About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Leadership: is it overrated?

Michael Hanley had an interesting post last week about Donald Clark's posting on leadership.

This is something that I have thought of over the last 5 years as some of my research, teaching, and education has brushed up against the "leadership" research. In fact, my university has one of the leading leadership gurus in Management today. However, like Michael and Donald, I have always questioned the basis of these leadership theories. On the other hand, my current research has demonstrated that leadership can have an impact on how groups (especially distributed groups) work and are able (or unable) to complete work in a tight timeline.

Management or Leadership

I think one of the problems is that there has been a distinction made among "leadership" scholars between leadership and management. However, leadership is one aspect of management. Likewise, communication (which seems to be the link taken out of "leadership"), organization, motivation, analysis that balances risk and security, and TAKING RESPONSIBILITY for mistakes and correcting actions (another aspect of management that seems to be lacking in current leadership theories) are also vital in Management.

On the other hand, there is a role for leadership (effective leadership) in the new organization. With the advent of a flat organizational structure, where distributed groups may all be working at the same level, there needs to be some leadership structure. My current research looking at a working group demonstrates that when there is a perceived lack of leadership structure (as happens in newly formed groups) it is more difficult for groups to make decisions and move forward. This can be especially difficult for groups that have been set up under a strict time constraint to accomplish discrete goals or objectives. My sister works in professional groups which, because the members are professionals of equal standing, there are no identified leaders. As a result, the organization is having trouble maintaining a uniform level of service.

Is this leadership or management? If leadership is defined as the all powerful person that tells group members what to do without really interacting with them so that there is a fall guy when things go wrong (or more likely, someone to find a group member to blame) then this is "leadership". However, there needs to be a group facilitator (leader? manager?) who organizes the group, keeps them on track, manages interactions and communication between group members, makes final decisions when the group is deadlocked, helps interact with those outside of the group (i.e. with clients, upper management, front line workers) and develops the working structure for the group as members come and go into the group. This role is a bit more than a "manager", a bit more than a "leader" who makes decisions regardless of the group input, and more of a juggler of many aspects of the group.

Most importantly, what I have not read is why leaders (who are the risk takers) should get compensated more than the workers (who may have no choice in their jobs)? Shouldn't leaders that fail have to pay back money if they fail is they are being compensated for big risks if they succeed? Wouldn't this encourage them to make "better" decisions? Or should they be compensated the same as their team members as theirs is just a different job within the group? Why should "leaders" make twice as much money as "followers"? Isn't it just as important to have good followers?


Anonymous said...

A number of different points in this very thoughtful piece here, but they all seem to revolve around the upside and downside considerations of leadership and management. That subject is precisely the area I have been exploring in my own blog for several years - http://brucelynnblog.spaces.live.com.

I wouldn't say that "leadership is one aspect of management" as much as I would describe them as two sides the same coin. Still I have to applaud your bias of subordinating 'leadership' to 'management' when I think most leadership scholars and businessmen fall into the trap of doing the reverse. As such, I do agree 100% with your assessment of the imbalance of accountability with not enough 'taking responsibility' for the downside.

I have a different definition distinguishing between leadership and management that yours that says leaders "tells group members what to do without really interacting with them" and managers ". I think that 'leaders optimise upside and managers minimise downside. I think what you are getting at is something that I would concur with and that is that good/great executives do both in balance.

Finally, I would defend 'leaders' making more money in general, primarily because I do think that effective ones do make a greater overall contribution. I do agree that an 'all upside and no downside' structure is not fair or appropriate. In principle, stock and options were supposed to provide this risk accountability, but in practice it the stock is too easily manipulated and focus on stock price and lead to behaviour which undermines longterm health of the enterprise.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora Virginaia.

Nice post, with some curly, deep rooted points. My candid thoughts on leadership vs management is that many so-called leaders today are by appointment.

While appointing a manager is fine - the job description can be drafted in terms of criteria and goals - appointing a leader is like throwing a set of dice in the hope that the score will be greater than the average, by far.

It is interesting to watch how some true leaders work. They don't always tell people what to do - that is traditionally the job of a manager. Leading by example is a great way to go, and many successful managers do this. Without having to tell people what to do they lead almost by default in that regard.

But to appoint a leader . . . ? Hmmm.


V Yonkers said...

@Bruce: I like your distinction between leaders optimizing the upside and managers minimizing the downside. This distinction recognizes the importance of both roles in a successful organization. A manager will need a leader to carry an organization into new directions, whereas a leader will need a manager to make sure changes aren't at the expense of a workable structure.

My father was the president of a steel company and was very much the leader, taking the company into new directions, motivating workers to do their best, making tough decisions and taking responsibility for the decisions when they were painful (such as layoffs, moving operations, etc...). The CEO of the company, interestingly enough was the "manager", pointing out when a decision might have unforeseen implications, making sure the organization had the resources (R&D, personnel, financial) to accomplish their company's mission.

Using this distinction, I wonder if the current problem today is that by focusing on "leadership" we have no "management" to temper the risks (no one to minimize down sides).

@Ken: I agree with you. One of the things business schools are focusing on is "training leaders". However, can you create a leader or appoint a leader, or should the focus be on giving natural born leaders the tools they need to make good decisions?

Again, the reason my father was the leader was because he had the natural risk taking, good communication, and people skills a leader needed. He was not appointed the leader, his boss was. However, his boss, while brilliant, did not have leadership, but rather "management" skills. The two together balanced each other out.

Thank-you both for your comments as it puts my current research into a different perspective.