Leaders change organisations – fallacy!

Are you one of those professionals that have helped sustain the thinking that organisations are changed and saved by a special breed of leader, highly sought after in the business world? This linearity is familiar to those of you that write script for situations where this special breed of leader is required: the special leader arrives at a dying organisation; an organisation usually in need of resuscitation; its brand is a write-off  by many inside and outside the organisation; and this leader with many years of experience in turnaround work prescribes an effective remedy to this clinically dead entity; and bingo, the super leader is taken to fix another clinically dead entity

Hundreds of leaders across the globe fit the above script – The late Steve Jobs of Apple, Lee Iacocca of Chrysler, Ed Whitacre of GM, Isaac Perlmutter of Marvel and many others. These men, and sadly it is an all-male list, are turnaround gurus admired by many in the world of blue-chip companies. The men present to the world as organisational development messiahs that have brought back companies from clinical death.


Like a ship or an aeroplane, anything carrying such vested interests as the modern company needs extremely solid stewardship. The above CEO’s inherited ‘sick’ and in many instances clinically dead companies and turned them around. Talk about organisational development and messianic power and only a few CEO’s will even make the long list. Apparently, Apple is what it is today, because of one man, Steve Jobs.

Clearly, the world has created a ‘messianic cult’ in the change domain of companies. Is it that simple, though? Is the success of a company like Apple, down to one human soul, born to a Syrian immigrant?

Who delivers change in organisations?

From where I stand, leaders thriving in the ‘messianic cult’ above do not deliver successful change. It is the long-suffering and neglected manager, down in company divisions and other satellite offices, that brings about successful change at companies. Can we please give credit where credit is due?

A few months back, I put out feelers to test workplace understanding of leadership and management concepts. I asked a simple question: what is the difference between leaders and managers? Can one wear the two hats at the same time i.e. manager and leader? What I discovered surprised me. Many professionals, including very senior leaders, interchangeably use the words manager and leader. Many professional colleagues cannot explain well, the difference between a leader and manager and what tools are used by who. Manager and leader have become the lexicon of management, yet It quickly became apparent that many of us have not invested time to understand the nuts and bolts of the two typologies.

Given the above confusion, I am not surprised that credit for successful turnaround work at companies mostly goes to the leader and not manager. After all, many think that manager and leader are the same. We need to resolve this misnomer.

Last week, my blog explored the orthodox characteristics of a leader. Perhaps it may help us all to pause and explore the characteristics of a manager. You will quickly discover the huge divide between a manager and leader. If characteristics are to go by, they certainly are not the same thing.

So, what defines a good manager?

Google’s x8 qualities:

  • Is a good coach
  • Empowers the team and does not micromanage
  • Expresses interest/concern for team members’ success and personal well-being
  • Is productive and results-orientated
  • Is a good communicator – listens and shares information
  • Helps with career development
  • Has a clear vision / strategy for the team
  • Has important technical skills that help him / her advice the team

The Wikihow, also provides unique insight into what makes a good manager:

  • Motivating Your Employees
  • Setting Goals
  • Delegating Responsibility
  • Communicating Effectively
  • Embracing Egalitarianism

A quick comparative analysis of the characteristics of leader and manager shows that managers are paid to get the best out of their technical teams. Managers deal with people most of the time. Managers have to get the very best out of their teams – productivity. Managers are technocrats that need to understand technical details in their field of work. A manager is a front-line tactician, that is so close to the troops, and best understands how to get the best out of them. Managers interface with change-effectiveness drivers on a daily basis. Th opposite is true of a leader – operating from the pedestal most of the time, the leader simply cannot afford the luxury of engaging with troops as much as the manager does. The closet a leader comes to deep engagement with troops is if they (leader) are good at working with the intangibles. Yet, even such leaders won’t get as much time with frontline troops as the manager.

With the manager monopolising access to frontline troops at the modern company, it is obvious that managers shall deliver effective change at organisations. The so-called leader simply acts as a gate-keeper for the change-arena, but actual work once inside the arena is done by managers.

Can someone be both an effective leader and manager?

Yes! In organisations, you find several hybrids/variants of the manager/leader trajectory. As a matter of fact, company effectiveness-units (many must be wondering what this unit is – yes, you need such a unit) should leverage various combinations of the above dichotomy. Below are the possible manager/leadership hybrids:

  • a manager with enough leadership pedigree
  • a leader with enough management pedigree
  • a leader that is a poor manager
  • a manager that is a poor leader
  • a perfect hybrid of leader/manager (a made to order combination)

How can companies use the above hybrid situation to deliver effective change?

A combination of leader/manager with almost equal strength in both is the ideal for any organisation. However, the truth is that individuals normally show a bias towards either leader or manager. Organisations do not buy their employees from a supermarket. Instead, employees are acquired from a labour market and as we all know, employees come with leader or manager bias, imperfection, and individual likes and dislikes.

On the other hand, companies have to deal with complex internal labour market dynamics. All kinds of dysfunctions plague the internal labour market. For example:

  • manager/leader preferences that force orientation towards one trajectory against the other i.e. managers recruit strong managers while leaders recruit strong leaders creating an imbalanced workforce
  • keeping incompetent staff due to company culture and protectionist labour law regimes etc.

Therefore, while you and me know the ideal manager/leader hybrid, it is not always available to us

The ultimate answer to the above question is not looking for the ideal manager/leader hybrid, but to practice the concept of distributed leadership. Distributed leadership helps to achieve the ideal manager/leader hybrid status, without having to recruit staff with the magic manager/leader combination.

Are HR practitioners paying enough attention to this nuance?

Categories: the Leader!, You

Tags: ,

3 replies

  1. Surprising how similar my blog this week and this one are: http://prsm.tc/wlCaGG


  2. Thanks Apollo, this is very useful


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