Category Archives: Leadership

Managers and Leaders are Different?

The tired claim that managers and leaders are different has serious consequences for the way we treat people and run organizations.

First, what is the alleged difference between a manager’s and a leader’s roles and capabilities? Guru Warren Bennis put it this way,

The manager administers; the leader innovates.
The manager maintains; the leader develops.
The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it. (Bennis, 2003)

In other words, a manager sees that projects and programs get done. A leader has strategic vision, originality and the ability to inspire.

Bennis went on to make the case that managers can become leaders—but the either/or distinction stuck—and not just in business schools. Haven’t you heard a supervisor say something like, “she’s a competent manager, but not a leader” or, “he’s just not leader material?”

Such beliefs, whether voiced or not, put blinders on our own vision, constrain other people and limit our organizations. Here is how.

  • Because an employee’s job duties focus on managing programs or projects, we imagine she/he does not possess or cannot learn strategic thinking.
  • We make hiring and promotion decisions based on rigid ideas about what management vs. leadership competence involves.
  • We inadvertently compromise our ability to retain valuable employees.

shutterstock_134350289I propose that we see every employee as a leader—actually and potentially. This view activates the Pygmalion Effect wherein you, as a leader, are like the mythic artist Pygmalion. The human figure he sculpted became real when he fell in love with her. Similarly, your belief in our employees’ leadership potential activates that potential.

Here is a true story about leaders who encouraged leadership behavior in an employee: Even after several improvement cycles, a hospital Quality Improvement team could not bring the post-operative infection rate down to the target. After they invited more levels of staff onto the team, a custodian noticed the small pile of scrubs in the dirty laundry bin and wondered aloud if changing scrubs more often would make a difference. When providers began to change their cover-ups unerringly, the infection rate declined. The custodian’s careful observations, critical thinking and initiative showed leadership in action.

I invite you to explore your assumptions about leadership—what it is and who shows it. Then, analyze the way you develop leaders in your organization. For example:

  • Take a hard look at how you manage performance. “Appraisal” practices are often judgmental and punitive. Recreate a system that focuses on learning and appreciative leadership.
  • Create an organization-wide mentoring system.
  • Provide an external, credentialed coach for all executives (for example, all VP’s; all C-suite executives.)
  • Make sure every person promoted into a supervisor role learns how to supervise with a focus on learning. Provide a variety of ways to learn—with a mentor; with a coach who is not in the chain of coachee supervision and not from HR; by reading and reflective writing/discussion; through communities of practice; through courses.
  • When you form project teams, include staff at all levels so they learn to collaborate, identify problems, find root causes, and design and implement solutions.

Leadership Secrets

Poet William Blake’s poems are full of leadership secrets. Let’s find practical wisdom in this verse:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

Seeing a world in a grain of sand invites us to appreciate a single grain as a whole and as part of a system of beach, sun, perceiver and perceived. In our organizations, we have talented, accomplished staff all around us. How can we more clearly see three things: the light in individual colleagues; their contribution to the whole enterprise; our helpful influence when we pay attention to them?

One CEO I work with — no matter how busy he is — takes time each week to have substantial conversations with several staff members. What are they working on? How is it going? What are the challenges? What excites them? As leaders, we can also take this opportunity to express our appreciation. When you meet with direct reports, periodically ask them how you can support them.

To see heaven in a wild flower, we have to have an image of what we aspire to. We have to believe this aspiration is possible in order to create paths to go there.

We can start with a simple aspiration to see beauty around us every day. One young leader I know ends the day by taking five minutes to consciously reflect on her “daily delights.” Chester Nez, the Navajo World War II code talker, wrote in his memoir that during bombardments, he lay in his foxhole repeating his people’s prayer,

I walk in beauty. Beauty is around me.  Beauty is above me, beauty below me.

The Englishman William Blake and Chester Nez would have gotten on well. When Blake says, “to hold infinity in the palm of your hand,” he partly means that we have to believe in possibility — beyond whatever foxholes we find ourselves in — and also believe we can seize that better possibility. Furthermore, we have infinite possibility within us.

In our organizations, one way to discover and attain positive possibility is to use the frameworks and methods of Appreciative Inquiry. Invite stories about strength and success, and from these appreciative stories, glean visions, paths and practices for your team or organization. Find more ways to use Appreciative Inquiry at the Appreciative Inquiry Commons.

spiderweb in sunlightTo hold eternity, we must know how to be present in the presence of another person in the present hour. Leading an organization and living our days can be like a race. Try looking around in the airport at people running, ears to cell phones. Now try looking into the face of each colleague and passerby. What do you notice?

There is another leadership secret in Blake’s poem. Notice how he sees opposites as dynamic, back-and-forth possibilities, as both-and paradoxes instead of either/or. Try this experiment. Next time you catch yourself saying “but,” back up and substitute the word “and.” Do you notice a shift?

Leaders as Catalysts

lighthouse_0968The term “Executive catalyst” catches my attention.  Who are they, and where do their capacities come from?  A study  of such leaders says they,

  • Are highly self-aware as continuous learners and seekers.
  • Encourage others to act from their real selves.
  • Sparkle with ideas and spark them in others.
  • See potential everywhere in ideas, people, and partnerships.
  • Inspire others with their passions and through their values. (Akrivou and Brandbury-Huang, 2011)

The study about Executive catalysts found that self-understanding and continual self-learning are predictors of a leader’s ability to be a catalyst in the organizations they lead.

Wow. Such predictors have striking implications.

It suggests that we have to PRACTICE taking time to reflect, analyze situations and dilemmas, and carefully think through how to lead and influence. Executive catalysts are present to themselves as agents of action and as disciplined observers–including taking the time to observe themselves.  My client Cheryl has this ability in spades.  She senses that when a work dilemma stumps her, it is because there is something “out of awareness” about herself that she needs to explore.

Getting better at self-understanding implies that we have to take time to know and work with our inner “self-system.”  Like so many of us, my clients often come to me saying that they lack for time.  And yet, in their coaching sessions, they have decided to commit to reflection and discovery.

Because I love reading history, I think of how Abraham Lincoln was able to assess his strengths and limitations, as related in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals.  Another catalyst who is a hero of mine is Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, whom you can read about in Kirstin Downey’s biography, The Woman Behind the New Deal.

Executive catalysts are able to watch themselves learning–they know how to learn how to learn.  What does that mean?  I’ll talk about this capacity in another article.