Saturday, November 28, 2009

leading vs. managing

I'm an EX minus 3 with no direct reports and no budget. I'm not a manager. Does that mean I'm not a leader?

I'm a software developer so I come at this question with an information architecture approach. I think there are (at least) three key dimensions or facets of leadership in play in our workplaces.

The first is people management - what I'll call the "leadership relationship" is supervisor/subordinate. Supervising is purely an HR function - performance management, learning plans, managing leave, travel, training, etc.

The second is action management. Whether tasks are ongoing or part of one-off projects, there's usually a team involved, so my leadership relationship for this one is team lead/team member. It's the team lead's responsibility to ensure the successful delivery of the project/service/whatever whether the members report to him or not.

The third is competency building. The leadership relationship here is mentor/protegé. The protegé seeks out guidance from the mentor as needed. The mentor coaches the protegé through "stretch" tasks and spreads knowledge via conversation, e-mail, lunch-and-learns, etc. In addition to technical or operational competencies, this can apply to values and ethics, strategic thinking, engagement, and management excellence. The beauty of living in the future, as Wil Wheaton says, is that social networking tools make it easier than ever for the mentor/protegé relationship to cross the boundaries of work units, departments and agencies, and even the government itself.

I think that the larger the organization, the more overlap there is among these facets in any given working relationship between two people. I work in a relatively small IM/IT shop - we don't have the luxury of a lot of specialists. In many projects, the team lead needs to wrangle multidisciplinary resources that don't report to her, and it requires a culture where supervisors don't hoard their subordinates for their own projects.

Maybe the most novel point in all of this for me: it is possible to have team leaders who don't supervise or mentor, supervisors who don't mentor or lead teams, and mentors who don't supervise or lead teams. I don't think it's ideal from an operational standpoint, but we don't work in an ideal world. Supervisors who don't lead teams is the tricky one, as it requires phenomenal communication with team leaders to manage performance effectively.

In terms of building leadership capacity in the context of public service renewal, I think it's incredibly important not to mistake managing for leading. It's easy to let the (very real) need for good people management to blind us to the importance of the other key leadership competencies.

This isn't a fully-formed theory of leadership by any means, but it's something I've thought about off and on over the last several months as my unit undergoes a re-organization. I'm putting it out there, as so often happens, because of a short conversation on Twitter, and I'm hoping it will prompt a conversation in its own right.


Jeff said...

Something else occurred to me as I went for a walk. (Yes, I'm commenting on my own post.)

The other neat thing about living in the future is that now, more than ever, it's possible to lead by example on the mentor/protegé facet without even realizing it, simply by creating content on the Internet or internal social networks.

Marius said...

The words "manager" and "leader" are not related. Leadership comes in many forms and many managers are not leaders. Management is truely a function. Leadership is a lot more complex. In the organisational context, it can come from the top down, or from the bottom.

Leadership is primarily about influencing others with a clear objective in mind, and without the need for formal authority. A manager can tell you what to do but a leader can convince you that it's a good idea to do it.

Leadership is sometimes over rated, or missunderstood. I'd like to propose a different way to look at leadership. Start with the concept that leaders can fail. Even if you have the skills to influence people and convince them on approaches, ideas, methods, direction, and you engage them to support your vision, you might all end up failing. It's what happens when you lead people on the wrong path. You still managed to influence them trough leaderhsip skill, unfortunately you brought them to a dead end. The problem here is you didn't recognized you were on the wrong path because that is gained from other skills and from experience.

I guess my point is that leadership on its own is not sufficient in any context, and leadership can in fact be very dangerous and can even lead people to loose their objectivity.