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Abraham Zaleznik on Leadership

In the late 1970’s and early 80’s a number of writers ganged up on management. They were looking for a scapegoat to blame for the failure of U.S. business to cope with the Japanese commercial invasion.

The war cry was to replace managers with leaders. One of the most strident critics of management was the Harvard Business School professor, Abraham Zaleznik. It is time to bring management back from the dead to take its rightful place alongside leadership as an essential organizational function.

Actually, there was nothing wrong with the function of management in the 1970’s, just the way it was practiced. The attack of Zaleznik is especially important to address because the Harvard Business Review is still publishing his original 1977 article “Managers and leaders: Are they different?” in their collection of articles on leadership, thereby creating the impression that his views are still relevant and up to date when they are actually dangerously outdated and harmful.

Zaleznik makes his case against modern management by comparing it with Fredrick Taylor’s scientific management theories. Bearing in mind that Taylor died in 1915, it is curious that Zaleznik to demonstrate why Taylor’s views should apply to modern managers.

In a book published in 1989, The Managerial Mystique, Zaleznik says that "what Taylor proposed through his system of management lies at the core of how modern managers are supposed to think and act. The principle is rationality. The aim is efficiency.’’ Most importantly, Zaleznik believed that managers and leaders differ in terms of their personalities.

Taking his lead from Taylor, Zaleznik describes managers as being cold efficiency machines who "adopt impersonal, if not passive, attitudes towards goals.’’ Further, ‘’Managers see themselves as conservators and regulators of an existing order of affairs.’’

He tells us that "managers’ tactics appear flexible: on the one hand they negotiate and bargain; on the other, they use rewards, punishments, and other forms of coercion.’’ So, managers are only apparently flexible and they are coercive, even manipulative in Zaleznik’s eyes. In his 1977 article Zaleznik makes exactly the same claim, stating that: "…one often hears subordinates characterize managers as inscrutable, detached and manipulative.’’

Zaleznik believes that, while managers seek activity with people, they "maintain a low level of emotional involvement in those relationships.’’ They also apparently ‘’lack empathy’’. Zaleznik expands on the emotional theme in The Managerial Mystique by telling us that managers "operate within a narrow range of emotions. This emotional blandness when combined with the preoccupation on process, leads to the impression that managers are inscrutable, detached and even manipulative."

It is not clear what evidence Zaleznik has for these charges. He seems to be simply extrapolating from Fredrick Taylor’s conception of management without arguing that management today is committed to Taylor’s characterization of it. Starting with Taylor’s worship of machine-like efficiency, Zaleznik has tarred all managers for all time with the same brush.

Zaleznik believes that leaders are creative and interested in substance while managers are only interested in process – how things are done, not what. For Zaleznik, ‘’leaders, who are more concerned with ideas, relate in more intuitive and empathetic ways.’’ No doubt leaders are more interested in ideas than how they get implemented, but there is no basis whatsoever for calling leaders more empathetic than managers.

However, there is no real basis for this personality distinction. It is not good enough to say that managers were controlling from Taylor’s days until the Japanese invasion showed them up. Even if this is historically accurate, there is nothing in this alleged fact that commits management to operating in this manner forever.

Why can we not simply upgrade management in a way that meets the demands of a different world, one involving more knowledge work than assembly line operations? One way around Zaleznik’s condemnation of management is to define it functionally, in terms of what purpose it serves, not in terms of how it actually achieves its purpose. This leaves the means of managing completely open.

Management Versus Leadership

Among the questions raised by this discussion are as follows:

  1. Should we focus on personality to differentiate leaders from managers?
  2. Should we focus on individuals in roles or functions?

A rationale for focusing on personality is the assumption that both leaders and managers perform the same function and are thus competing for the same territory of getting work done through people. From this point of view, leaders simply do it better than managers. If they both have the same function, then there is no way to differentiate them other than by pointing to style or personality differences.

But what if we say that they have different functions? John Kotter tried this approach, saying that managers deal with complexity while leaders focus on change. But he had one foot in the past because, despite the different focus, he still wanted to say that leaders were inspirational and managers transactional.

That is, Kotter was not fully focused on function; he was still thinking of role occupants in the traditional manner who needed to be differentiated by style.

