It’s the heavyweight battle of the century which has divided the population. No, we’re not talking about Batman v Superman, we are talking about Leaders v Managers. Our battle takes place in the real world of work and has become the subject of much scrutiny over recent years, so let’s look at why managers are increasingly being vilified in contemporary business thinking.
In my last article I explored some of the reasons why work has evolved very little over the last few centuries, and the concept of a manager has suffered a similar journey, shackled to the remnants of a factory mentality that still heavily influences business thinking.
Whilst we will all have different ideas of what a manager is, the literal meaning of the word "manager" clearly sets us off on the wrong foot: "A person responsible for controlling or administering an organization or group of staff." The key word here is "controlling". How appealing is the prospect of being "controlled” to you?
When we are controlled we have little autonomy. Without autonomy we are less engaged and when we are not engaged we view our work as a job and we then tend to do that job mostly for the pay if offers.
We create environments which condition people to work only for pay, which encourages selfish behavior and leaves little room for loyalty.
Whilst the output here supports Adam Smith’s view that pay is the only motivator for people to work, we can argue that it is in fact a self-fulfilling prophecy. By setting out with this understanding of management we create environments which condition people to work only for pay, which in turn encourages selfish behavior and leaves little room for loyalty.
It’s why the expression “people leave managers not companies” is so widely used today and it’s also why many people switch jobs purely for monetary purposes. Needless to say, none of this is good for business. With a culture based purely on financial reward people will often overlook doing the right thing in favour of doing what they deem to be “worth” their time.
Enter stage right - the leader. The leader is increasingly represented as the antithesis of a manager, the people’s champion. Someone who will put the needs of the people first and can inspire them to greatness. And, whilst we now see more “leadership teams” clearly labeled as such in business the true essence of a leader is more of a posture than a formal position. Leaders transcend positions of authority and can be present anywhere in an organization. Leaders, when fully empowered by an organisation, help create environments that transform a job into a calling. We are emotionally and socially engaged when being influenced by a leader, and as a consequence we are more motivated, and we all live happily ever after…
Leaders, when fully empowered by an organisation, help create environments that transform a job into a calling.
Notice the change in language used to describe a leader when compared to my assessment of a manager earlier? We regularly romanticize about leaders, how they achieve the impossible, overcome great adversity and create high-performing businesses to aspire to. The truth is we crave inspiration - it makes us feel good. We look for it everywhere; in friends, family, colleagues and even strangers. We are drawn to it because of the chemical released when we experience it – oxytocin (often called the cuddle hormone). Not only does this chemical make us feel good about ourselves, but it also encourages us to pass that feeling onto others. That’s why upon witnessing an act of generosity or kindness, we feel inspired to do something similar for someone else. It’s also why we hit the share button when we see something inspirational on our social media channels.
So, where do these warm and fuzzy feelings leave managers?
Well the truth is leaders rarely do it all on their own. Managers, great managers to be precise, play a vital role in the achievements of any leader. They are often the unsung heroes in business who support leaders and enable them to realise their visions and goals. Great managers still do this by adding structure. Not too much, not too little, but just the right amount. Structure that is fit for purpose rather than bought off the shelf.
When management overpowers leadership motivation flat lines and, unsurprisingly, so does performance.
The passion and vision of leaders and supporting structure that managers apply need to be carefully aligned, otherwise the business falters. This danger is what Simon Sinek calls the split, and history is littered with examples of this occurring when businesses are scaling. When management overpowers leadership motivation flat lines and, unsurprisingly, so does performance.
In our quest for efficiency we sometimes not only stifle people's ability to do their best work, but we also limit their overall potential to learn and improve - particularly when today's technology offers so much automation. When we systemise and strip autonomy we undermine our faith in people's basic ability to think for themselves. We're making a statement which says "we don't trust you". Working on rails also limits people's inclination to think creatively and therefore places a cap on the amount of personal development they can experience in their job.
If we deny our people a chance to develop the development of the business will equally suffer. To avoid this the role of any manager needs to focus on improving effectiveness over efficiency, and that involves building systems around our people which not only empower them to do their best work but also enables them to continuously improve.
So, as business owners and entrepreneurs we need to carefully consider the roles we are creating when recruiting managers to strengthen and scale our businesses. We need to look beyond off the shelf solutions which add unnecessary layers of complexity. Instead we need to establish which structures can enable the people we already have to be more effective, without sacrificing their autonomy, and build the roles and the environments we want to see in the world.
Everything in business must be purpose driven and rules are no exception, so we cannot be afraid to change them. There will always be excuses not to – from being too busy to the current state of the economy, but as they say, the best time to plant an oak tree is today . It’s time to give managers a better name…