Leadership: what kind of world do you want to live in?

‘Management’ and ‘leadership’ are two terms that are often used interchangeably. However, there is an important distinction to be made as managers and leaders have different roles, requiring different, sometimes opposing skills and behaviours. Because both roles are often vested in one and the same person simultaneously, many get confused. This article shows a way out of the woodworks. It provides a starting point to all who want to take charge to help realise a better world.

Maxfield Parrish – the Pied Piper (1909)

The other day my 12-year old daughter asked: “Dad, do you think I am a good leader”? “I think you are”, I replied. “I think so too”, she stated confidently, “because I’m good at planning, I’m very organised and make sure our team gets the job done”. “Aha”, I responded hesitantly, continuing with: “Well, actually I think that what you just described means that you are a good manager. A good manager is good at running an established process well, ensuring the team’s output is delivered under varying circumstances. But leadership implies change, a movement into a certain direction towards which you lead people and they follow you. You piece together a story about where you think you should be headed as a team and why that is right. Most important for that are your own personal ethics; what kind of world you want to live in, what you believe is the right thing to do, because it’s good for everybody involved. If you have developed a strong moral foundation for yourself and act with courage, you will also be a good leader”. To which I added: “And therefore I also think you are a good leader, but there’s a difference between leadership and management”.

This real life conversation (although I admit I enhanced it a bit for this article) is an excellent example to illustrate the difficulty many people have in distinguishing ‘management’ from ‘leadership’ skills. Both are important, but they are often confused and also used interchangeably even in popular business media. I suspect this could be because management roles and leadership roles are often vested in the same people simultaneously and performance of both roles is usually intertwined. More on that later.

The difference between management and leadership

In a previous article I discussed two different narratives in organisations; the economic narrative and the community narrative. The economic narrative revolves around the organisation being a legal construct producing a positive economic outcome. The community narrative revolves around the organisation acting as a herd based on a common identity, providing mutual benefit and safety to all members. Below I would like to illustrate how managers are guardians of the economic narrative, whereas leaders are shepherds of the community narrative.

To make that more explicit, please take a look at the table below comparing purpose, tools and skills belonging to management and leadership respectively.

Managers are focused on tangible economic aspects

The table describes how a manager’s primary purpose is to optimise the organisation’s structure in order to maintain performance and hit targets. It is hence about maintaining and optimising the status quo. The tools a manager uses to achieve these purposes are geared to define and measure concrete inputs, processes and outputs. The manager’s key skills and enablers are formal authority, experience and (technical) competence.

So the manager is there as a guardian of the organisation’s economic value chain, which forms its reason for being.

Managing an organisation has historically been a sober affair.
Werner van den Valckert – Three regentesses and the ‘house mother’ of the Amsterdam lepers’ asylum (1624)
Leaders are focused on the community narrative

In contrast to the manager, the leader’s primary purpose is not how to maintain the status quo within the organisation, but how to shift it to stay aligned with its everchanging environment. A leader needs to orchestrate reflection on ‘why’ the organisation exists, why it matters, what its relevance is to its customers, to its employees and to society at large. This needs to be orchestrated to guide the rest of the organisation so it doesn’t simply follow, but embarks on the journey as a whole.

It is important to know what values matter to the organisation. This is because in any argument, values provide the considerations to interpret and judge facts and data against. Based on these values people can be persuaded to see themselves and the community in a different light, in order to steer the organisation onto an alternative course and change structures, processes and ways of working.

“If you want to go fast, go alone; If you want to far, go together.”

Proverb

The leader’s personal ethics are her/his main starting point to start a discussion on values. That doesn’t mean that a leader should define the values of the organisation. Rather the leader conducts the dialogue or discussion on what the organisation chooses as it’s (ranking of) values. Open-mindedness is more conducive to exploring alternative visions of the future. For the same reason diversity of opinions and backgrounds and making all feel included are key to the success of the community.

So a leader acts like a shepherd of the herd, the community that the organisation is. The more effective a leader is at growing the community narrative to do so, the more engaged its employees will be, but also all the more resilient they will be when there is an economic headwind. It’s worthwhile pointing out that a community narrative presumes inclusiveness, finding common ground with a constructive, positive story that offers perspective to all involved.

In many ways leaders help shape the culture within which the organisation’s economic structure evolves. One could argue that the leader is the chicken and the manager the egg, in turn illustrating that the latter also shapes the former.

Being a leader is not necessarily glamorous
Cornelis Albert van Assendelft (1900 – 1945) – Shepherd with sheep
Why the pedantics on semantics?

So what is the big deal about distinguishing management from leadership? In many cases both roles are vested in the same person simultaneously. The person directing a department doesn’t put on different hats when running it. Most likely that person takes an integral view and feels responsibility to both manage and lead all at once.

The reason that it is important to make a distinction between these two roles is that they require different, sometimes opposing, skill sets. Effective management is based on formal authority and technical competence, whereas leadership is based more on personal credibility, the ability to listen and communicate empathetically. If you’re the manager explaining your grand vision of the future, your people will nod their heads anyway, because you’re in charge. But whether they will really follow you and not just pay lip service has nothing to do with your position. It has more to do with how convincing your vision is because it aligns with people’s values. Conversely, just because you can talk smoothly and give people a warm and cosy feeling doesn’t mean you’re doing a great job managing an organisation.

People who are both successful as a manager as well as a leader are rare. Michiel de Ruyter was the Netherlands’ most successful fleet commander and worshipped by his crews who affectionately called him ‘bestevaer’ or ‘grandpa’. He did not only distinguished himself with his naval competence, but also with his personal morality.

Ferdinand Bol – Michiel de Ruyter as Lieutenant-Admiral (1667)
Is good management underrated?

