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Passion, People and Principles

Dangerous Rubbish About Leadership

post # 36 — March 26, 2006 — a Managing post

Adam Smith, Esq. (aka Bruce McEwen) has joined the discussion about what makes managers different from leaders. His comments are here

I keep getting asked about this topic, so here goes my ten cents worth. I think more rubbish has been written about ‘leadership’ than almost any other business topic. A lot of it is patently false, and even more of it is dangerous.

The fatal flaw in discussions of ‘leadership’ is the implicit assumption that we want to be led. Not many of us do, especially not the highly educated, credentialed, well-paid group of us that like to call ourselves professionals.

We want to be helped, we’ll agree to be coached and (with careful definition of the term) we might consent to be managed. But we’ll rarely agree to be led.

I’ve quoted this before, but it’s worth repeating here: the word manager derives from a mediaeval French or Italian word, meaning the holder of horses. It should conjure up the image of the task of getting a number of fiery beasts, each more powerful than the manager, to act in consort.

The word leader, on the other hand, derives from a Chaucer-era word that meant the person who chose the route on the expedition (‘This way, people’!) That image evokes a model that won’t work – trying to tell me where to go, pretending to me more expert than I am, trying to take charge. That’s not how it’s most effectively done.

Yes, the business books and the business schools are filled with descriptions of leaders who inspired others with their ‘visions,’ but such descriptions fail to point out two key facts. First, the number of people in human history who have been able to energize large numbers of people through their vision is very small, and secondly, three of them were Hitler, Lenin and Chairman Mao.

I’m not saying that the leadership model cannot work – just that few people trying the approach of ‘Let’s go this way!’ actually can or do evoke a broad reaction of ‘Ooh, yes. Let’s do just that!’

Advocating that someone energize a professional firm or group through ‘leadership’ is like advising someone to be talented. You either have what it takes to get people to see you as a leader or you don’t. And by the way, if you’re not yet sure whether you have this ability – you don’t! You would have known whether you had it or not by the time you got out of high school.

For the rest of us who don’t have this innate ability, all is not lost. What we need to do is stop pursuing the mirage of leadership, and start learning the model of how to be an effective manager – helping other people, individually and in groups, truly accomplish their potential. This requires putting the people being helped at the center of the discussion, not the leader. Management can be learned, but not if you’re trying to be something you’re not supposed to be and are probably incapable of being.

Another dimension of real-world leadership is commonly misunderstood. Many writers on management (and many real world managers) think that the best way to evoke energy and create a strategy is to articulate (as Collins and Porras put it in Built to Last) BIG HAIRY AUDACIOUS GOALS (BHAGs)

This is a misleading and factually incorrect way of representing what great builders of professional firms (and other companies) have done over the years.

What is distinctive about the truly great professional firm builders is that they did not talk about destinations (number of offices, size of firm, range of disciplines, diversity of services.) None of these things mattered to David Ogilvy, Marvin Bower, Leo Burnett, Sidney Weinberg, David Packard – or Clint Stevenson, the main moulder of Latham & Watkins in the 1970s .

What these firm-builders cared about were the principles that were to be observed as the firm ran its affairs, served its clients, managed its people and invested its resources. The goals, the outcomes, the destinations were not the strategy, and were certainly not the defining characteristics of the firms they built.

Instead, it was the ideology they preached (and enforced) that mattered. They led not by the clarity of their vision of the future, nor even because of their better understanding of finances or marketing, but because they were able to get even highly talented, extraordinarily mobile people to rally around a fervently held, common way of doing things – a world view, a philosophy, a set of principles, values or standards.

These were not soft principles. They had to do with who would be hired, what quality standards would be enforced, how resources would be allocated.

At places like Sony and Hewlitt Packard in their heydays, it was effective processes that mattered – not which product happened to be that year’s hot toy.

Many firms still misunderstand this meaning of the word strategy. They choose a size to aim at, a set of new locations to be in and a set of new service lines they plan to enter through lateral hiring. None of these choices affect the underlying competitiveness of firms, which is about productivity, passion and purpose, not products and places.

