Leadership and management – Brian Willman

Leadership and management – Brian Willman

Leadership has become a matter of great concern for organisations across the world in the last 20 years. I have taught about leadership to thousands of executives in that time and find it useful to share my own favoured definition of leadership early in programmes so that it underpins everything else. There are literally over a hundred definitions of leadership in the academic literature but mine is: leaders inspire others to higher levels of performance. There are three key words: inspire (or excite), others (it is good to aspire to great leadership but the test is whether others see you as a leader) and performance (that should be at the centre of all that we do).

Its worth remembering why leadership development has become such a hot topic when probably in earlier times, the focus was more on management development. There are two critical purposes for valuing the leadership agenda:

  • management assumes a relatively stable world and for much of the 20th century, larger organisations operated on the assumption that they had some control of the world. Nestlé used to pride itself on its 25 year plans. Leadership does not assume stability or direct control and so helps people to cope better with an increasingly volatile and ambiguous world where “shocks” have become more common (Trump and Brexit to name but two). That does not mean that plans are unimportant but innovation and agility are also important
  • linkedin’s estimate from 600 million users was that 60% were “passive” job seekers (meaning if they saw something that looked interesting in passing, there was a good chance they would investigate further). In the first ten years of their careers, Gen Y has double the number of jobs compared to Gen X. The reality is that clever compensation is no longer sufficient to attract, keep and engage the best people. Inspirational leadership is what is needed.

Leadership matters at all levels in organisations but there is a worrying trend and this is to downgrade the importance of good management skills. At a leading business school I teach at, I ask MBA students if they are keen to become managers. The response is mixed, with some students saying yes but the majority giving negative reactions to the whole concept of management – “That’s all about telling people what to do,” being a common response. I then ask if they want to become leaders and they almost unanimously declare that they do (and some will claim they are already great leaders).

The other trend I have noticed is that if I ask people to say what managers do and what leaders do they often put rather negative-sounding activities under the management umbrella and more ‘sexy’, exciting activities under leadership. Management skills are perceived as inferior to leadership skills. This is a grave error, the negative outcome of which is that bright young individuals with lots of potential go on an intensive 360 feedback-driven leadership development programme to learn how to inspire others but they have yet to master critically important management skills that will make their life a lot easier as leaders. My key message is this: let’s value both – it should be a case of ‘and’, not ‘or’.

Just to be clear what I mean there are four management skills that I consider to be essential for any executive who wants to be successful: chairing meetings, objective setting, delegation and delivering motivational feedback. All of these are straightforward to learn for most people.

But here’s a challenging thought: is it possible to have organisations that are both well managed and well led? In larger well-managed companies, there are often so many processes and systems in place that leadership is driven out. In contrast, family-owned businesses are often strong on leadership and weak on management. The good news is that I have come across many brilliant managers in large companies who are also excellent leaders in the eyes of others – they do not allow bureaucracy to grind out inspiration, agility and creativity. I also know individuals in family-run businesses who succeed at being both good leaders and accomplished managers. It is possible to do both and highly desirable.

The important point for me is to say to people early in leadership development that they should be good managers as well as good leaders and the point of the programme will be to encourage them to shift their energy 5-10% from managing people to leading people. They will not be “Super Leader” by the end of the programme but they should be better leaders. This is challenging but realistic and if everyone does it then the whole organisation will experience a significant benefit.

Gen Y (or millennials) are defined as people born from the early 1980s to early 2000s
Gen X are defined as people born mid 60s to early 80s