I would argue that people directing small operational teams require 80% management and 20% leadership skills and that people directing an entire company require 50% management and 50% leadership skills. If you accept my assessment for the sake of argument it would be fair to say that leadership is certainly important for those who direct people. But management competency not less so. Just like individual employees who don’t contribute to the bottom line should not be retained, ‘leaders’ who are insufficiently competent as managers are hard to maintain in a management capacity. The reason I make this point is that I have noticed that few people talk about good management, but there is all the more talk about leadership and how to be a good leader.

Research suggests that managers should be perceived as competent by their subordinates. Another piece of research provided further insights into what influences leadership competence and trustworthiness.

Management and leadership hence require different skillsets combined in one and the same person. That those skills are sometimes conflicting explains why it’s so tough to successfully run an organisation. The reason ‘leadership’ gets more attention these days I think is that: 1) In a faster changing and more complex environment higher demands are made on leadership to shepherd the organisation to make sense of it all; 2) The whole notion of getting people to wilfully follow you is simply more enticing to those who desire power than being an excellent bureaucrat; 3) Further to that, if management is about position and power, many managers see leadership as a trick to expand it (however wrongly so); 4) Whereas management competency can often be acquired and selected for over the years, leadership skills are often only given attention once a manager has attained some position of seniority – too late for many managers who try to lead, because they are not ready to lead and are set in their ways wrongly.

“Nothing can stop the man with the right character from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong character”

Thomas Jefferson
There is no quick fix to bad leadership skills, but here’s a starting point

Thomas Jefferson said: “Nothing can stop the man with the right character from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong character”.

To me successful leadership needs to be founded on the leader’s own personal values and ethics, because it is through those that a leader interacts with others as part of a community, which is based on a common identity and values. Personal values and ethics don’t need to be woolly, but could for a start be established by answering the following questions:

  1. What kind of world do I want to live in and why do I think that world is good for everyone?
  2. For which values do I put up a fight? (look at your own past conflicts)
  3. How will I act and behave as a leader and example to live my vision?

Imagining the world you want to live in doesn’t need to be about solving world hunger or eradicating poverty. It can be about much simpler ambitions, such as how would you like your team to function or your relationship with your partner. The point is to articulate your ambitions and then engage others to pursue them.

What bothers me is that many publications on leadership are not about exploring one’s own moral compass and learning to articulate one’s own moral vision. Rather, many books and articles treat leadership as a competence that can be acquired by learning a few tricks (try searching on ‘leadership’ in books at Amazon for illustration).

And the people who are keen to learn those tricks so they can call themselves a ‘leader’ often seem to be managers who want to cement their position within the organisation. That’s not about shepherding the community; that’s just about survival. Nothing wrong with that, but intrinsically that’s not leadership.

That’s not to say that there aren’t specific competencies and behaviours associated with effective leadership. However, at it’s core leadership is about articulating, planning out and living a narrative about tomorrow. It starts with getting to “know thyself”, as was already inscribed at the Delphi oracle 2,500 years ago. That is where every leadership journey has to start. Only then can one start to think about how that translates to the wider world.

Stepping up as a leader is not dependent on your position (on Texel, the Netherlands, August 2020)
The leadership opportunity

One thing about leadership cannot be emphasized enough. Since leadership is often associated with one’s formal position in the hierarchy, but actually only dependent on self-knowledge and morals, you don’t need to wait to achieve a certain position to step us a leader. All you need to do is start reflecting on some of the questions mentioned above and start a dialogue with others in that process.

Moreover, if you only start doing so once you have a position of management responsibility it’s often too late. You will think leaders are those who tell people what to do. It’s rather the opposite: they invite people to take responsibility and do the right thing, based on a dialogue about the right direction. Leadership is not confined to a position in an organisation; it is relevant throughout life, in all corners and roles in society. You can make an impact every day. I think that is a hopeful message in today’s complex and fragmented world.

Are you ready to start your quest? (Wast water, Lake district, UK, 2018)

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1 thought on “Leadership: what kind of world do you want to live in?”

  1. Love this blog! We have all come across changes in our organisations (drastic changes) which are crying out for great leaders to get everyone on board to create a better future. The oil and gas sector is a perfect example just now.
    We see many mid and even senior level managers, adept at providing structure and instruction around current work practices and short term targets. Unfortunately many managers don’t posess the leadership skills required to lead their respective organisations through the massive changes we are facing around climate change, diminishing project economics, redundancies and the new ways of working required to maintain focus on value and integration and development of new energies.
    Your blog struck me though in a very fundamental way. I remember the first bonafide leadership course I took some years ago. The first element the participants explored was “what are your values” and how do they show up in your work and home life. This was extremely soul searching and many found themselves examining how honest they really were, how much they really cared about other people or how much it was really about “me”….what’s in it for me. I struggled with this also but quickly reverted to the notion that I was brought up by my parents and teachers to be honest and had some great mentors at University and in the early part of my career that taught me about care for others and empathy!
    And so if someone has not explored deeply their own values and moral fortitude they have absolute no chance of being a leader, no understanding of empathy, no real sense of purpose regarding serving their staff rather than their staff serving them.
    True leaders shine through in times of crisis or massive change. The best we can all do is to practise leadership every day and be the leader we wish we had! This is sometimes a very lonely, often times frustrating furrow but made much easier by seeking out others in your organisation who think the same way. Then you must start the journey of influence and feedback to those wielding the power and here comes the very difficult bit……..influence them on a path of change, start by using the massive self serving ego they have developed over the years and find just one small “win” that gets us pointed in the right direction and then make sure your boss shines in front of theirs as a result!!!! Maybe, just maybe you start something extraordinary.

    My two cents worth

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