5 Reasons to Rediscover Management and Question the Focus on Leadership

5 Reasons to Rediscover Management and Question the Focus on Leadership


Peter Drucker didn’t really believe in leadership as the core skill for business. Looking at his quotes yields an equivalency between efficiency and management, and between effectiveness and leadership. Management does things right, and leaders do the right things. But beyond a few passing quotes, Drucker dedicated himself to helping people do things right.  Drucker viewed leadership as something a company could aspire to, and that a handful of individuals could exhibit, mostly in the realms of politics and social change.

Peter Drucker’s management theory was formed before the Hollywoodization of business—before Donald Trump and The Apprentice, before Undercover Boss, before Shark Tank. Peter Drucker would likely have been appalled by the leaders in business that parade before cameras and flaunt their personal success by belittling people in public—people brave enough to face business icons on a very big stage. And as many times as these icons of business leadership make nods to the individuals who made and marketed their products, to the customers who buy their goods and services, they seemingly hold this mysterious leadership quality that allows them to personally regain all the knowledge of their collective organizations, granting them seeming omniscient power to make judgment calls on the inventions and business ideas of others.

Management has received short shrift of late outside of academia. If you search for “management” books on Amazon you receive a listing, pages long, of over-priced college textbooks before getting to a trade paperback version of Peter Drucker’s Management. Leadership trumps management as the concept that drives internal talent development, conferences and much business writing. It’s time to rethink that presumption. Here are 5 reasons to rediscover management.

  1. Leadership Doesn’t Require Data or Evidence. Leadership requires charisma and eloquence, it doesn’t require data or evidence. In some political realms, acknowledging, let alone believing the data and the evidence, is contrary to effective leadership. In business, this should be intolerable behavior. Gut instinct and inspired insight have been proven time and again to be best fulfilled when backed by data and evidence. Leaders create visions for the future. The future, however, provides no data. All visions are reasoned extrapolations reinforced by experience and bias. Leaders need managers to keep them on the path, to adjust to unforeseen obstacles and conditions informed by data and evidence. Organizations owe it to managers to help them learn the techniques of navigating the future, not just the poetry of vision creation.
  2. Leadership is Often an Illusion. Research by Columbia Business School, UCLA Anderson School of Management and California State University, Long Beach goes as far as suggesting that people attribute certain leaders to be charismatic through “magical thinking” (see Managerial Mystique: Magical Thinking in Judgments of Managers’ Vision, Charisma, and Magnetism). Magic involves illusion, misdirection and deception, attributes too often aligned with those “leaders” involved in the most heinous of corporate or public sector scandals. Managers, by contrast, need to live firmly in reality, to test that what they are creating results in real value for their customers and constituencies, not just in rhetoric or big gains only for the magicians.
  3. Leadership Only Implies Management. Leaders, in a general sense, need passion, the ability to articulate a vision and followers. It is fairly easy to create a vision, but much more difficult to guide an organization through the social, economic, public policy, technological and environmental landscapes that lie between the current moment and the vision. Leaders may push forward, absorb the arrows and the stones hurled as they seek to establish new territory, but it is managers who consolidate the gains, shore-up new foundations and produce new value. In many start-ups, visionary leaders often find themselves displaced after years of hard work creating a company, because the skills of creation are very different from the skills required to establish and evolve. Organizations need to recognize that just assigning “management” attributes to leaders only muddles definitions, and does nothing to further the rather distinct paths of either.
  4. Leadership Relies on Risk Taking. Nothing prevents a leader from striking out into unknown territory, risking financial ruin or personal injury. Leaders can take on causes much bigger than themselves. Leaders need not succeed. Managers, however, must seek a balance between risk and reward. If professional development programs teach everyone to be a “leader” organizations can create a sense that risk taking behavior is more valuable than balance, across the organization, leading to, perhaps more breakthroughs and innovations, but also to more failures that might well have been avoided with careful analysis, strategic alignment and acknowledging early feedback. Organizations must make the choice of behaviors they exhibit and encourage, and if their choice is one of high risk, so be it. But most public and not-for-profit organizations, along with the public sector, owe their shareholders and their constituencies something other than uncertainty, at least in the areas they can control. And in the areas they can’t control, they owe them thoughtful analysis and evolutionary adaptations, rather than radical reconstruction, unless that is the best or only path forward.
  5. Managing Does Mean Adapting and Evolving. There is a misconception that management translates into actions with the goal of maintaining the status quo, reducing costs and performing processes ever more efficiently. Although those characteristics can be ascribed to management, they are very industrial-oriented and narrow. In today’s information economy, managers should be sensing changes in attitudes, exploring new markets, studying competitive positions and embracing new technologies. It is the inability of organizations to evolve or adapt that often places them at the most risk. The incorporation of the new, however, usually does not require leaders, but rather managers who can see ways to accept and incorporate change within the functional organization. Some of the best “organizational leaders” know what they don’t know, and instead of micro-managing change, lead by getting out of the way of progress.

In the United States Presidency, from inventors and entrepreneurs, from quarter backs and from those who stand-up to the wrongs in the world, people need leaders. People seek those who create, inspire and transform. But organizations also need, and should want, people who “keep up”. Keeping up means understanding the world around you and adapting to its wild swings of highs and lows, its surprising innovations and its evolutionary twists and turns.

Those charged with organizational development may disagree with the distinctions made here, but exploring the contrast between leadership and management should be a basic element of any development curriculum. Managers and leaders, and the organizations they serve, benefit from understanding the necessary balance and the differing perspectives of leaders and managers.

Computing technology, globalization, enormous populations, instantaneous communications and many other evolutionary and revolutionary transformations make this century very different from the world in which Peter Drucker formed his foundations. As much as he evolved his thinking toward the 21st Century, it is time to go beyond and craft a more nimble management philosophy that will help companies prosper while creating entirely new types of jobs in a world that will demand reduced consumption of physical goods, less corruption and a better balance between humanity and the planet that humankind calls home. Only by moving away from the falseness of a universal leadership class can organizations encourage competent people, with a wide range of skills, to create a new management ecosystem that will collectively help business, government and non-profits navigate the uncertain future.

Daniel W. Rasmus

Daniel W. Rasmus, Founder and Principal Analyst of Serious Insights, is an internationally recognized speaker on the future of work and education. He is the author of several books, including Listening to the Future and Management by Design.

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