We need fewer leaders, better managers (Guest commentary)

Management allows a vision to become reality
By Rebecca Schalm
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/09/2009

Global financial crises, flu pandemics, unwinnable wars, corrupt and failing mega-corporations — we’ve all seen these seemingly intractable problems laid at the doorstep of poor leadership.

But business and management guru Henry Mintzberg, a Cleghorn professor of management studies at McGill University in Montreal, has a different take on the issue. During a recent interview, he argued we are asking for trouble because of our penchant for separating “leaders” from “managers” and placing leadership in a superior role over management.

I agree. We are suffering, I believe, not from a lack of leadership but from an absence of good management.

While leaders are born rather than developed, management can be taught, believes Mintzberg. The ideal, he adds, is to return to the concept of the engaged, or managing, leader (without the huge bonuses, he stresses) who, for example, made United States industry so admired around the globe.

Why management gets a bad rap

Leadership devoid of responsibility is sexy. Management, which is nothing if not responsibility, isn’t. Management is shepherding the administrative, routine tasks outlined by leadership. It has the reputation of being rule-creating, creativity-stifling and risk-avoiding. You rarely hear people say, “I aspire to be a great manager.”

At the risk of oversimplification, leadership kicks in when we encourage and support our children to dream about their goals. Management ensures they eat properly, go to school and brush their teeth. Management is the infrastructure that allows a vision to become a sustainable reality. It’s doing the hard work without getting the spotlight.

3 elements of good management

Here are three aspects of good management:

Good managers plan: To accomplish anything requires a plan. Leadership may provide the inspiration and the goal, but management is responsible for coming up with the “how to.” Leaders can get caught up in the sizzle of the goal without considering the process needed to achieve it.

A good plan sets reasonable objectives, defines key actions and takes reality into consideration. How will we ensure everyone receives the flu vaccine in an orderly and efficient way? How will we ensure everyone has an opportunity to own a home without bankrupting the nation? The nitty-gritty may not be sexy but it’s vital for success in any domain.

Good managers follow through: You may be familiar with the lofty, strategic plan that floats to your desk from a leader on high only to languish and possibly be resuscitated some time later with little evidence of progress in between.

To accomplish anything requires actual execution of the plan. This demands a Herculean level of discipline and effort and someone to ruthlessly monitor it, measure it and hold people accountable to it. It is, by far, one of the most difficult tasks demanded of a human being and it does not come to most of us naturally. This may be why good managers are in such short supply.

Good managers ensure we all do our part: While a successful leader must inspire and animate, a good manager does not have to be everyone’s best friend. The best managers may not be the most popular people at the party, often because their casual conversation is peppered with reminders about that dreaded “plan.” They keep us all on track, pressing forward toward the goal. Good managers operate with unrelenting respect for others. They don’t have all the answers: They know the best ideas will come from someone else and they encourage and incorporate those at every opportunity. They do not need to be heroes: They recognize and leverage the strengths of others and find them opportunities to shine. They hold others accountable to their commitments. They give others the right amount of independence (and they know this is different for everyone they manage). They measure and celebrate progress. They recognize and share the glory when the team delivers on key milestones. When one objective is completed, they move on, with little fanfare, to the next.

People often speak of experiencing a “leadership gap” but I think they actually mean a management gap — between the promises and words of inspiration and the reality in which we find ourselves. The world does not need more people who aspire to greatness through leadership. What it needs are a whole lot more people who aspire to be great managers.

Rebecca Schalm is the executive integration and transition practice leader for RHR International in Calgary. She can be reached at rschalm@rhrinternational.com.

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