December 14

Management vs. Leadership


An enormous challenge for growing and scaling companies is trying to strike a balance between maintaining that small company mindset that’s nimble, adaptive, creative and a place people love to work with the ever-increasing requirement of developing policies, standards, and systems to manage what is now a much bigger and much more complex organization. How do you manage all the moving pieces of a larger company with more people, more problems, and more processes without losing your identity and turning into a bureaucratic rules-based organization that gets bogged down in its own inertia and is not motivating to work for?

The answer is simple – it’s not easy – it’s simple: learn to differentiate between leadership and management.

It has been said that leadership is about people and management is about things. I don’t necessarily disagree with that but let’s take it a step further. Leadership is about influence: it’s about motivating, inspiring, moving, and developing people. Management is about systems: it’s the “how” behind motivating, inspiring, moving, and developing people (or teams or organizations). 

Let me give you an example: one of the tasks we teach at West Point, and in the military in general, is how to climb a rope. Now this seems simple – but it’s not. Climbing a wet, slippery – or even dry – rope for any distance if not done correctly is a recipe for disaster. Most people just grab it and try to climb but unless you have enormous grip strength combined with great upper body strength to body weight ratio you’re not going to get very far. And even if you do…you won’t do it more than once or twice. The key to climbing a rope successfully is the technique called the “lock.” There are several types of locks but all of them involve using your feet to “lock” the rope as you climb thereby shifting the load from your arms and shoulders to your legs. Instead of pulling yourself up the rope with your arms and hands you end up pushing your way up the rope using the power of your legs. It’s 100% more effective regardless of the condition of the rope or the weight being carried by the climber. Now when I taught students how to effectively climb the rope I had to do two things: I had to teach them the technique (I had to give them a system that would allow them to climb the rope) but I also had to give them a purpose (I had to motivate them and inspire them to want to climb the rope). Two very distinct but equally important things: I can motivate and inspire that student all day in the hopes of getting them to climb the rope but if I don’t give them a system by which to successfully climb it then no matter how much I inspire them…they’re not getting there. By the same token I can teach them that system until I’m blue in the face and until they become absolute masters of the technique of performing the lock…but if I don’t give them a reason to climb and inspire them to want to climb then there’s still not much chance they’re going to get there.

The key is doing both:

  • Leadership is about influencing people to want to go where we need to go. It’s about providing the vision, the inspiration, the direction – the “why” behind what we’re doing and the “where” we are going. Leaders raise the water level.
  • Management is about providing the systems, structure, and processes – the “how” and the “what” – that help us get there along with the measuring tools to tell us how we’re doing along the way. Managers develop the systems that can handle the raised water level.

Successful organizations need a healthy combination of both along with an ability to adapt them as the organization grows.

So, where do we draw the line and how do we implement one over the other? Let’s look at a couple of things we can do to help us keep that balance between leadership and management.

  • Define success.

This seems basic but bear with me. Have you ever sat in a meeting, conference, or event and asked yourself “why are we doing this?” If so then you know exactly why this first thing becomes so important. In a world of metrics, performance evaluations, financial models, and the myriad of topics we deal with on a daily basis it is amazing how many organizations lose sight of what they started off trying to do in the first place. Why are we measuring all that stuff – where are we going – what are we trying to accomplish…why in the world are we here? If I ask you what defines success you can probably give me a series of data points (usually linked to some of the things I mentioned above) but what’s missing is the true vision behind those data points.

In the military every unit I was in had something called the “Command Philosophy.” This was a written (relatively long) document that spelled out what the commander (CEO or President) wanted to accomplish that year. It started with the overall vision for the organization: why were we formed, why were we there, how did we fit into the larger scheme of the higher headquarters and of the Army. It transitioned to the mission: what were we expected to do. And then it transitioned to what success looked like: what are the expectations for overall performance; what are the expectations for our people; what are the expectations for what our stakeholders experience; what are the expectations for our equipment; standards of performance, bearing, and behavior (all tied to the overall culture); if there were “customers” what are the expectations in regards to them. That philosophy then trickled down to every leader at every level of the organization that then wrote theirs to embed inside of it. Every leader at every level of the organization has to define success because without that vision and direction, that spans the breadth and depth of the organization, it’s impossible to emplace a cohesive set of leadership and management strategies. We end up a with a hodgepodge of reactionary policies, meetings, and events that don’t really get us where we want.

Going back to the rope example – at the base level, why am I teaching that soldier about locks? Because somewhere in our vision we identified a few things: first, we need soldiers to be able to climb ropes because our mission may demand it; second, part of our vision is to develop them into better human beings that can manage their fear and build confidence whether they ever have to climb a rope or not; third we want to be able to test their overall physical performance and one way to do that is through their performance on an obstacle course that includes…ropes. So, our leadership philosophy – develop well rounded and physically fit soldiers – led us to emplace a management system – teach rope climbing techniques – along with a measure of that system – the obstacle course. So, if one day we were able to equip every solider with a personal jet pack would we still be teaching them locks? Well that depends – are we still interested in the soldier parts of that vision? If so, then yes. If not, and if we haven’t examined it, then probably still yes…but we won’t have any idea why – we’ll just be doing it because we’ve always done it. We’ll have a system in place that serves no purpose and one day those soldiers will be in class wondering “why are we here?” It will always come back to the vision and the philosophy.  

