I’ve read a few articles criticizing Warren Bennis and others for the way they tend to polarize leaders vs. managers or leaders vs. managers and supervisors. Wally Bock always has an interesting perspective and he posted a much commented Three Star Leadership blog post here. Wally has rich experience in leadership development, developing new leaders, and building a leadership culture and he provides some interesting critical balance in his post and throughout his blog.
Dr. Bennis seems to suggest in his quotes and his books that you either are a leader or a manager. It almost seems like he believes you can only be one or the other and if you’re a manager, you should stop and become a leader. I’m not really sure that’s his intention, but many of the quotes Wally references certainly seem that way. Once we interpret Dr. Bennis and others as postulating that you are either a manager or a leader, then it becomes easy to take the other side of the argument. In this case, the other side of the argument is presented nicely by Wally in his post and on his blog. You must perform as a manager, supervisor and leader. Almost no one can focus on one of those behaviors to the exclusion of the others. Up front, let me say I agree with Wally; you cannot decide that you will only lead and never manage. You cannot decide you don’t supervise. If you’re a great leader, you will do whatever is necessary. I have circulated a fitting thought before that came out of my career; “Just because I cleaned up the mess doesn’t mean I’ve volunteered to be the janitor.” We clean up messes, we do weekly reports and performance reviews. Leaders in business do what it takes.
However, I’d like us to consider the use of the boxes or the labels themselves. I’m sure many leadership coaches including Wally use the labels for simplicity. But some, when they hear the label, stop thinking of the variety. They operate with the labels as multiple choices on a test. Instead, allow your mind to think in degrees. Don’t immediately force the issue to be black and white. Black and white situations might make decisions easy, but only when the answers are, in fact easy. While we might prefer either-or situations or true-false questions, the temptation to try to put people in boxes or cover them with labels forces us to use shallow definitions and we lose depth. Fewer choices lead to simplicity, multiple choices bring complexity.
You can’t Lead by the Numbers
When you’re the leader of a group, black and white is a luxury you can’t afford. Black and white represents easy, convenient, old, and lazy. The world is full of a limitless number of colors. (I’m sure there’s a limit but there are still more than I can keep up with.) Ever tried to match a paint color? Color provides depth, complexity, richness and beauty. Remember the color transition in the Wizard of Oz? Remember the first time you watched something at the IMAX, or the first time you really appreciated a high-definition television set? The world is colors. Rich, deep, complex, complicated business relationships can’t be cooked off to black and white. We really wouldn’t want them to be. Anyone can do black and white. Simple relationships are like the lemonade stand. Greater complexity brings greater solutions. You should want unlimited color and brilliant resolution. The more deep and brilliant your relationships, the greater the barrier to entry, the less likely your team will be offshored. Simple jobs get automated or offshored. Valuable leaders with complex relationships are multi-colored, talented individuals that use whatever colors necessary to create a masterpiece of teamwork.
So enough for the analogy. My point: almost any designation or comparison of leadership styles to management styles or supervisor styles comes up short. Labels seldom fit. If you have direct reports, build your skills. Learn how to work with different individuals in different environments with different pressures. You need to be able to create your masterpiece of teamwork using whatever you have. Maybe your masterpiece is a watercolor on canvas or oil on tree bark. It shouldn’t matter. In the middle of an organization, we seldom get to choose our resources, constraints or objectives. So own your situation and create your masterpiece. Don’t let others put labels on you or tell you how to create your masterpiece. Learn various techniques and skills and then apply them in your context. Few maxims apply to every masterpiece. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and many times your leadership skills will be judged by the people around you on the organization chart. You become your own judge. At the end of the day, you need to be convinced that you did your best. You must be the first judge.
Once you’ve realized that, now you’re free to actually serve the very people who will judge you. Therein is leadership: serving others. You get to become a servant leader, creating a teamwork masterpiece any way the situation dictates. Study the people who are stakeholders in your leadership and provide the best, richest, most meaningful leadership. Build a great team and invest in the lives of the people around you. You’ll love your job and build many one-of-a-kind team-works of art!