A Functional Slant

A fully functional perspective should make no mention of personality when we define leadership and management. The same is true of sales and marketing. These are organizational functions that are independent of role in the sense that all employees can engage in them. Where they are formal sales and marketing roles, people in sales might be more outgoing and those in marketing might be more analytical, but this has nothing do with how we define these functions.

Functional definitions should make it clear that sales, marketing, leadership or management are processes, tools that anyone can pick up and use, just like writing, cooking or composing.

Here are some fully functional definitions of leadership and management:

  • Leadership shows the way for others, either by example or by advocating a new direction.
  • Management achieves goals in a way that makes the best use of all pertinent resources.

How Management Works

Management, so defined, is something we all do every day, even if only when we manage our time. Management is like investment, an attempt to get the best return or add the most value relative to specific goals and resources. Managers apply the same principles as an unemployed person looking for a job; they just have more resources to manage and more complex tasks to undertake.

An effective manager is one who gets the best out of all resources. When managing intelligent knowledge workers this can include letting them manage themselves to a large extent but also being supportive, empowering and developmental and, yes, even inspiring or transformational. A transformational leader inspires us to change direction while a transformational manager motivates us to work harder. Thus a manager need not be controlling or mechanistic. Style is totally situational, not part of how we define management.

Management works through two processes: making decisions and facilitating the best use of resources by being a catalyst, coach and developer of people.

How Leadership Works

Like management, leadership can also be shown by all employees as it is also a tool or process not a role. It works through influence, not by making decisions. Defining leadership as an influence process doesn’t imply that all forms of influence are leadership, however, any more than saying snow is white implies that all white things are snow.

This definition includes a range of kinds of leadership that have nothing to do with the conventional image of the person in charge of a group. Leadership-as-influence can be shown bottom-up when employees promote new products or better ways of working to their bosses. Showing the way for others is also how market leading companies like Apple lead their competitors. Green leaders have a leadership impact on communities around the globe when their speeches induce changes in policies. Martin Luther King had a similar leadership impact on the general population and the US Supreme Court when his demonstrations against segregation on buses led the latter to rule it unconstitutional.

Such leadership is a one-off event or impact, not an ongoing role and it is totally style neutral. The influence used in leadership can range from a stirring vision to a hard-hitting, evidence-based factual pitch. It all depends on the issue and the target audience.

A front line technical employee might cite hard facts in a quiet way or lead by example while a CEO advocating a major change in direction is likely to need a stirring vision to move people. Traits such as integrity and emotional intelligence are more important for managers because they have responsibility for people. By contrast, leadership only needs these traits situationally, depending on what it takes to move a particular audience.

Why Leadership-as-Personality?

Our conventional view of leadership is that of a person in charge of a group. We want one person to look up to who can give us direction, soothe our anxieties, inspire us and give our lives meaning. This is why we use positive words to describe leaders and why we look to glamorous CEOs or heads of states, rather than front line supervisors as our paradigm cases of leadership.

But such leadership is paternalistic because the leader is cast in the role of good parent while the manager is relegated to the bad parent role. This is a very primitive concept of leadership that is dangerously out of date in a knowledge driven world that needs all employees thinking for themselves and relating to people on an adult-adult basis as opposed to a parent-child one.

So, it is not surprising that Zaleznik’s account of leadership and management is popular. We like binary opposites such as hot – cold, good – bad. Portraying management in negative terms is our way of rationalizing our desire to idealize leaders, but this way of looking at leadership actually says more about us and our needs than it does about the way leadership actually works. See The Ideal Leader for more on this theme.

Answering Zaleznik

The question in this form is not answerable because many types of people can both lead and manage.  So, we need to ask instead how management differs from leadership, not just as different functions but as ones that aren’t restricted to executive role occupants, but as process tools that anyone can apply.

If anyone can apply the tools of leading and managing, then we can’t refer to getting work done through a team of people in our definitions of these functions because we can lead and manage without having anyone reporting to us. We can manage ourselves and have a leadership impact on people we don’t even know let alone be members of their team.

Management and leadership are indeed different. They have different aims (making best use of resources versus showing others a better way) and they work in different ways (deciding or facilitating versus influencing).

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