01 February 2015

Managers, Leaders, and the Future of the Organization

     Much has been written about differences between managers and leaders in organizations. While there are many differences, I argue that a critical difference concerns the person's orientation toward the future. That is, managers mostly focus on here-and-now organizational issues, while leaders have a strong sense of the future.
     For example, because of a manager's here-and-now focus, such a person often views strategic planning as a task to be accomplished. In contrast, because a leader has a future orientation in his or her thinking, such a person often properly approaches strategic planning as a plan to address the purpose and direction of the organization.
     It is important to remember that managers can develop leadership qualities, and at the same time, leaders must develop management skills to be successful. However, it is also important to understand that not every manager will become a leader. This is not necessarily bad in an organization because some individuals are needed to focus on the here-and-now problems to support the leaders of the organization. Such men and women are critical to the functioning of the organization.
     Likewise, leaders must focus both on the future and the present in order to to accomplish what is needed to progress toward future goals. Given this, managers can be a great benefit to leaders both in reminding them of present conditions and needs, and in helping leaders deal with such needs in accomplishing organizational objectives and goals. This means leaders must seek out and value those managers under their supervision.
     A critical problem organizations continually face occurs when managers are in leadership positions, and leaders are not promoted to positions of authority. This problem is an ancient one, as one only need read Plato's The Republic to see this problem addressed in ancient days. I have found that when managers occupy leadership positions, and such people do not develop leadership qualities, they often devalue strategic planning and devalue those who have a sense of the future of the organization. Likewise, when leaders are not promoted to positions of authority, they often leave the organization, or become discouraged and unmotivated.
     There is no magical formula to solve this problem. Plato recommended either developing a Guardian class of leaders in society (see The Republic), or rely on an informal "nocturnal council" of leaders in the organization to be the gatekeepers regarding promoting individuals to positions of authority (see Plato's The Laws). Although Plato would likely argue that both approaches are based on merit if he were alive today, in practice both approaches violate the merit system of promotion in government in the United States which is based on objective measures of performance. Such measures are not directly based on one's orientation towards the future.
     Still, these problems remains: how do we insure that managers are rewarded for accomplishing organizational goals and objectives, while at the same time insure such individuals are not promoted to positions of authority unless they develop leadership skills? Likewise, how do we make sure leaders are promoted to positions of authority and develop management skills along the way?
     Plato is correct that there is a systemic element that must be addressed in answering such questions. However, let me also recommend a character-based approach to addressing these questions: each individual must examine him/herself and answer the question:
  • "Am I oriented toward being a manager or a leader?" That is, "Do I have a future orientation in my work?" 
    • If a person concludes he or she is a manager, then such a person must ask, "Am I willing to develop leadership qualities that deal with the future of the organization?" 
      • If the answer is "No!", then that person must ask, "Am I content to remain a manager and support the leaders in the organization (including those presently under my supervision)?" If not, such a person can cause the organization to lose focus on its future direction, and therefore, not accomplish its mission.
    • If a person concludes he or she is future oriented, then such a person must ask, "Am I willing to develop management skills and value those under my authority who are managers?" If not, such a person can cause the organization to neglect addressing the here-and-now problems it must resolve in order to accomplish its mission.
     Answering such questions does not solve the human resource management problem of getting the right people into the right positions. Such a solution must include a systemic element in the organization. However, a character-based approach does help individuals understand their strengths and weaknesses and help them determine whether or not to be content with their management orientation, or work to develop needed leadership skills, including developing a future orientation about the organization.