Why We Need Less Management, and More Leadership

In his book Accelerate, John Kotter (who also wrote the very well known Leading Change) draws an important distinction between management and leadership. Most people use the terms interchangeably, or if there is a distinction it is usually defined in the context of hierarchy. And yet the difference between the two has, I think, never been more important. Kotter defines management as:

‘…a set of well known processes that help organisations produce reliable, efficient, and predictable results.’

Management is an excellent invention, since it helps us to do well what we already know, notably in the context of large, complex organisations – important things like planning, staffing, resource allocation, budgeting, measurement, optimisation. Without management there would be chaos.

Yet management is not leadership. Kotter defines the latter as:

‘…about setting a direction. It’s about creating a vision, empowering and inspiring people to want to achieve the vision, and enabling them to do so with energy and speed through an effective strategy. In it’s most basic form leadership is about mobilising a group of people to jump into a better future.’

Real leadership doesn’t have to come from visionary CEOs. It can come from anyone who is passionate enough to want to make a difference and can inspire and compel others to follow a vision towards creating something new. Leadership is associated with change, exploring new opportunities that reveal the future, the ‘central force mobilising people to create something that did not previously exist.’

It can come from any level, but a lack of sufficient leadership in a business means organisations slow, stall, and eventually fail.

In Kotter’s words:

‘Such best practices are like ornaments – some delightful, to be sure – on a holiday tree. But no matter how pretty the decorations, it’s still a holiday tree. After a while, if you keep adding lights and streamers and amazing stars on top, the tree will start to look less, not more, appealing. If you still continue to decorate, at some point the tree will fall over.’

The point is of-course that the two things are very different but businesses need both to survive and thrive. Management ensures stability, structure, process, efficiency, reliability. It’s the domain of best practice and expertise. Leadership creates change, takes advantage of new opportunities, generates new direction. That is the domain of vision and emergent working.

The problem is that as organisations mature and scale, the focus on management becomes steadily greater to the point where it is to the detriment of leadership. In most organisations therefore, leadership is stifled and de-prioritised. In competitive and consumer contexts that are stable, this may not prove to be critical. Yet in the contemporary environment where so many contexts are shifting all the time, this becomes a fundamental issue.

Organisational response to change is typically either stretching the time horizon for planning (more ’strategic planning’), or augmenting existing hierarchy with new boxes and relationships (‘task-forces’ and the like), or buying in capability through acquisition. As Kotter says, the problem with all of these approaches is that they build off of a management driven hierarchy and ‘the base, the core of the system, defines its limits’.

In the book we advocate an increasing emphasis on networked approaches to driving change. More fluid resourcing. Small, nimble, multi-disciplinary teams enabled by agile approaches and culture. We need to create the space beyond the existing hierarchy for change to happen. And a key part of that is redressing the balance of focus between management and leadership.

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Also published on Medium.