Saturday, November 1, 2014

How Leaders Are Different Than Managers (Part II)

In my last blog post, I looked at the basic differences between leaders and managers. In looking at these differences, I argued that managers are concerned primarily with managing processes and creating efficiency, while leaders are concerned primarily with influencing, connecting, equipping and inspiring people to achieve positive end goals. But in order to understand this definition, it is important to break it apart to see the complex set of factors that create these differences. Today's blog post, and those that follow it, will focus on these factors that help us distinguish the roles of a leader from those of a manager.

Factor #1: Manager Seek Stability; Leaders Seek Positive Change

One of the major ways that leaders are different from managers is that leaders actively seek to promote positive disruption in the organization to change it for the better, while it is the job of the manager to promote as much peace, equilibrium, and stability as possible to keep his/her workers functioning at the optimum level of efficiency (Kotter, 1990). As Kouzes and Posner (2003) put it, good leaders are to "challenge the process" to create a better future for their organization.  Thus, while a good manager is focused on today and how to make it the most stable and productive day possible, leaders are focused on tomorrow and how to move his/her people on to the goals that will create positive results down the line.

The appropriate interplay between stable management and adaptive leadership, therefore, can be very contingent on the situation at hand. In times of relative peace, good management is essential to help people continue to do what they do well; but in times of great turmoil, adaptive leadership is key. In such times, the adaptive leader must challenge stakeholders to get outside of their normal comfort zone to look for not only how to solve the problems of today, but build a new tomorrow. As Ronald Heifetz (1994) put it in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers:

In a crisis we tend to look for the wrong kind of leadership. We call for someone with answers, decisions, strength, and a map of the future, someone who knows where we ought to be going--in short, someone who can make hard problems simple...Instead of looking for saviors, we should be calling for leadership that will challenge us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions--problems that require us to learn new ways (p. 2).

For Heifetz (1994), one of the forerunners of adaptive leadership theory, "Adaptive leadership isn't about simple answers, but confronting reality and forming innovative solutions" (p. 22). In being adaptive, then, leaders push their organization to remake the status quo into something better, something more congruent with future realities. This requires that, first and foremost, the leader himself/herself be adaptive--what more recent authors are terming "learning agility" (De Meuse, Dai & Hallenbeck, 2010; Norton, 2010).

But the process of getting followers from the present status quo to the new normal of the future can be an uncomfortable process. As Margaret Wheatley (1992), who, in the early 1990s, sought to meld concepts from chaos theory, quantum physics, and other fields of science with leadership theory, noted:

New understandings of change and disorder have also emerged from chaos theory. Work in this field has led to a new appreciation of the relationship between order and chaos. These two forces are now understood as mirror images, two states that contain the other. A system can descend into chaos and unpredictability, yet within that state of chaos the system is held within boundaries that are well-ordered and predictable. Without the partnering of these two great forces, no change or progress is possible. Chaos is necessary to new creative ordering. (p. 13)

Thus, while the leader must bring a controlled chaos into the organization in order to truly move people on to a positive agenda for the future, it is not easy to find the right balance for how to achieve this in a way that does not cause the system to implode upon itself. As Jim Collins (2001) in his book Good to Great noted, companies who moved from being merely "good" to truly becoming "great" never did so in "one fell swoop;" the process had to be carried out one step at a time, building momentum along the way (p. 14). This fine interplay between chaos and stability, then, is something that requires artful handling, skillful reframing, and the right balance between new ideas and a celebration of the existing stories of the organization (Bolman & Deal, 2013; Gardner & Laskin, 2001). As Lewin's (1951) theory of change so famously put it, the task of the leader is to "unfreeze" the status quo, implement the change, and then "refreeze" the collective consciousness of the organization towards the new reality. As the analogy implies, unfreezing and refreezing a group's mindsets do not happen overnight, and thus it is the job of the leader to constantly be looking for new ways to inject disequilibrium into the system in a positive way that creates the right amount of urgency alongside enough stability so that the people feel that the process is still under control (Kotter, 1996; Heifetz, 1994).

None of this process of change, chaos, and disequilibrium, though, sounds like much fun to the normal employee. And thus we come back to the need for both good management and good leadership within an organization. Employees can only go so far in a given amount of time, and thus it is essential that good managers are in place to help them efficiently manage the processes that are required for the day at hand. At the same time, however, good leadership is essential to create a slow but steady move towards the positive goals of tomorrow.

So we end today's blog post with the realization that good management and good leadership are essential for any organization. But as this first factor in our list of distinctions between management and leadership implies, the roles of the leader and the manager are quite different in an organization. In our next post, we will continue our look at the factors that make these distinctions so very important in the real world.

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