Leadership – more than good management? by Kathy Brewis

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Ania Wieckowski Executive editor, HBR

Julia Hobsbawm Visiting professor of workplace social health, The Business School, Chair, UK Workshift Commission

Vlatka Hlupic Professor of leadership and organisational transformation, Hult Ashridge Executive Education

Barbara Kellerman Lecturer in public leadership, Kennedy School, Harvard University

Ricardo Vargas Executive director, Brightline Initiative

The difference between leadership and management was a debate Drucker resisted being drawn into. For him, boosting the quality of management was the biggest factor in maintaining great institutions. Yet the Drucker Forum has made leadership its 2020 theme. As a factor in enterprise success, does it deserve its own category?

What is leadership, what are leaders for, and are leaders and managers really the same thing? This was the starting point of a lively discussion moderated by HBR’s Ania Wieckowski. She opened by noting that in any forum the debate around leadership vs management quickly becomes heated. These days, she said, leadership activities tend to be more highly regarded than management functions – perhaps because “having a vision” sounds more impressive than supervising.

Barbara Kellerman, the first speaker, was straight into the fray. “Leadership” is a relatively recent term compared to “management”, she pointed out, but there’s a lot of confusion about how they differ and they are sometimes used interchangeably. We could use some consistent definitions – something she explores in her book Professionalising Leadership. “The reason we’re having this conversation in 2020 is because there has been no agreement in the world of business on what the two words mean. How can we avoid having this conversation five years from now?”

Drucker Forum 2020

Stop talking, start doing

It quickly became apparent that finding a way to resolve “management vs leadership” is important beyond semantics: we need to stop talking and start doing. Today’s challenges call for action, not arguments.

Hobsbawn is obsessed with the idea of cutting through complexity in order to get things done. Her latest book The Simplicity Principle: Six steps towards clarity in a complex world offers a way forward. “It’s a hybrid world now,” she said. “The best leaders are the best managers and the best managers are the best collegiate players. Sometimes we stand back to hear what’s being said, sometimes we direct the traffic and the conversation.”

At this time when everything about work is changing, let’s overturn assumptions and ask ourselves hard questions, she challenged. Is your organisation socially healthy? Is there real trust, are your networks diverse and are we judging managers by their output? She advised: “Have sympathy for your colleagues, keep it real, get results and take an approach to leadership and management which is simple and sweet.”

We also need to address system failures that seem almost inevitable at scale. “We need to reform and restructure. A great metaphor now is the office space itself. Look at the radical reshaping of how and where and when we work. In the UK now, 30% of people are working from home, and we’ve seen the biggest drop since 1994 in property being leased in central London. There’s a quantum shift in expectation that we will be anything other than hybrid. But if the fundamental structure is still the quarterly report, boards under boards, it’s a recipe for disaster. We need to reset everything.”

Leadership in crisis

Vargas said: “We live in a major crisis of leadership today, surrounded by a big group of egocentric leaders who think they know everything, driving polarisation.” Great leaders are human and care about more than money, he said. They inspire others and infect them with joy for their work. “It’s not easy to teach,” he acknowledged. “It’s something you have to live.” Key to good leadership in his view was the ability to inspire trust and adapt. “We’re living in a world that’s changing dramatically,” he said. “You need to be in permanent mutation.”

Hlupic called for nothing less than a revolution. Even before the pandemic, she declared, many workplaces were toxic breeding grounds for low productivity, with cultures of fear. Now, “Humanity is writing the next chapter of its evolution right in front of our eyes! We need radical, humane leaders.” The way forward? Trust, transparency, meritocracy, purpose, compassion, freedom and having fun working. Because there is much at stake. “We need to work on something much bigger than ourselves – to step up as leaders, it is time to act now.”

But how? Hlupic stressed the need for psychological safety. In her book Humane Capital she explains the need to lead from the heart, not just the head. Give responsibilities instead of tasks, trust people to do their job well. Decentralise decision-making so it’s based on knowledge, not a person’s position in the hierarchy. Ask yourself if your organisation is characterised by purpose, experimentation, tolerating mistakes, networking and feedback. Work should feel like fun.

Do the right thing

Some companies won’t survive this upheaval, said Hobsbawn. “If you want to get the right decisions made and the right behaviours happening you might need to stop doing some stuff and change.” In the words of Peter Drucker, “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” That’s a big challenge for most of us.

Wieckowski asked the panel to consider bad leadership. What do we do with a leader who is incredibly effective but whose purpose is at odds with what we consider to be good? Are they flawed? “There’s no such thing as a ‘bad’ leader without ‘bad’ followers,” said Kellerman. Trump was a major disrupter, but the Republican-controlled US Senate was complicit. Followers have more power than they appear to – so the onus is on everyone to work for a better future.

Vargas stressed the urgency: we shouldn’t sit around waiting for “leaders” to solve the world’s problems. He echoed the sentiment of Peter Drucker, who saw that effectiveness was more important than efficiency: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.” In this rapidly changing world, the concept of “doing things right” is starting to sound rather quaint.

About the author:
Kathy Brewis is Senior Managing Editor at Think at London Business School

This article is one in the “shape the debate” series relating to the fully digital 12th Global Peter Drucker Forum, under the theme “Leadership Everywhere” on October 28, 29 & 30, 2020.

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