'Leadership' Myth Hides Need for Solid Managers

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 07-06-2005

'Leadership' Myth Hides Need for Solid Managers

"Leadership" is the growth sector of the 21st century. There's an entire industry built on "leadership." Books and magazine articles focus on it as the miraculous talisman that makes victory in a challenging environment possible.


When I consult with the recruiting managers for my clients, the single most common misconception they bring to the process is the idea that they need to look for someone who can provide "leadership."

I have a way to disabuse them of this self-limiting idea that I'll share later in this column, an analysis I call the "Assistant Manager of a 7-Eleven Test."

The intent is not to imply that the cluster of aptitudes and personality factors that "leadership" loosely encapsulates is worthless. Far from it—it's very valuable, if metaphysical, stuff.

The leadership industry is ridiculous because it's a faith-based initiative in an arena that demands tangible, not spiritual, results. In some ways, the leadership industry is dangerous in its ability to distract effective organizations from effective recruiting criteria.

In every line of work where there's the slightest shred of competition, or that evolves faster than Jason Giambi can perambulate, C-level managers have to recognize and champion vision; then they have to execute it for the organization to continue to succeed.

But if you can't execute a vision, that is, manage it into reality, either the vision or your contribution is torque-free ... a waste of oxygen.

For a C-level executive, leadership is a useful add-on—a nice-to-have extra on top of management ability. Leadership without management is intent without action, the sound of one hand considering clapping. And leadership is not something you can teach, effectively imitate or even define.

Further, it's ephemeral: What constitutes good leadership in one environment's situation seriously mutates when the environment evolves, and they are always evolving, so the formula for successful leadership is nothing you can put on a recipe card and bake up the next time you need to deliver it.

To some degree, leadership is about what you say to the group and when and how you say it. But the words themselves are not the make-or-break factor.

Take the words from a top-rated Bill Clinton speech and put them in the mouth of Sen. Joe Lieberman, and you'll have a cure for insomnia, not the charismatic emotional thunder that Clinton achieved.

The exact things that give voters such a powerful frisson about George Bush Jr. would leave them narcoleptic coming out of the mouth of Rep. Tom DeLay.

Leadership is, more than anything else, a way of being—a blend of conduct, personality, emotional intelligence and body language that is an appropriate set of responses for the group at the moment it's being acted out.

Next Page: Imitation doesn't work over time.


One can be taught to imitate many externally exhibited components of leadership. A speech coach can teach a presenter what kinds of body language to use or not to properly accentuate some content. But imitation is not likely to be effective over time.

Given all of these limitations and how rare it truly is among people at the top tiers of organizations, why is "leadership" such a focus for management?

I suspect it's because "leadership" is not measurable. Because large organizations tend to accumulate people who slough accountability and to reward people who do the same.

Because all human organizations tend to be self-amplifying (see Angus' Eighth Law), accountability-sloughers will tend to get chosen for advancement by accountability- sloughing decision-makers and therefore get concentrated at the top.

They will tend to choose "leadership" as the primary factor that makes someone like them successful because it can be defined any way an individual likes to match the exigencies of the moment. There's no dashboard representation or metric that measures it—which is the whole point of making it the absolute prerequisite of being a C-level dude or dude-ess in an unhealthy organization.

But to succeed at leadership, you have to be able to accurately judge whether a vision is operationally feasible, and if not, what resources you need to add or subtract to get there.

You need to understand what talents you need to get where you're trying to go, know who on your staff has them, and how the incentives and disincentives they are given contribute to the behaviors you need.

You have to be able to separate out your own personality traits and invisible autonomic biases from your view of the reality of the current environment. And you have to be able to manage the midcourse adjustments required in all change projects. Those four skill clusters are the definition of management ability.

It's simple. You can't be an effective leader if you can't first be an effective manager.

So, when I'm consulting on a management hire, and the leading candidate is one who exhibits no management skill but is being sold by his or her advocates as "leadership material," I always ask the Socratic question of the group: "If you made so-and-so the assistant manager of a convenience store for two years, would the store thrive, drift along or crash and burn?"

You'd be surprised how many people with decision-making power to hire a multimillion-dollar department honcho will suggest that the assistant manager of a 7-Eleven skill set isn't required for a C-level position. But more often than not, when confronted with the very tangible skills the candidate is missing, the hiring team wakes up and realizes how dangerous it is to try to buck the odds with a leader-not-manager.

Because if you can't exercise the skill set required to maintain operational integrity, to hire and fire staff, balance the books on a regular basis and secure yourself from predators in this prescribed and unambiguous environment, how can you judge whether your vision is being carried out effectively? How can you do your due diligence and sign off on specifics? And why should you be making decisions that affect two dozen people or a million dollars at a time?

There's a particularly insidious sub-species of leader-not-manager that's the most dangerous organization-killer you can find. In the next column, I'll describe that sub-species and how to spot its members early, before you follow them into foolish, sometimes fatal, directions.

Jeff Angus is a management consultant and has been working with IT since 1974. He has held IT management positions in user interface design, marketing, operations and testing/analysis. Look for his book, "Management by Baseball: A Pocket Reader." Jeff's columns have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Baltimore Sun. He can be reached at jeff.angus@comcast.net.