So, step 1 – dial in and develop your vision. Define success not just for the organization as a whole but for every aspect within and without it from customers to employees to board members.

  • Stop being “fair.”

One of the most common mistakes growing companies make is to create new one-size fits all policies and meetings to deal with “problems.” In other words, if you took a hard look at many of your organization’s policies and scheduled meetings you may find that a good percentage of them were created not to enhance top performance but to deal with poor performance. It’s hard to deal with one-on-one differences when it comes to our people so the easiest thing to do is put out a policy that everybody has to adhere to. Then the leader doesn’t have to make any decisions – if you violate the policy you face whatever the consequence is and since it’s equally applied it’s “fair.”

Let me give you the counterbalance to that: you have two employees – employee A is a great worker: she’s always on time; her products are spot-on; she gets her work done well, done quickly, and then she picks up work that others can’t finish. You’d love to have 10 of her in your organization and chances are high that if you need something done well and done quickly you’re giving it to her, even if it’s not in her lane, because you can trust her to do it well and on time. Now, you also have employee B. Employee B is not a bad worker – he does his job although it takes him double the time as A; he will get his work done but it will usually have to be re-worked a few times; he comes in on time most of the time but he rides the ragged edge of late and a few times a week he actually gets in late. You can’t continue having him come in late because it affects everybody else so what do you do? Well, unfortunately many organizations succumb to the temptation of “we need a late policy.” They create a management system, so they don’t have to deal with leadership challenge. Now we can say that “this is the policy, it’s applied evenly, and it’s fair.” But walk the dog further on that: What happens, then, when Employee A runs into an issue, has a bad day, and shows up late? Are we now going to apply the policy (that was meant to deter Employee B) on this stellar employee? Is that what we’re promoting? That hard work and top performance makes no difference because at the end of the day, in the name of “fairness” you’re going to be treated the same as the employee that rides the ragged edge of mediocre? That’s the problem: we’ve abdicated our responsibility as leaders to raise the water level and performance level of those around us by instead choosing to implement a policy or system aimed at the lowest level performer. What’s your vision? Is it to create a culture of top performance Employee A people that are motivated and driven to be there or is your vision to have everybody show up for work on time (a pretty low bar actually)? Systems and policies reflect the vision of the organization.

So what do we do?  Take a deep breath and lead: you don’t need a late policy. Every employee should know your expectations. They’ve seen it in writing in your philosophy, they saw it during their one-on-one at the point of hire and onboarding, and they hear them from you throughout the course of your coaching, teaching, and counseling. My policy, for example, is “early is on-time, on-time is late, late means don’t bother.” Pretty simple and direct. Now, if Employee B shows up late it’s very, very simple to deal with – not easy – but it’s simple. I don’t need a policy – he knows my expectation – so it’s a quick conversation “hey bud, I noticed you were late today – any particular reason? You know my policy, in the future just give me a holler and let me know.” Done. If (when) it happens again we’re having another conversation: “I noticed you were late again today – I know we talked about this – is there anything I can help you with that would alleviate this problem. I would love to see you rise to your full potential so if there’s any way we can get you over this hump I’d love to help.” Done. If (when) it happens again – “ok, this time we’ll have to put it in writing.” That writing will include the consequences of repeated incidents. Done. Fourth time…PIP. Fifth time…out.

If I can’t inspire that employee to rise to the occasion over time, then he probably needs to find a better place to work.

So, what happens when Employee A is late? Well, the exact same thing but how much you want a bet that after you talk informally to Employee A the first time it won’t happen again? Did I need a policy? No, I just needed to lead. On a side note – think again about your vision: If Employee A stays at work until 10:00 to finish up a project while Employee B goes home at 4:30. Do you really want Employee A worried about being in their seat at exactly 7:00…or would you rather they focused more on their performance? Your policies need to incentivize and reward the behavior you’re looking to promote – not the behavior you’re trying to stop – it’s your job as a leader to deal with what you want to stop.

So, step 2: Align your management systems with your vision and what you want to promote – not what you’re trying to deter.

In short: leadership and management go hand in hand. Walking the line between them can be trying at times but it is a critical component of your organization’s success. Leaders provide the vision, the direction, the motivation, and the strategies to move their people and their organization forward – they raise the water level. Managers develop the systems, structures, plans, and policies that align with that vision and incentivize a culture of excellence.

Your job is to do all of it – build the vision, raise the water level, and develop the systems that incentivize a culture of excellence. Referees worry about being “fair” – leaders worry about raising the water level.  

Welcome to leadership – now go lead!


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