He begins by pointing to one of the sources of the distinction between leaders and managers:
The brilliant and charming Warren Bennis has likely done more to popularize this distinction than anyone else. He wrote in Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader that "There is a profound difference between management and leadership, and both are important. To manage means to bring about, to accomplish, to have charge of or responsibility for, to conduct. Leading is influencing, guiding in a direction, course, action, opinion. The distinction is crucial." And in one of his most famous lines, he added, "Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing."
But although the title of Sutton's article flatly states that leadership/management is "a false choice", Sutton can't quite bring himself to cross that bridge. Instead, he comments: "this distinction is more or less correct, and is useful to a degree."
But he concedes, the distinction leads to serious problems:
It has unintended negative effects on how some leaders view and do their work. Some leaders now see their job as just coming up with big and vague ideas, and they treat implementing them, or even engaging in conversation and planning about the details of them, as mere "management" work.
Worse still, this distinction seems to be used as a reason for leaders to avoid the hard work of learning about the people that they lead, the technologies their companies use, and the customers they serve.
But the issue seems to be rearing its head in more and more conversations--with project managers, for example, who have been assigned tasks by naive and overconfident leaders--things like implementing IT systems and building software. When they couldn't succeed because of absurd deadlines, tiny staffs, small budgets, and in some cases, because it simply wasn't technically possible to do what the leaders wanted, they were blamed. Such sad tales further reinforce my view that thinking about what could exist, and telling people to make it so, is a lot easier than actually getting it done.
Despite these problems, Sutton can’t however bring himself to reject the distinction between leaders and managers.
I am not rejecting the distinction between leadership and management, but I am saying that the best leaders do something that might properly be called a mix of leadership and management. At a minimum, they lead in a way that constantly takes into account the importance of management. Meanwhile, the worst senior executives use the distinction between leadership and management as an excuse to avoid the details they really have to master to see the big picture and select the right strategies.
Therefore, harking back to the Bennis theorem I quoted above, let me propose a corollary: "To do the right thing, a leader needs to understand what it takes to do things right, and to make sure they actually get done."
When we glorify leadership too much, and management too little, there is great risk of failing to act on this obvious but powerful message.
The gist of his piece is that leaders need to have a dollop of management in their makeup, not just leadership.
But Sutton is silent on the parallel question: What about managers? What do managers do? Shouldn’t they also be leaders?
By focusing only on what leaders should do and ignoring managers in his conclusion, Sutton is to some extent guilty of what he accuses others: glorifying leadership too much and management too little.
And perhaps if he had pursued the issue of what managers need to do, he would have realized that his article is wrong and his title is correct: leading vs. managing is a false choice.
Read Bob Sutton’s article here.
To learn more about the false distinction between leaders and managers, go to two earlier posts of mine: