Managing to Lead

19 February 2015

Last week I proposed just enough leadership, for the sake of enhancing communityship. This week I propose an end to the belief that leadership is separate from management, and superior to it. This is damaging management all right, but leadership more so.

The fashionable depiction sees managers as doing things right while leaders do the right thing.1 It sounds good, until you try to tell the difference when observing the work of someone who is successful. Here’s an example from my book Simply Managing2:

John Cleghorn, as CEO of the Royal Bank of Canada, developed a reputation in his company for calling the office on his way to the airport to report a broken ATM machine, and such things. This bank had thousands of such machines. Was John micromanaging? Maybe he was setting an example that others should follow: keep your eyes open for such problems.

Have you ever been managed by someone who didn’t lead? That must have been awfully discouraging. Well, how about being lead by someone who didn’t manage? That could have been much worse. How is such a “leader” to know what’s going on? As Jim March of the Stanford Business School put it: “Leadership involves plumbing as well as poetry.”3

So let’s get beneath the cloud of leadership theory, to the ground of management practice. Maybe then more so-called leaders will do the right thing, namely cease leading by remote control, disconnected from everything except the “big picture.” In fact, how are they to create even that? Big pictures have to be painted with the brushstrokes of grounded experience.

It has also become fashionable to complain that we are being over-managed and under-led. The opposite is now a greater problem: we have too much heroic leadership and not enough engaging management. We need to recognize that some of the best leadership is management practiced well, also that anyone with ideas and initiative can exercise leadership. Thus, to conclude, here is a comparison of engaging management with heroic leadership. Take your choice.

Two Ways to Manage
Heroic Leadership Engaging Management
1.Leaders are important people, quite apart from others who develop products and deliver services. 1.Managers are important to the extent that they help other people to be important.
2.The higher “up” these leaders go, the more important they become. At the “top” the CEO is the organization. 2.An organization is an interacting network, not a vertical hierarchy. Effective managers work throughout; the don’t sit “on top”.
3.Down the hierarchy comes the strategy—clear, deliberate, and bold—emanating from the chief who takes the dramatic acts. Everyone else “implements.” 3.Out of the network emerge strategies, as engaged people solve little problems that can grow into big initiatives.
4.To lead is to make decisions and allocate resources—including those human resources. Leadership thus means calculating, based on facts, from reports. 4.To manage is to help bring out the energy that exists naturally within people. Managing thus means engaging, based on judgment, rooted in context.
5.Leadership is thrust upon those who thrust their will on others. 5.Leadership is a sacred trust earned from the respect of others.

If you remain unconvinced, and are determined to be a heroic leader, please read the following box. (It is written for business, but those in government and NGOs will get the idea.)

Rules for being a Heroic Leader

  • Change everything all the time. In particular, reorganize constantly, to keep everyone on their toes (rather than firmly planted on their feet). Do not change this behavior no matter what the consequences.

  • Beware of insiders: anyone who knows the place is suspect. Bring in a whole new “top team.” And rely on consultants—they may not know the business, but they do appreciate heroic leaders.

  • Focus on the present: Do that dramatic deal now! The past is dead, the future distant (and beyond bonuses). It’s best to ignore the existing business and especially its culture--anything established takes time to change. Instead merge like mad, with the devils you don’t know. This is sure to catch the attention of stock market analysts and traders. (Ignore the risks: your golden parachute will save you.)

  • Emphasize the numbers. That way you don’t have to manage performance so much as deem it. Likewise, arrange to be paid several hundred times as much as your mere employees, to announce how much more important you are. That’s leadership! Then, get that stock price up, guaranteed cash in, and run. Heroes are in great demand.

1. Bennis, W.G. (1989) On Becoming a Leader (Perseus Books) and Zaleznik, A. (1977) Managers and Leaders: Are They Different? Harvard Business Review, May–June 1977

2. I observed 29 managers for a each: Mintzberg, H. (2013). Simply Managing (Berrett-Koehler). Order from Berrett Koehler,,, Barnes & Noble.

3. in Augier (2004)\ James March on Education, Leadership, and Don Quixote: Introduction and Interview. Academy of Management Learning and Education (p. 173).

© Henry Mintzberg 2015