Managers or leaders?
So the interim results of this month's training zone leadership poll are in. And the result was… a complete split - 48% of respondents think their manager is not a good leader whereas 52% would presumably follow their manager to the ends of the earth.
What does this tell us? Is it that almost half of these managers are not particularly good at leadership or that almost half of them do not live up to the leadership expectations of those they manage? Perhaps the issue here is that we just don’t quite know what leadership is. And if we don’t – is it that important? Perhaps what’s needed in some of those roles is good managers rather than good leaders. Competent people who get things done, delegate, monitor and maintain focus sometimes might be more valuable than the modern model of leadership - whatever it is.
It is true, however, that we tend to think that leaders are somehow superior to managers, even if we can't always describe the difference. Training has perhaps played its role in the confusion here. These days it is rare that a course is called management development. Leadership development is thought more high profile, more 21st century and – let’s be honest – more sexy and more saleable.
About 20 or so years ago what had been management training suddenly got a make-over. Out went the focus on management and in came the focus on leadership. I’m prepared to accept that there is a very real difference in these two skill sets, but unfortunately for most of the audiences for these courses what was and is still needed is management training, not leadership development.
In any case, for most of these courses management training is what the course delivers. In the new leadership orthodoxy, however, we aren’t allowed to call it that. I was developing and delivering those courses 20 years ago and I, like a whole series of others in the field, went through our course material using find and replace. Out went management, being replaced by leadership. If we’re all honest, the remainder of the course content – motivation, communication, delegation, coaching and monitoring performance – stayed exactly the same. Only the words changed.
So in the 21st century what do we mean by leadership? Is it modeled on our political leaders – Cameron, Clegg, Miliband – even Nigel Farage? One can only hope not. Although they sort of have followers so I suppose from that perspective these are undoubtedly leaders - even if - as in Mr Cameron's case - many don't seem keen to follow too closely.
Do we look to Alan Sugar and equate leadership with the cartoon, game show antics of ‘you’re fired!’? (Or worse, the sharp–elbowed wannabes who aspire to work with him?)
Do we look to historical figures? Do we want a Churchill, a Ghandi, a Martin Luther King?
I think we need to look even further back in time for a model of leadership fit for the current era. Lao Tze, 6th Century BCE Chinese Philosopher, the recognised founder of Taoism and writer of the Tao Te Ching, defined leadership thus:
“and of the best leaders, the people do not notice their existence,
The next best, they honour and praise,
The next best they fear, and the next best they loathe.
And when the best leader’s work is done the people will say – ‘we did it ourselves!’”
When answering the question “Is your manager a good leader?” would those who responded define their leader as someone whose existence they did not notice? Would we celebrate someone of whom we would say “we did it ourselves?”
I doubt it – more’s the pity.
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Robin Hoyle is a writer and consultant working with organisations large and small to implement change through people development. He has a long track record of strategic L&D leadership and materials development and design - working for a wide range of organisations in private, public and voluntary sectors in the UK and throughout the world...