The CIO’s fatal flaw: Too much leadership, not enough management

“He’s a manager, not a leader,” my source explained to me, referring to the CIO in a disparaging tone of voice.

I followed up with a few dozen more 360-degree interviews — translation: I talked with a lot of different people — and confirmed the diagnosis.

Except for one thing: The CIO’s focus on management was, to use the technical term, a “good thing.” Because what’s frequently missed in the perennial leadership vs. management fracas is that management is about getting work out the door. Leadership is an important collection of techniques managers use to get the people in their organization to embrace the direction they’re trying to set.

Which does help get work out the door. It’s an important contributing factor, but it isn’t the main event.

Leadership vs. management

I blame Peter Drucker, who, not being with us anymore, can’t defend himself. It was Drucker who famously said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

I have no quibble with this division of labor. It’s just that, when you compare the importance of “right things” and “doing things,” it’s important not to disrespect how much “doing things” matters.

One source of this disrespect is a popular myth of organizational effectiveness consulting — that organizations are permeated with lots and lots of activities that shouldn’t be improved because they aren’t worth doing. We consultants are well-armed with pithy anecdotes about past clients within which we unearthed a costly example of something-or-other that wasn’t worth doing.

But as the saying goes, anecdote isn’t the singular of data, and too often it turns out that the something-that-isn’t-worth-doing is something the management consultant doesn’t understand well enough to decipher its value.

Management is how those in charge make sure the organization really is running the way it should. That being the case, why is it that leadership gets all the mystique?

It starts, I think, with a fundamental misunderstanding. Getting back to Drucker, it’s easy to draw a false inference — that if leadership is doing the right things while management is doing them right, then without leaders to guide them, managers would do the wrong things the right way, steadfastly dragging the whole enterprise in the wrong direction.

But it would be an unusual organization whose managerial leaders, lacking any good sense, really have no idea what the right direction is. And anyway, it would be exceptionally rare for there to be just one right direction and not a number of promising alternatives.

How strategy fits in

Strategy, then, more often than not, isn’t something leaders craft, but something they choose from among several alternatives, leaving the hard work of making the strategy real to the managers who report to them.

So why does leadership get all the buzz? A cynic might suggest that the more respect doing-the-work gets, the more the company might have to pay the people who do that work, which in turn would mean those who manage the work would get paid more than those who think and charismatically express deep and inspirational thoughts.

And as there are more people who do work than those who manage it, respecting the work and those who do it would be expensive.

Don’t misunderstand. Done properly, leading is a lot of work, and because leading is about people, not processes or tools and technology; it’s time consuming, too. And in fact, when I conduct leadership seminars, the biggest barrier to success for most participants is figuring out and committing to their time budget.

Leadership, that is, involves setting direction, making or facilitating decisions, staffing, delegating, motivating, overseeing team dynamics, engineering the business culture, and communicating. Leaders who are committed to improving at their trade must figure out how much time they plan to devote to each of these eight tasks, which is hard enough.

Then they need to figure out where that time will come from — harder, as their calendars are already full, or nearly so.

Management, in contrast, is about organizing, overseeing processes, and implementing new tools that encourage higher productivity and effectiveness — the well-worn “people, process, technology” mantra. Its time budget is, to an extent, compressible.

And so, management encompasses leadership as just one of the responsibilities its practitioners must master. That being the case, it deserves more respect than the old “They’re managers but need to be leaders” trope.

On the other hand, people are more complicated than the processes and technology that make up the non-leadership aspects of management, and so, in addition to being more time-consuming than management, leadership calls for a defter, more empathic touch.

Which is more important? It doesn’t really matter. Those in charge need to give both leadership and management the respect they deserve. And along the way, they need to give those they lead and manage — the employees who actually do the work — the respect they deserve as well.

IT Leadership, IT Management