ignite and harness the organizational spirit to make the best possible use of the company’s resources.

Jack Welch also delved into this topic in his book Jack: Straight from the Gut, where he described his own leadership experience as former GE CEO by combining principles of influence and management in a dynamic continuum that seemed indivisible. Welch highlighted the importance of helping employees conquer self-confidence and making sure top performers learn from their mistakes. This was definitely a reference to the importance of positive influence. Yet he also emphasized how critical it was for GE to move from low-margin, low-growth industries to high-margin, high-growth ones in order to achieve sustained growth. This was definitely a reference to the importance of good management. Furthermore, Welch made a special reference to how important it was for GE to move into businesses with competitive advantages instead of comparative advantages in order to reduce volatility. This was another clear allusion to the significance of good management.

As we can see, Welch was a firm believer in the managerial backbone of effective leadership. And for a business leader to understand the relevance of Welch’s positions, he or she must be familiar with Michael Porter’s Five Forces, the difference between competitive and comparative advantages and many other management and economic models. A so-called leader who is fixated on matters of influence, motivation, etc., with no handle on management, would find Welch’s exposition quite discouraging.

Conclusion

Prof. Zaleznik’s 1977 article introduced an important debate about the true nature of leadership. He laid down a clear framework that would spawn four decades of rich discussions about how leadership is developed, observed and measured. Of special importance is his emphasis on the need for organizations to encourage senior-to-junior mentoring programs to promote the development of new leaders, thus building upon the traditional peer-to-peer learning models of the ’70s. Most importantly, he made it clear that good management alone does not equal good leadership. However, suggesting that good leaders are not good managers is, in my opinion, completely off the mark.

Conventional wisdom must be questioned when opposites seem to agree on a different alternative. Steve Jobs, a 21st Century semi-liberal technology idol; Jack Welch, a 20th Century conservative business guru; and Peter Drucker, a 20th Century semi-conservative business academic, all suggest that successful leaders are effective managers as well. Not only is this idea the opinion of experts, it also makes total sense.

Let’s step outside the theory for a moment and use common sense to explore the subject of business leadership. We must ask ourselves, have I ever met a good leader who was oblivious to the organization’s management challenges? Have I ever met a good leader who was unable to take charge when the circumstances demanded it? Have I ever met a good leader who could not sit in a room and address management concerns clearly and effectively? In my case, the answer is “No” to all the questions. Today’s pace demands that leaders envisioning the future be able to analyze their own ideas in the context of industry fundamentals affecting the business and translate them into compelling scenarios for further assessment.

What do you think?

Leadership is a very complex subject that gives room for much disagreement. Yet we all can approach it from our own experience, thus drawing our own conclusions. That said, what do you think about leadership and management? Does good leadership include good management? Can someone lead an organization effectively without adding value to its most pressing management concerns?

Originally published on Forbes.com.