How the Manager Killed the Leader
Exploring the differences between leadership and management. The Case Study Senior executives knew they had to do something. A subordinate unit was failing, and failing fast. The executives knew that the unit in question prided itself on agility, and its pride was well-founded. However, the organization’s actions always seemed to be purely reactive. The unit responded quickly and with great agility to changing threats, conditions, and resource environments—much quicker than its adversaries. Unfortunately, it was always reacting to its adversary’s moves. When circumstances changed, the unit could adjust course and “skate to where the puck is” quickly. However, it seemed unable to anticipate future conditions sufficiently to allow it to skate to where the puck would be. Nobody ever succeeds in isolation. But there are myriad cases of people who have failed in isolation. Now it was being outmaneuvered by an adversary yet again. Critical talent—those people who thought they had alternatives—were leaving in droves. This time the situation represented an existential threat to the unit’s survival. A change was necessary. After a lot of reflecting and soul-searching, leadership concluded that Randolph was the solution to their problems. Randolph was legendary in the community—he had executed many similar turnarounds. He was a visionary leader, a great communicator, and his people always seemed willing to follow him anywhere. They needed Randolph. The problem was that Randolph was working in a completely different organization and had no desire to make a move. He was comfortable, tired of having to reboot new organizations at every turn, and was unwilling to be recruited for the effort. Although flattered to have been asked, Randolph politely declined the offer. That was until leadership gave Randolph an offer he couldn’t refuse. They knew this might be the last chance to resuscitate a dying organization, and they were desperate. Randolph was stunned by the offer, and eventually came around. Leadership explained to Randolph that this wasn’t a situation where he could go into it half-hearted, that if he took the position he would have to be “all in.” Randolph agreed, and committed to giving the job his full commitment. Randolph took over just a few weeks later, and what he found looked all too familiar. The organization’s strategy had atrophied—it was reflective of conditions that had long since changed. Although the talent base had been appropriate for work that needed to be done a decade or more past, the workforce had not been refreshed with skills necessary to remain relevant in the future. Organizational structures were staid and unresponsive, the organization’s famous agility had been achieved through conditions of “brute force” management, with leadership having to continuously override calcified middle-management resistance to change. He jumped into his work, putting in 15-hour days. Rebooting the strategy to something a bit more anticipatory of operating conditions, he began a series of outreach events to leaders and employees to help them understand “the why,” the problem, and the solution. Based on the refreshed strategy, he refreshed his leadership team to add required future skills, while eliminating some of the “deadwood.” Then, in concert with his new leadership team and key players in the organization, they built a plan to reboot the organizational design, to make the unit more focused on the future, while retaining the its famous responsiveness. Senior executives were thrilled. This was turning out exactly as they had hoped. The larger organization was happy, employees were motivated and excited, retention skyrocketed. It was clear that the executives had made the right call in recruiting Randolph. Then a few months later, something happened. Or more precisely, something didn’t happen. Despite all of Randolph’s changes, unit performance did not improve. Worse—performance actually seemed to be degrading. Randolph insisted that he simply needed more time, but time was the one thing the executives did not have any more of. They began to question their decision to install Randolph. He had succeeded so many times in the past—how could it be possible that he was not exceeding here? The execs decided to call in outside help, somebody who could conduct an urgent diagnosis of the problems. They called in Lacie. When Lacie arrived she found an organization consisting of leaders who were completely flummoxed. Everybody believed in Randolph’s vision—everybody knew he was making the right changes. At first, Lacie suspected that Randolph had joined the organization for the wrong reasons—for that “incredible offer,” so perhaps his heart really wasn’t in it. It didn’t take long for Lacie to realize that Randolph had been true to his word—that he had “bought in” to the assignment, and was giving it every ounce of effort. As Lacie further examined the circumstances, focusing on the difference between Randolph’s failure in this assignment and his wildly successful performance in his last, she noticed one significant difference. Operations. In Randolph’s last job he had a highly effective Operations Officer, Jean, who translated his vision and plans into quantified, measurable, actions. She then set specific strategic goals for the organization, assigned those goals to specific individuals, and then measured progress against those goals. When progress was slipping against a particular goal, she redirected resources to ensure everything remained in sync. Nobody had to tell Jean to do these things, she was the Operations Officer and she knew it was her job. Jean was a crucial, if unsung, part of the organization’s success. Randolph’s new organization had no Jean. Randolph was either unaware or unwilling to admit how much Jean had contributed to his former success. It was his belief that once he articulated and sold his new organization on the urgent plan for success, they would simply “move on out” and get it done. As it turns out, Randolph’s predecessor had been a “one-man band,” and had taken it upon himself to do both the “vision thing” and the mundane action-tracking himself. As it turns out he was pretty good at the latter, but not so good at the former. After he had been let go with the change in leadership, nobody else had picked up the slack. It wasn’t clear that anybody actually knew that it would be necessary, the leadership simply presumed that Randolph would be doing everything just like his predecessor. Lacie’s post-mortem— and it was becoming a post-mortem because the unit was essentially now beyond rescue— determined that Randolph had articulated what would likely have been a successful strategy, if the organization had had the skills to pull it off. Randolph failed to track progress against the strategy until it was too late to pull his organization out of the tailspin. It was the manager who killed this leader’s career. Randolph had tried to play both parts himself, but it turns out he was only good at one of them, and not self-aware enough to realize it. The Analysis This is a story that has been repeated thousands of times. Each one of you will be able to recall great leaders who succeeded in one role but failed in another. Sometimes that failure was caused because the leader possessed a very niche set of skills. The leader was very, very good, but only within a very narrow endeavor, and when you changed the circumstances slightly, the leader’s advantages were lost. But oftentimes the failure is caused by something that was missing in that leader’s new environment. He or she didn’t have all the skills necessary to succeed, and didn’t augment themselves with others who did. Nobody ever succeeds in isolation. Hubris often causes us to want to believe it is “all us” when we succeed, but it never is. There is always a team involved in success, even when competing in an individual sport. When trying to move an organization forward, both leadership and management are important, and they are not the same thing. Great leaders are exceptionally good at: Selecting the right course; Creating a “vision” around that course; Aligning the team to that vision; Creating conditions where the team works harmoniously in pursuit of the vision; Creating conditions where the team works at a common purpose, not out of fear, but because they want to; Either tuning the vision to the talent, or acquiring the talent to execute the vision; Measuring progress toward the vision; and Executing “course corrections” toward the vision. An organization cannot succeed without good leadership—it’s a necessary, but insufficient, attribute. However, all but the simplest organizations, extraordinary management attributes are also required, at least somewhere in the organization. Great managers are exceptionally good at: Manipulating processes to make and measure progress; Selecting right balance of efficiency vs. effectiveness; Maximizing impact of “the cards you are dealt” (they can beat you with either sets of players); Mastering the “devil in the details;” Utilizing technology for maximum effectiveness; Getting the “math right.” In other words, management is the mundane but vital task of turning vision into actual progress. It’s not necessary that these attributes be spread across multiple individuals. It’s rare, but some people can do it all. But we each must be sufficiently self-aware to realize where our strengths lie, and to ensure that our weaknesses are supplemented by somebody else if necessary. Nobody ever succeeds in isolation. But there are myriad cases of people who have failed in isolation.