Mistakes Confusing Leadership

A recent HBR Blog post by John Kotter speaks to the confusion surrounding management and leadership.  He continues by outlining three key mistakes people make in confusing management and leadership: 1) using the terms interchangeably; 2) using leadership to refer to those at the top of the hierarchy; and 3) thinking leadership is about personality characteristics (i.e. charisma).  Let’s critically think about these mistakes to better understand their likely causes.

Tools for Success

Mistakes 1 and 2 are essentially manifestations of the same misconception that leadership corresponds to having legitimate authority: That it’s positional and hence the often-heard aspiration of those seeking a successful career in management “I seek to attain a leadership position.”  Fortunately for these aspirants many, if not all, of our business schools offer curriculums that will provide them the tools they need for success.

The essence of leadership is not that it is a function of one’s position but rather that it is a function of one’s personhood.  Kotter rightly notes that “management is a set of well-known processes, like planning, structuring jobs, staffing job, measuring performance…which help an organization to predictably do what it knows how to do well.”  Kotter further remarked that the “misunderstanding gets in the way of any reasonable discussion about how to build a company, position it for success and win in the twenty-first century.”  More importantly the misunderstanding rests in our conception of what an organization is—machine or living system—and correspondingly the very different meaning of success each implies.

Essentially those in management are the mechanics of the machine.  The organization as a machine is not just metaphor, it is thought of, seen as and managed as a machine—it is a machine.  Hence the need for good mechanics!  Why else do we talk about giving aspiring managers the tools they need?

Accordingly most, if not all, of our business schools have designed curriculums for this purpose and have been successful to this end—yes we do shape the leaders we get.  People are taught and given the tools to build and relate to the organization (and its components) as objects having (only) instrumental value for material and very narrow purposes.  Short-term thinking and narrow self-interest leads to a limited sense of concern; so no wonder we all experience the negative consequences from the narrow-focused decisions of those in authority.

Revealing Substance

Some would say that this is a failure of leadership because leadership is supposed to lead us into the future.  Leadership is about providing a vision!

If we understand the basics of time’s arrow—time doesn’t go backward, it always proceeds forward—we know that the future is where we will have our very next experience in life.  Where else will we be if not the future!  So to say leadership is about the future, with the implication that management isn’t just reflects a lack of understanding of time’s arrow. Management—good or bad—takes us into the future as well!  The future is where we all will have our next experience irrespective of leadership.

Oh I know some will say, leadership is about taking us into a better future and that’s what having vision is all about.  Does this mean that a manager doesn’t have the ability to depict a future that is better than the present?  Just ask your friends and colleagues and I bet that most could paint a rosy picture—we all can imagine something better.  But the question is, better for whom?

Vision in the context of leadership is not about the future, it is not so much about foresight (which is strategically critically important as well) but about insight.  It is about being willing and able to look inward and know your essence—and your deep connectedness to others.  Looking inward reveals to us that there is more to us than our functional fit, or the position we hold or the material outcomes we strive to realize.  With vision our sense of concern expands and so the actions we consider are assessed looking through a lens that reveals the depth and complexity of our interdependencies.  Through insight we realize we aren’t limited to a surface level understanding of things. In other words having vision implies that we are guided by a deep understanding, that we are guided by wisdom.

Where there is no vision, the people perish (Proverb 29:18) and we do so by our dis-integrating way of thinking. Thus a wise decision-maker will be more integrative—far less destructive—through his/her decisions.  Clearly the gravity of vision can’t be overstated because of its influence upon inspiration and preservation.

A Primary Cause

With mistake #3, by asserting that leadership is about behavior, Kotter takes us a bit deeper than the surface level personality traits (e.g. charisma) that are often talked about.

Of course what one does, how one acts is critical! Leaders behave like leaders is an obvious truth.  How we behave is an act of free will, a choice we have the power to make.  So why can’t we just all act like leaders?  If it is a matter of choice then what’s stopping us?  What is a primary determinant of how we chose to behave?

Since we are rational beings people generally don’t act counter to what they intend—that would be irrational.  No doubt we’ve all said to our self at one time or another, as we watch someone behaving inappropriately, what is that person thinking!  Or upon reflection of an action we took, why did I do that, what was I thinking?

Clearly what and how we think—the beliefs and assumptions we old in our mind—guides our actions. In regard to the vast majority of those in authority within our organizations and societal institutions we have people who in effect deny or discount our common interests—humanity, environment and life itself—in their decision-making process. More to the point, what we think and believe about our self, others and the world around has a significant influence upon our choices and in turn upon the future experiences of others.

Therefore to acknowledge that leadership is about behavior—as Kotter claims—leads us to a major causative factor, mind-set.  Thus a change toward leadership requires a change in mind-set.  Unfortunately very few people are willing to change their beliefs and ways of thinking.  (Yes some never let facts get in the way of their beliefs and self-interest!)

Our Primary Crisis

At base leadership is about relationships and personhood not position and so it requires a re-thinking about our selves as human beings and about our relationships: business to society, organizations to people and people to people.  Leaders don’t let the position he/she holds, or the possessions he/she has, get between him/her and another person. It is not about what one has (acquired) but what one is—a person (being human) seeking to become what they potentially are! If only those in authority within our schools, especially our business schools, had the courage to change the way they think, we’d have the curriculums we need to overcome the dearth of leadership in our organizations and society.  Until this happens (I suspect) the crisis of leadership will remain.

2 thoughts on “Mistakes Confusing Leadership

  1. Pingback: Leadership or Dictatorship | For Progress, Not Growth

  2. Pingback: Eliminate targets | quantum shifting

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