Effective Management Requires Powerful Leadership

Having worked with hundreds of executives in more than 30 countries, I have learned that there is no lack of management, but there is a dearth of good leadership.  This is an especially prevalent issue for small businesses. 

The reason small businesses stay small is not a lack of management; it is a lack of leadership. And then, there is the challenge of leadership without management.  

In this post, I go through the difference between leadership and management. I also talk about how the two depend on each other because you can’t run a business without management or leadership.   

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A note on military examples: why they matter

Business thinking borrows heavily from military thinking.  

Strategy and organizational structures come from the military.  The reason for this is that throughout history, leaders had to figure out how to motivate large numbers of people to risk their lives for ideals or defense.  

The military either makes some future things happen or prevents some future thing from happening. 

Business leaders and managers face the same challenge as in the military: engage people in a future vision.  Leaders organize people to make future things happen or prevent some future thing from happening. 

We ask our employees to dedicate a significant amount of their time, life, and future well-being to making a business work, grow and thrive.  

There is just, ideally, less violence involved.  

So on to how leadership and management differ (with some military examples)  

Brent Gleeson, a Navy Seal, makes the point that “management and leadership are different disciplines.  You cannot manage a team into combat.  They must be led.”

Management follows and implements processes.  Management assumes the direction or objective is given.  

You cannot manage a team into combat because there is no managerial reason you would go into combat.  Going into combat breaks the steady-state process. It will drive a manager crazy.

So, leadership guides management in the right direction and gives management the space to act and do what it needs to do.

There is an important flip side to not managing your way into combat: you also cannot just lead a team into combat.  You must also manage the process.  

The closest I have ever come to combat was running away from it and escaping on a private jet in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  

It was a leadership decision to get out of there. It was even a leadership decision to ensure the infrastructure was in place for a quick exit. But management ensured the jet was ready, fueled, piloted, and routed away from the conflict, not toward it. 

Napoleon once said that an army marches on its stomach.  Ensuring that the military is well provisioned is a management task that is essential to achieving the leadership objectives.  The leader can decide to march, but managers have to keep the soldiers fed.  

And the Navy Seals?  

They are not famous for traipsing willy-nilly into any old combat situation blindly following a leader.  They follow a strict management structure and a well-defined training routine to ensure the best possible outcomes. 

What a lack of leadership looks like in business

I once wrote a weekly blog for a client.  

The client was a manager to her core.  She kept her thumb on every aspect of the business.  Monitored every action and could not let any outcome, no matter how small or detailed, exist outside of her expectations.  

Managers accept the world as given.  So, she didn’t challenge the way “things were done.” She was an IT expert, there was a right way to manage IT firms, and she executed on that right way.  

When I wrote blog posts for her, she would criticize fonts, spacings, find stylistic typos, but she never commented on the topic.  Never mind that I didn’t know that much about IT, the topic was given.  Even worse, the blogs were supposed to educate her prospects and clients, but she thought the questions they had were beneath her. They were too basic. So she wanted to answer questions that an IT professional like her would ask.

She wanted to look good, have unimpeachable management credentials, and never make any mistakes. In fact, she had very little interest in the strategy or the outcomes of our marketing.  Her only concern was the execution, not the direction. 

The problem with leaderless management (or Gotcha Management) is threefold: 

  1. It is fundamentally not scalable. if you as a business owner must be involved in every decision the employees make and every action they take, then the company’s capacity is limited by the time that you have to make decisions and take actions. 
  2. It is spectacularly demotivating.  No senior people could work with her for very long because they had their own way of running a business.  Junior people would stay for a while, but the lack of growth opportunities and a future meant that the best ones would leave.  
  3. The manager must do EVERYTHING.  Everybody who did stay with the company kept their head down and followed her instructions.  But everybody knew that every instruction had to come from her, so she had to be involved in every decision-making process 

Management in the absence of leadership quickly devolves into micromanagement and “Gotcha Management” (micromanagement with a different name).  

The 5 Roles of Great Leaders

The role of the leader is to establish the vision for the future, set direction, and create the parameters within which management can manage. There are five

  1. Create the context.  This means being clear about values, vision, mission, and your strategy.  Imagine the future, and design the path to get there so that others can follow.
  2. Align the team. Managers organize, but leaders align.  Leaders make sure that everyone knows the direction and the context, that they buy into it, and that everyone is going in the same direction. 
  3. Empower Management.  A primary role of leadership is to empower managers.  The leader provides direction and makes space for managers to deliver.  This means allowing them to experiment and make mistakes.  It means that if you are a Gotcha manager, you will have to let go: things that you perceive as mistakes may just be other people working differently.  
  4. Assess performance and make adjustments.  Leaders review the outcomes of execution and ask whether they are taking the organization down the right path.  They then reallocate resources or pivot.  If everything is going great, they may add more resources; if they are not getting the results, they will make a change.  This change may be a change of management, a change of strategy, or a vision change. 
  5. Motivate.  Napoleon once said that he had “made the most amazing discovery,” that men will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.  Motivation goes beyond financials. Money matters, but your employees are people (and if you are your only employee, recognize this about yourself). 

So why don’t people lead?  What is the big deal anyway?  

The reason is that leadership is hard.  Leadership requires you to step out of your comfort zone.  It requires that you think differently about what the future may hold and take bold steps in that direction.  

I say bold because every step that takes you off the straight and narrow management path is a bold decision.  It is stepping into a new space.  It requires trust in yourself.  It requires confidence.  

And even if you do trust yourself and are confident naturally, it can be challenging to take that trust and confidence and turn it into something that motivates others.  

When you are leading a team into combat, you are leading them into the unknown.  When you are leading a team to deliver on your vision, you are leading into the unknown.  

Napoleon led his army on many conquests throughout Europe.  He was very confident.  

And then, he led his army to attack Moscow, an unmitigated disaster that killed 90% of his army without a single battle.  

If you are a manager, like my IT client, and you want to make a change, you don’t necessarily know whether you are conquering Europe or sacrificing yourself on a march to Moscow. 

When you make a leadership decision, you run the risk of things getting worse.  

In fact, in my experience, any decision leads to things getting worse before they get better.  Change requires work, and if you are already busy managing the work can be overwhelming.  So good managers eschew leadership, they stay in the status quo, they manage the process. This is NOT a bad thing, but it is limiting if you want to grow your business, or if you are a business owner who would like to take a vacation sometime.

A business needs both leadership and management

Businesses (and militaries) require both leadership and management – strong management requires powerful leadership and the other way around.  

As human beings running businesses, though, the challenge we face is that management is easier.  It requires less thinking, less planning, and less time outside of your comfort zone. 

Both leadership and management are learned skills.  Yes, some people have them naturally, but some people also play the piano without any instruction.  That is rare.  Most people have to learn.  

And both leadership and management exist in the same person.  They are hats, and as you wear different hats to you must take on the different roles.  So even if you are a one-person company, your business requires that you assume leadership and management roles.  

What all of this means for you

Regardless of your business size, your business requires both leadership and management. It is easy to focus on management and neglect leadership because management is within your comfort zone.

So I recommend finding time to set aside to think like a leader… look forward and challenge yourself and your thinking. Figure out what the colored ribbons are for you and your team, define combat, know where you want to go, and build the management engine to get there.

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