January 29, 2006

“The words manager and leader are two ends of a continuum. Manager tends to signify the more analytical, structured, controlled, deliberate, and orderly end of the continuum while leader tends to occupy the more visionary, passionate, creative, flexible and uncontrolled end.”

- Craig Hickman, Mind of a Manager, Soul of a Leader

What happens when leaders turn managers? I will explore that later. First, let us try to understand the difference between a leader and a manager. As the old management cliché goes, a leader is one who does the right things while a manager is one who does things right. It might be a cliché but it has much wisdom and practical value hidden in it.

What leadership is about?
Leadership is like being a painter and drawing a painting from imagination. It is much broader in essence. It’s about providing an outline, very much likely a very hazy outline. It is about a dream that you saw and which you want your followers to turn into a reality.

What leadership is not about?
Leadership is not about dictating what to do, how to do, and when to do. It is also not like giving the entire roadmap to the destination. Astute leaders give a destination and a few clues to finding the way to it. But never the entire roadmap with landmarks clearly highlighted. Leadership is also not about control.

When trouble starts?
The real troubles start when leaders stop doing their job and start doing a manager’s job. Instead of giving directions they start micro-managing the affairs of the organization. The result is confusion. Managers suddenly don’t know what they are expected to do. Are they expected to do exactly what their leaders tell or are they expected to do their own thing to achieve the leader’s and organization’s vision? What should a manager do if leaders start interfering with even small details of the planning and execution process? It’s totally confusing then and it gradually starts showing on results. With time, managers appear to be doing an assistant’s job – that is doing exactly what they are told instead of using their own brain, skills and experience in solving problems. This in turn also affects the motivation level of managers and other employees. Not only results and motivation suffer but also the creativity of an organization suffers. Due to this, emergence of new ideas suddenly stops in organization. No body bothers to think differently because he/she feels that only leader’s whims and fancy will rule. The synergy that a collective mind of the organization brings is suddenly lost.

It also impacts the grooming of people into leadership roles of future. This micro managing style of leadership results in a total vacuum just below the leader’s position in the organizational hierarchy. Due to their micro managing attitude these leaders are never able to groom leaders of tomorrow. So the day these micro managing leaders leave the organization, the organization suddenly finds itself bereft of any leadership talent within itself.

Why some leaders turn managers?
Not all leaders turn manager. But a lot of them do behave like managers. I don’t have research findings to tell you why this happens. But I definitely have some ideas on why this happens based on my limited experience in observing these so called leaders.

Leaders who behave more like managers are basically people who have been in the same organization since long time and who have seen the organization grow from a very small organization to an organization of moderate size. These are also the people who are veterans as far as experience is concerned but are not updated on the new realities of leading and managing. These so called leaders were adept at doing micro managing when the organization was small. When the organization is small, sometimes micro managing is a necessity to drive the results in a direction. But as the organization grows the micro managing must gradually give way to macro leading. Here, the control freak leaders falter. Their habit of having absolute control over everything does not die a natural death. In the grandeur of their illusion, they feel that they need to be in control of everything even when the organization is moderately large enough. There is perhaps a hidden psychological impulse that they must keep their control on everything if the organization has to keep growing because they are the people who know everything about the organization and how it functions. Another reason for their not relinquishing control may be a hidden fear that by giving control they may lose their exalted standing in the organization.

Whatever may be the reasons for leaders turning into managers, it is not a good sign for any organization. If the organization continues with such control freak leaders at the helm, sooner than later it will feel the heat. These so called leaders not only have a negative energy flowing from them but also affect the work culture of the whole organization that may lead an organization to see its worst day.