Ending the leader vs manager debate

Philosophy

The fable that leadership is superior to management has been bad for management and worse for leadership. The fashionable depiction sees leaders as doing the right things while managers do things right. This may sound right until you try to do the right things without doing them right.

Source: Henry Mintzberg, Bedtime Stories for Managers (2019)

Reflection

Optics-wise, I can understand the allure of calling oneself a leader. But nowadays, people are wary of the “heroic”, “larger-than-life”, “charismatic” archetype that famous leaders portray and many others emulate.

Essentially, taking on audacious goals without supporting them with the right kinds of action. Thinking that the wheels of a complex operation can turn without any consideration for greasing the cogs within. So long as there’s a “vision”.

Henry Mintzberg suggests a counterbalance to this. One from the realm of mere mortal managers. The ones who are all about doing things right. Efficiency, structured thinking and developing protocols may indeed have its place.

The real challenge is finding the right balance. Ultimately, people need to be led in the right direction. But they also need enablement to carry on their duties with vigour and without slowing down to wait for a go-ahead.

“Of the best leader, when his work is done, the people all say: “we did it ourselves.” – Laozi, ancient Chinese philosopher

Treat each workday as Day 1

Philosophy

Make sure every day at work feels like Day 1. Do you remember your first day at your first job? Sure, you were nervous. But part of you was excited. Excited about doing everything in your power to delight your new boss, coworkers, customers. Excited about doing the best work of your life.

Inspired by: Jeff Bezos, Letter to Amazon Shareholders (2016)

Reflection

What a refreshing, energising way to approach your working day. It’s a 180 from how I’d imagine most people see their work or careers, especially after a long time slogging away. But I also wondered for a while if Day 1 thinking is sustainable.

Jeff Bezos seems to think it’s crucial to keep the Day 1 momentum alive. To him, letting your mind slip into Day 2 is a no-no. Here’s a summary of his thoughts on Day 2:

  • Day 2 means stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Following by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death.
  • High-quality decisions, but too slow. The world’s moving at lightspeed, so teams and organisations need to make high-quality and high-velocity calls.
  • Decline in extreme slow motion. An established company might harvest Day 2 for decades, but the final result would still come.

So how could we maintain a Day 1 mindset day-in-day-out? Mr Bezos suggests complete, utter customer-centricity. Focus on what you can do next to wow an always curious and dissatisfied customer.

I’ve thought of another way – map out your work as a short-, medium- and long-term outlook. What do you expect from your immediate work? How do you see yourself working in the future? Your answer should not be “the same as today”.

Develop a vision for where you want to head and couple that with patient experimentation, accept failures in the learning process and double down when you see real progress.

Influence trumps authority

Philosophy

Influence trumps authority in that an ineffective leader may have the authority to give orders, but without generating substantial goodwill, those orders execute poorly. Only by influencing others can a modern working professional get their way.

Inspired by: Jocelyn Davis, The Art of Quiet Influence (2019)

Reflection

Let’s start by comparing the ineffective leader to a con artist.

A con artist has no authority over others, but they get what they want by influencing those others. An ineffective leader may have all the authority in the world. But without influence, their orders risk falling on deaf ears.

There was a time when the mere notion of authority was enough for a leader. That was a time when fear was pervasive. Followers feared retribution from not following orders – of losing their jobs or worse.

I don’t think that way of operating is as effective in the modern working world. Handing down orders may affect only the truly fearful among your people. The rest of them will follow through with varying degrees of care.

It’s another story if you influence them towards your way. By getting emotional and logical buy-in, you will pave a stronger path forward.

The best work of your life

Philosophy

The best work of your life won’t come from pinching a penny here or there. It will come when you connect to the needs of the people you’re helping. Think of relationships you must forge to get there. Think of using your unique gifts to make it happen.

Inspired by: Aaron Dignan, Brave New Work podcast 02-12-2019

Reflection

My first experience of team leadership came from a place of managerial tradition. My cohort and I were taught to not deviate course. At least not without appropriate authority. Cost containment and efficiency seemed to be our raison d’être.

That’s all well and good when the market strongly favours your approach. But our market changed all of a sudden. It was going our way for so long and then it fell off a cliff. Complexity and uncertainty are our new normal. Demand has suffered.

Focusing on cost in light of shrinking demand can only fuel a downward spiral.

There’s an obvious need for us to seek new opportunities and bring our offerings in line with the times. Such a feat cannot be achieved in a vacuum. I am working on forging stronger relationships within my internal and external networks.