Leadership vs. Management

Leadership has fallen into everyday terminology. There is a multi billion dollar market in training people to be leaders. I’ve noticed in conversations and in appraisals aspirations to leadership. Leadership is generally seen to be a “good thing”

When I ask people what do you want to lead, and why? I often get a bemused response. ” I just want to be a leader!”

I think we’ve allowed people to separate management and leadership, and that somehow the latter is more important than the former. I suggest it isn’t. Management is a skilled function, in pursuit of clearly defined ends. It is not woolly, or even questioning. It gets stuff done. On time. To Budget.

The stuff to be done is the responsibility of leadership. Leadership is tough. It is a service industry. It is about communicating clearly what you want to those you are responsible for, and protecting them whilst they do it.

It wrestles with uncertainty. It sticks its head over the parapet looking for what needs to happen. It is woolier than Shaun the sheep and full of wicked questions – questions that change each time you address them.

Why would anybody want to be a leader?

To do stuff that matters. To be accountable to ourselves for that. To make something happen that wouldn’t happen without us. That’s important enough to risk failure and ridicule for because what needs to be achieved is that important.

Management is full of tools and templates, metrics, case studies and best practice. Decisions are defensible and rational. Failure can be rationalised.

Leadership is often soggy. Intuition, Instinct, Hope, Fear. Nothing to fall back on but ourselves in the moment of decision, and doing it anyway.

Status doesn’t arrive with the addition of “Leader” to our business card. It is earned from taking the personal risk for something important – whether in the end we succeed or fail, because people recognise the purpose was worthwhile.

Natural rates of Growth

I think we need to consider that everything has a natural rate of growth, determined in part by it’s heritage, the medium in which it is grown, and the way it is cared for.

We can grow our food faster and bigger using hormones and chemicals, and gain a short term advantage, but long term we pay a price, in ways we will only be able to understand in retrospect.

We know that businesses that grow steadily and sustainably provide better long term returns than overnight wonders that peak, then trough.

For people, we know that an ability to defer gratification points towards improved long term reward.

If we want faster growth, then we have to plant the right ideas in the right medium. We can tamper with the system in the short term, convince people we’re clever and escape with the cash, if that’s what we want to do with our time here.

Or, we can choose to grow something worthwhile, and exercise patience.


“To live in the midst of an era is to be oblivious to its style.”

Spring Snow. Yukio Mishima

We are undoubtedly somewhere in a period of significant transition, though it is difficult to know how far in – The Begining? The Middle? It has been said that we don’t know we’re in the middle of a revolution until it’s over.

Wherever we are in it, it’s not like we couldn’t have seen it coming in some form. If we weren’t so busy trying to understand each piece as it makes itself felt – political rumbles here, business failures there, the social failures that lead to food banks in some of the wealthiest countries in the world – and we had stood still for a moment to join the dots of these changes, we wouldn’t be so surprised. We may not have been able to be precise as to the detail of change, but the trend would have come as less of a surprise.

What if we’re only just getting started? Whilst the change we’ve been seeing can be disorienting, I suspect it’s nothing compared to what is approaching us. The compound effect of artificial intelligence and concentrated wealth together with declining natural resources and increased population makes for a heady mix.

“When hierarchy is the order of the day, you are only as powerful as your rung on the organisational ladder of a state, corporation or similar vertically ordered institution. When networks gain an advantage, you can be as powerful as your position in one or more horizontally structured social groups”

The Square and the Tower. Niall Ferguson.

We are well into an age of networks, but only just beginning to see their power – not the populist stuff of social media, but of radical ideas and shared purpose.

This pattern has occured throughout history – periods of relative stability based on a currency of the time (from animals, to people, to land, to capital) interspersed by periods of rapid change as we transitioned from one to another.

In an age of networks, the power of a business sits at the front line, where the company meets the customer – in person, on line, or by reputation. Trying to operate the traditional hierarchy system most of us have been taught at business school, and in established companies is increasingly futile, and it changes everything.

Concepts like leadership and engagement become not desirable, but critical to survival. Awareness of the wider environment crucial, and the ability to think systemically, about second order effects, vital.

And the timing is now.

Waiting for best practice is likely to be fatal. By the time best practice is established, we are likely to be the history that is part of its evidence base.