5 Signs You’re Managing Instead of Leading

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I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about leadership. It started a few months ago when I wrote a few posts on John Kotter’s 8 obstacles to change and ways to overcome them (don’t worry, I haven’t abandoned that series). During the process, I revisited a section of Leading Change where Kotter talks about the difference between leadership and management.

Then I went to the Global Leadership Summit put on by the Willow Creek Association. It was incredible, and listening to speaker after speaker talk about what it means to lead got my mind going. Many people are put in positions of authority and power. Does that make them leaders? Is a manager always a leader? Can you be a leader and not a manager? What’s the difference?

So I decided to make a short diversion from the obstacles to change to explore these questions. I hope you’ll bear with me, and check back for some tips on overcoming the obstacles to change shortly.

What’s wrong with managers?

Nothing. My goal here is not to disparage managers. They’re needed in every organization. They keep systems running and ensure consistency, predictability, and reliability.

But leaders inspire greatness. They bring out the best in the people around them. They empower and trust their people to have both the will and the confidence to exceed their own ideas of what they thought themselves capable. They make a real difference in organizations facing unpredictable environments. They innovate and lead growth and have the potential to take an organization from consistently good to overwhelmingly awesome.

That sounds like something I aspire to. How about you?

If you, like me, want to be a better leader, or worry that you spend too much time managing, this might be for you.

5 signs you’re managing instead of leading.

1) You think about org charts, not people

Do you think solely in terms of organizational structure?

When you’re calling a meeting to talk strategy or vision, do you make sure the people who can be valuable contributors are invited? Or do you use the org chart and involve people based on position?

When changes happen, when priorities shift, when you learn new information, do you get your people together to tell them about it, or do you assume important info will trickle down the hierarchy?

Do you know the people who actually do the work of your organization? I’m talking really know them. Like hopes and fears and aspirations and untapped talents know them.

If you operate purely in terms of organizational structure, you might be managing instead of leading.

An organization is about people. It can’t succeed without them. To be a leader, to inspire people to greatness, you need to think of them as more than boxes on an org chart. If you want to innovate, you need to trust and empower your people to be innovative, and then include them in important conversations. You need to earn their trust through transparency. You need to give them a reason to follow your vision.

2) You don’t have a vision

Speaking of vision.

Where should your organization be in 1 year? 5 years? 10?

How about next week?

You need a vision to know what greatness means, to know what it looks like when you’ve succeeded. You need to imagine something better than the present if you hope to grow. You need to have a destination in mind before anyone can follow you.

If you don’t have a vision for your organization, for your team, for yourself, you’re probably managing instead of leading. As Kotter says, “Visions and strategies are not formulated by individuals who have learned only to deal with plans and budgets.”

3) You love output and hate failure

One of my favorite sessions at the Global Leadership Summit was an interview on innovation with Indian entrepreneur and Dartmouth professor Vijay Govindarajan.

Govindarajan said there are 3 boxes for projects, and all of an organization’s efforts fit into one of them.

Box 1 is the present. Ongoing operations. The proven profit driver of an organization. This box needs consistent, quality production. This is where managers thrive.

Box 2 is for past projects that need to be forgotten.

Box 3 is planning for the future. This is where innovation happens. This is where leaders who can form a vision and set a strategy are needed.

The problem is that Box 1 and Box 3 are in conflict. Box 1 demands consistent output.

Box 3 has to value failure.

According to Govindarajan, the job for innovators (and innovative leaders) is to “learn to resolve assumptions and unknowns. The planning process has to be about testing assumptions. Spend a little, learn a lot.”

Failures are valuable because we learn from them. If you and your team aren’t failing, you aren’t learning anything new, and you certainly aren’t innovating.

4) You make decisions in a vacuum

The traditional view of organizational leadership is that there are a few people at the top who determine direction, set strategy and policy, and hand it down to their employees. It’s bureaucracy. In this type of structure, the few powerful figures don’t worry about gaining support or buy-in. They don’t need to. They make decisions and try to enact them using authority alone.

This is management, not leadership.

Leaders involve people in important decisions. They ask the right questions. They try to figure out which questions they don’t even know to ask. They get the perspectives and opinions of the people doing the work. And then, instead of trying to push people towards their vision, they give people a reason to follow them in that direction.

According to Kotter, “transformation requires sacrifice, dedication, and creativity, none of which usually comes with coercion.”

5) You ground your soaring eagles

Of course that sounds a bit melodramatic.

But don’t underestimate how important and valuable your budding leaders are.

My favorite talk at the Global Leadership Summit was given by Chris Brown (no, it’s not the one you’re thinking).

The Chris Brown who spoke is a co-senior pastor at North Coast Church in California and is passionate about developing young leaders. Really passionate.

Brown started his talk with the story of David and Goliath. If you aren’t familiar, the story takes place in the midst of war between Philistine and Israel. For forty days, Philistine’s mightiest soldier (a giant named Goliath) calls out the Israelites and their leader, King Saul. But they’re all too afraid to fight him.

Finally, a wimpy kid named David accepts the challenge. He walks out to the middle of the battlefield, and when Goliath moves in for the kill he knocks him down with a small stone thrown from a sling. Then he cuts off Goliath’s head and delivers it to Saul.

But Chris’s main point wasn’t David’s miraculous victory in battle. It was King Saul’s response to David’s budding leadership.

After David killed Goliath, Saul started trusting him with more and more responsibility. David was successful everywhere he went, so eventually Saul put him in charge of the whole army. But Saul wasn’t quite ready to share the spotlight, and when David returns from battle to chants of praise and choruses of women singing “Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands” (1 Samuel 18:7), Saul becomes insanely jealous and afraid, thinking David is a threat to the throne. So he plots to kill David, and fails over and over again. Finally, Saul is killed in battle against the Philistines (he falls on his own sword to avoid the shame of defeat) and David ascends to the throne.

It’s worth wondering: what if Saul had embraced David and shared leadership with his soaring eagle, instead of expending so much effort trying to have him killed? Would he have lost the battle to the Philistines? Would he have died before he needed to?

There are many reasons managers will smother budding leaders.

Some are afraid and protective, like Saul was. They worry about talented people threatening their status and position.

Some are jealous, and believe that success is a zero-sum game. In their minds, every bit of credit given to an employee is taken from a limited supply of recognition. And they aren’t willing to share.

Some are so focused on keeping the organization good that they don’t make room for things that could make it great. Young leaders don’t always fit neatly inside organizational structures. A budding leader with a strong vision, a desire for growth and change, and the ability to inspire will be difficult to constrain inside a box on an org chart. Managers believe their job is to maintain the status quo and support the bureaucracy. Young leaders are looking to shake the dust. This can be scary.

But organizations can’t afford to disempower budding leaders. Kotter says, “Wasting talent will become increasingly costly in a world of rapid change. Developing that leadership will, in turn, demand flatter and leaner structures along with less controlling and more risk-taking cultures. The negative consequences of putting people with potential into small boxes and micromanaging them will only increase.”

There you have it. Five signs you might be managing instead of leading. I hope this post helps you think about how you can be a better leader. One who inspires people to do their best work and is capable of amazing things. I also hope it encourages you that leadership can come from anywhere. You don’t need to be in a formal, appointed position of authority to lead. When you’re open to collaboration and invite people into your decision making process, when you empower and encourage people, when you support the visions of leaders you admire, or take the time to think about your own vision, when you’re bold enough to take big risks and aren’t afraid to fail, you show the people around you that you’re a person worth following.

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