- “Equipping organizations to tackle the future would require a management revolution. ”--Gary Hamel, HBR, February 2009
- “The status quo never expects a revolution.”--Umair Haq
- “Managers and leaders are different.”http://bit.ly/bv8rPA -Best0fHBR (on Twitter)
- “Managers must be leaders!” --SteveDenning (on Twitter)
- "Managers and leaders operate from two completely different skill sets. Saying all managers should also be leaders is dangerous." --BestOfHBR (on Twitter)
I woke up this morning astonished to find myself accused by Harvard Business Review (on Twitter) of saying something dangerous.
Whoa! I was not just “wrong”. Or “misguided”. Or “mistaken”. Or “misinformed.” Or “ignorant.” None of the above. I had done something far, far worse. I had said something that was dangerous.
Now when someone in authority accuses you of saying something dangerous, you know several things. First, you know that you have become a matter of concern to the authorities; so you need to keep your wits about you. Second, you know that you have, for better or worse, put your finger on some hallowed belief that is sacred to the power structure. Thirdly, you know that the authorities have emotional and other capital stored in that belief. And finally, you know that because of the emotional capital involved, further interchange is unlikely to be fact-driven or evidence-based, but rather pursued by labeling the interlocutor with terms like “dangerous”, in the hope that this will silence debate.
And what was the dangerous thought that had so troubled this distinguished institution? I had put forward on Twitter the rather obvious and common sense proposition that “managers need to be leaders.”
My thought was a response to a HBR posting of an ancient HBR article: Abraham Zaleznik’s “Managers and Leaders Are They Different?” Harvard Business Review. 1977, 82 (1), p74-81. This article has been republished in 2004 and now again in 2010, it is presented as though it is cutting edge thinking. My Twitter post suggested that this old chestnut could do with some re-thinking.
The reply from HBR gave as the reason as to why my comment was "dangerous" was that “managers and leaders operate from different skill sets.” As it happens, that is something that I totally agree with.
The point that I have been making on this blog and elsewhere is that the skill set of a pure manager who cannot lead is obsolete. It might have been good enough in 1977, but it’s not good enough in 2010.We need to turn the page and move on.
Thus the skill set of a pure manager comes with a set of attitudes that Zaleznik described 1977 as: “First, the manager focuses on procedure and not on substance… Second, the manager communicates to subordinates indirectly by “signals”… Third, the manager plays for time.” What you have here of course is the perfect picture of the manager in a Dilbert cartoon.
What are the consequences of this Dilbert-cartoon style management? Fortunately, we have a comprehensive study performed by Deloitte’s Center for the Edge, spelling it out in shocking detail, of which some of the headlines are:
- The rate of return on assets has—remarkably—declined by 75% since 1965.
- The life expectancy of a firm in the Fortune 500 has declined from around 50 years in 1965 to less than 15 years today, and is heading for 5 years, if firms continue on their current path.
- Executive turnover is accelerating.
- Only one in five workers is fully engaged in their work.
These disastrous results for traditional management were the kind of evidence that led Gary Hamel and other leading management gurus to the conclusion that we are desperately in need of “a management revolution.” Moon Shots for Management (HBR, Feb 2009).
In a world where continuous innovation is required and where the productivity of a firm depends on the energy and enthusiasm of their knowledge workers to achieve that, the skill set and attitudes of the pure manager, who operates like a Dilbert cartoon, are obsolete. They have no place in the modern workplace.
Instead, we need managers who focus above all on substance, who communicate directly and interactively rather than indirectly by signals, and who aim at truly delighting clients by enabling people to get things done now, rather than playing for time.
In effect, we need managers who also have leadership skills and who can both achieve disciplined execution and inspire the energies and insights of the people doing it.
A peculiar feature of traditional managerial discourse is the unspoken
assumption of its inevitability. It is as though the practices of traditional
command-and-control, tightly planned work, competition through economies
of scale and cost reduction, impersonal communications—reflect timeless truths
of the universe, so obvious that there is scarcely any need to articulate them,
let alone re-examine them. In reality, these managerial practices arose as a
response to a specific set of social and economic conditions. Those conditions have
changed. The economic and social context of 2010 is very different from 1977.
In some ways, the Zaleznik article of 1977 was an intellectual advance in that provided the insight that traditional managers operate differently from leaders who can inspire people to act differently. That might have been a useful insight if it had led to a re-examination of whether the skills and attitudes of pure managers were appropriate, even in 1977. But that would have meant reconsidering some of the fundamental assumptions of management. So instead, what it led to was the idea of dual tracks. We have leaders to inspire people to change, and we have managers to grind out the execution. Two separate groups of people.
The problem was of course that the two groups worked at cross-purposes. As much as leaders inspired employees with new ideas, managers tended to dispirit those same people with their Dilbert-cartoon style management. The result was counter-productive, but it provided the intellectual justification for managers continuing to manage just as they had for lo, these many decades.
Now it's true that Harvard Business Review publishes some marvelous articles from time to time. Moon Shots for Management (2009) is one such example. There are many others.
But trotting out ancient articles like the Zaleznik piece and suggesting that it represents cutting edge thinking for today, is not the best of HBR. It is the worst.
Fortunately, today there are many who are practicing and writing about the radically different kind of management that combines management with leadership. Vineet Nayar writes about it in his book, “Employees First, Customers Second.”
Charlene Li writes about it her insightful book, Open Leadership, which I will be reviewing shortly in Strategy & Leadership.
And of course, I write about it on this blog and in my forthcoming book, “The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management: Reinventing the Workplace for the 21st Century, which will be published by Jossey-Bass in October 2010.
You can find out more about radical management at:
UPDATE: JULY 29, 4PM
I received a Tweet from BestOfHBR as follows: "@stevedenning 'dangerous' was poor word choice. We agree with your latest blog post! Next article on leadership coming later today."
In one sense, I am relieved to hear that we are apparently on the same page, after all.
In another, I am disappointed that my career as a "dangerous man" has been so disappointingly brief!
Yet maybe my career is not over. Thus is this really the end of hostilities, or is it simply a tactical retreat by HBR? If the whole of HBR really agreed with my post about managers, as BestOfHBR says they, then we would expect a retraction in respect of the all the other HBR articles that have subscribed to and endorsed Dilbert-style management. How likely is that to happen? If so, when?