Leadership and Management. Is there a difference? How much does it matter?

Once upon a time there was a naïve and idealistic young arts graduate, who was given her first team of 2 people to ‘manage’ in a small office down a dingy corridor in a Civil Service building. A couple of years later, from a shared general office in the middle of a hospital, she was starting out on 20+ years in the NHS in management positions. It was the late 1980s. General Management was the new shiny thing. Administration was well and truly out of fashion. What mattered most for a manager – being liked or being respected? That was a popular question. And of course, the ‘right’ answer was being respected.
That person never felt comfortable with that question and the expected response. That person was me.

(Before I continue, please note, or if you are of my vintage, please recall what the 1980s were like generally, and that there was not the wealth of evidence we now have showing the clear link between treating people well at work and better productivity. I always felt intrinsically though that enabling wellbeing and happiness at work led to better outcomes.)

I always thought the best answer to that question was to be respected, and ideally to be liked as well. That way, those you managed would be more likely to let you lead them and also to go the extra mile when required, out of loyalty. Of course, I could see that to be liked, but not respected was a potential nightmare in the making, and I have seen plenty of examples of ineffectual leaders/managers who fit into this category. But being respected only and by inference, disliked? Effective yes, but day in day out, over very long periods, when the chips are down? How engaging is that really? Where is the heart and soul in that?

This brings me to my view that management and leadership are not separate activities. I’ve already used them a bit interchangeably, and I think many people do and I don’t worry about that. I’ve been in top teams called the Executive Team, the Leadership Team and the Senior Management Team respectively. We all did pretty much the same activities when it came to leading and managing the organisation.

In my experience, most of the formal leaders I know and have known, are people managers as well. This is the when I start to get twitchy about the concept that leadership and management are two separate things. The management I envisage when leadership is ‘separate’ is very uniform, mechanistic – almost automated supervision. Someone who simply gets people to do what is required for maximum output, by organising processes into constituent parts (or being told themselves what these are) and dishing out instructions the team of operatives. Or something that does that? I’m probably going to be told that somewhere AI is already doing this. Urgh. What a dehumanising situation.

So, if management of an activity that involves people to do it is being done by an actual person (and not – shudders, by an automated being) it involves human interaction, conversation, relationships. The team follow what the manager instructs/asks/guides them to do. This is leadership in my view – albeit at a simple level. In all but the most soulless situations, there are human relationships at play and a level of discretion about how to get the tasks done. If that discretion includes inspiration too, even better.

OK, so what I have just described is leadership of a team done by a line manager at its most fundamental level. I know that if I laid all the leadership and management books side by side, it would easily cover a football pitch, if not two (or three)? I also know that there are many, many leadership styles, theories, models etc. and that this is always evolving, as we talk to each other, experiment, look at evidence, share ideas and insights etc. (Also, a fair bit of snake oil.)

There’s a lot of water under the bridge since I was that naïve and idealistic person. This includes two roles concerned with management and leadership development, a Masters dissertation on the topic, and the design of and delivery of leadership programmes. I hope I have an inkling of what I’m talking about…. In a nutshell, I believe that people managers can and should be leaders as well. In fact, as we move from traditional static industrial models and hierarchies, into more flexible organic and co-created ways of working, I would not want them not to be.

PS. I am still quite idealistic I suppose, but with some battle scars, healed over with a layer of pragmatism.


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