Finding the line between leadership and management

A manager recently asked how he could go about reconciling his implementation of cultural changes that enhanced the teamwork of his department in the face of corporate-level directives that didn’t support, if not detract from, his plans. This manager did not understand why this company did not want to support his ideas and why employees, who seemed to like them as well, were reluctant to fully engage. I recognized these facts as presenting a great example of where the line is between leadership and management:

1. If the culture change doesn’t lead to better metrics, what’s the point for the business? The metric might be reduced employee turnover, but “engagement,” “excitement,” and “commitment” should all lead to some kind of improvement in productivity, customer satisfaction, or even revenue. And each of these should be connected to its actual impact on the free cash flow creation attributed to your corner of the business. If you don’t know what’s improving, you need to figure that out before moving ahead too much. In terms of reasons change is slow, almost as strong as “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is “if you’re gonna fix it, you better fix it.” Indeed, they’re probably two sides of the same coin, or maybe even the same side of the coin.

2. Employees need security. Unless you have control over their jobs, they, as you, have reason to fear changes that will inevitably, in their minds, be used to blame them for poor future results. If you want more power in this regard, put your job on the line and negotiate for more budget/P&L control. Put your compensation at risk, and then your employees may feel more open. The Ranger/Infantry version of this is “lead from the front.” Employees take their cues from the top, and there are lots of levels of “top” in a big company.

3. Companies don’t “get it.” They can’t, any more than the Army can “get it.” Parts of the Army get it (special operations) most of the time, but then you realize that even then, it’s about individual leaders. When lots of good leaders find and develop more good leaders, you get organizations that are set up for success, but that’s just opportunity, not a guarantee. So if you get it, then you bring your team along bit by bit and show them “the Mark way” and why it’s better, demonstrably better, than what they were doing before. (NB: this ties to the “what metrics are improving?” point.)

My personal “favoriteleader, the one guy I will follow anywhere if he tells me it’s important , says it very clearly: you lead people, you manage things.

(For those who might not understand the Army, here’s a more famous version of the same thing: be the change you wish to see in the world.)