Oct
24

Don't Let Aristotle Limit Your Leadership!

by  David Dye  |  Leadership Development

Have You Seen These People?

You know her…

The manager who expects everyone to do what she said – simply because she said it. “It’s their job…they’re being paid to do it. Why should I have to do any more than that?” She leaves a trail of bitter, frustrated staff in her wake.

Her staff do the least they can to get by and count the minutes until they can go home.

You also know him…

The leader with a new idea every day, with big dreams, who doesn’t remember what he told you yesterday, and asks five different people to do the same thing. He leaves a trail of exhausted, frustrated, and often disillusioned staff behind him.

His team members try hard and keep rallying to the next dream-of-the-day…until they question their own commitment or his competence and ultimately, give up.

Both the the manager who treats people like machines and the discombobulated visionary leader who is so busy reading the map that they crash the car are symptoms of the same problem:

Either / or thinking

If you’ve spent any time at all in leadership development, you’ve certainly heard it:

“Either you’re a leader or you’re a manager.”

(Usually followed by a passionate argument for why one is better.)

Make It Stop!

The problem with leader vs manager thinking is that we don’t need one or the other.

We need both.

Peter Drucker defined leadership and management like this:

Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things.

I’ve never found a team, organization, or a leader that doesn’t need both.

When we fail at either, we frustrate, burn out, embitter, exhaust, and disillusion our teams.

Contrast this either / or thinking with the work of Gandhi or Nelson Mandela – both amazing leaders who write at length about the organization it took to accomplish their vision for change.

Seek the “And”

If you want to be an effective manager, you need to motivate, inspire, and develop your team – and those are all leadership activities.

If you want to be an effective leader, you need people to know what they’re doing, how to do it, and how to do it well – and those are management activities.

We need to do the right things AND we need to do them well.

We need both, but we don’t always act like it. We praise one and scorn the other.

Why Do We Do This?

Imagine you’re an ancient Greek trying to understand the world. You devise a system to order your thinking and bring precision to your language and study.

Your name is Aristotle and you’ve invented logic.

You classify things as this or that…a duck and a goose are both birds, but a duck is not a goose and vice versa.

And for thousands of years to come, people study things by separating them to the smallest parts. And we learn a lot this way.

We begin to understand how people work together and accomplish amazing things. To do it, we separate different behaviors:

This is leadership…

That is management…

We neatly put each behavior in its respective pile and we learn much.

But not everything.

You Can’t Reduce an Elephant

The problem with this way of learning is that we don’t reintegrate our knowledge. You can understand the parts, but not understand the whole.

Think back to when you learned to drive a car – at first you focus on each behavior independently.

  • Signal.
  • Accelerate.
  • Shift.
  • Brake.
  • Turn.
  • Radio.
  • Clean the windshield.
  • Cruise control.

But when you drive, you don’t separate your acceleration, signaling, braking, etc. You integrate them and do them fluidly…switching back and forth between whichever behavior is needed at the time.

Segregating ideas and behaviors is useful for study, but horrible for practice.

Peter Senge said it like this: If you cut an elephant in half, you don’t end up with two smaller elephants.

You need all the parts working together.

Focus On Strengths

Work from your strengths as a leader or a manager, but recognize that to be effective, you need a minimal level of each.

Our no-nonsense manager from the beginning of this post will be more effective if she treats people humanely, ties their work to the mission, and encourages her staff.

Our visionary leader will be more effective if he limits whipsaw changes and honors (and leverages!) the team’s time and effort with at least a minimal amount of organization.

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”  -Henry David Thoreau

Your Turn

Do you believe the separation between leadership and management is useful in practice?

In your experience, what happens when a team goes too far in one direction?

Take care,

David M. Dye

Creative Commons Photo credits: Aristotle by Nick Thompson and Elephant by Digo Souza

About The Author

Articles By david-dye
I work with leaders who want to build teams that care and get more done with fewer headaches.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Nosap Ience  |  25 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Oh dear, logos (loosely translated here as rational thought) was only one small part of Aristotle’s philosophy. Interesting how you’ve selectively quoted a part to give gravitas to your argument for wholeness. I often recommend a little Bertalanffy for arguments in favour of wholeness. Otherwise, really nice example of a leadership blog that will be helpful for my students.

David M. Dye  |  25 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Nosap lence,

You are correct – I’ve isolated one aspect of a greater philosophy. While that path must be pursued cautiously, I can comfortably stand by the difficulties that either/or thinking produces when we don’t integrate what we’ve learned back into the whole.

(Also appreciate the Bertalanffy – you’ve sensed my appreciation for systems :)

Thanks for the feedback and for reading!

Take care,

David

Christophe Bredillet  |  28 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Well a bit restrictive with regards to Aristotle thought…
There is a wealth of literature in philosophy of science and social sciences calling for coming back “pre-modern” philosophy to the escape the hegemony of rationalism – in a paradoxical way this the roots of post modernism – and rediscover Phronesis… which is definitely encompassing leadership (praxis) and management (in its poeisic and theoria meaning).
Having said this (I am a bit sensitive with regards to Philosophy of Science, I must admit), I fully support your integrative view.

David M. Dye  |  29 Oct 2012  |  Reply

Thanks for the feedback, Christophe,

I understand the sensitivity and empathize – it can be challenging when a range of thoughts are reduced to one example to make a point outside of the discipline.

Appreciate you reading!

David

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