Great leaders (there, I’ve said the dreaded word) get people to focus on the key elements of strategy – the standards on which the firm is going to compete. With a clear ideology to rally around, talented people get the choicee of saying – ‘I can believe in that. I think I’ll stick around to a part of that and be a member of a society of like-minded people operating together in accordance with common values.’ That commitment, in company after company, has led to service line and market sector choices not no-one anticipated, because they were not the guts of the strategy, but rather the outcome of the strategy – the firm’s own way of doing things.

If a leader can create THAT – then I’ll agree to use the term ‘leader.’


GordonG said:

Not sure I fully agree with your first half, David, but I really liked what you said in the second half.


posted on March 27, 2006

fouro said:

Beautiful, David. Makes me feel a bit taller, because a few years back, I invoked your name to get my partners to sit still and listen. If may:

What is a conceptual framework? In our view it’s not getting caught up in your knickers—keeping your eye on the big picture while not floating off into space. Most important, it’s a means to guide thinking, careers, organizations, brands or bake sales to self-replicating and surprising results.

A conceptual framework is not a box to put people in or to get outside of. It’s literally a frame and a frame only. It’s a geometric and philosophical diagram of what you do, what you believe, what you want and what you will and won’t do to achieve those things. As a leader or owner of an organization, it’s what you create before anything else, because, in times of indecision or crisis or plenty it will be your only intuitive, impartial and sublimely practical partner. it will make decisions for you. It will manage while you’re on vacation. It will hire the best available people and turn away the unacceptable and unmotivated.

It’s a counter-intuitive concept at first glance, since many of us have been taught that management and leadership, or persuading and inspiring, or acting and achieving, are the same thing. Well, they’re not.

Leadership is not management. Management is management. Leadership is not inspiring others. Leadership is guiding others to self-inspire. Simplicity is not brevity. Simplicity is clarity. And simplicity is not an elevator speech.

Elevator speeches designed to impart the essence that something is worthwhile and worth listening to are myths. They are the result of impatient people trying to appease other impatient people. An elevator speech, if there is such a thing at all, should be a powerful connective moment that has the receiver reaching for the emergency stop button between floors. And then, cancelling her “important meeting” to beg you to share more. Seldom do “elevator speeches” even get close to this level of resonance or relevance or coherence.

Feature advantage benefit will not do it. Flowery prose about your company’s competitive advantage won’t do it. What will? The only thing that matters. The most basic thing that our impatience does much to squelch, yet the one thing that business or anything worthwhile is fundamentally all about: your search to become the idealized version of yourself. Your, our, everybody’s need to be “a bigger better me.”

When you create a brand, or a workspace for your people, or a retail environment where consumers meet your products and your people, do these things intuitively answer: “How can this experience make me a better version of myself?” That’s an important question, because the answer is what separates the winners from the losers in an increasingly complex age where companies and employees and consumers are growing apart, not closer together. In this context, an organization’s shared purpose, it’s brand, is DNA . And it is the most important thing you can discover, not create, for your company.


I hope you approve. And thanks again. You’re always an ispiration.

Mark B.

posted on March 27, 2006

Phil Gott said:

Thanks as always David for a thought-provoking blog post.

I think a lot of people use the words management and leadership interchangeably. I confess to having been unaware of the linguistic derivation of the two words and I am grateful to you for clarifying this. In common usage the words seem to have evolved and, like many words, taken on new meanings.

Maybe I’ve taken a Humpty-Dumpty approach and made the words mean what I want them to mean, which to me is:

Management (Leadership)

Enforcing rules (Instilling values)

Setting objectives (Offering a vision)

Instructing (Coaching)

Pushing (Pulling)

Telling (Involving)

Delegating (Empowering)

Being supported (Supporting)

Having ideas (Bringing out others’ ideas)

Demanding respect (Showing respect)

Processes (People) Whether you call it management or leadership, I think the important point is this: There may be occasions when some of the qualities on the left are necessary but to truly get the best from professional people the qualities on the right will be more effective over the long term.

I also observe that in professional firms the qualities on the left seem to me over-used and those on the right under-used.

I think you are right that most professional people do not want someone (manager or leader) taking charge and saying “this way people”. Not, that is, unless they happen to want to go that particular way. That is the key.

posted on March 28, 2006