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Creative Class Leadership

Bill Drew is one of the most popular managers in the company. He excels at motivating ateam to exceed expectations. While he makes tough decisions when he has to, Bill is approachable, warm and supportive.

Bill’s knack with people propelled him up the organization quickly to his current position as head of manufacturing in a company that makes electronic components for the automotive industry. Bill knows that producing consistent quality at low cost every day can get a bit boring but he continually finds new ways to keep things fun and interesting. He is especially good at engaging others in solving problems. Bill is a persistent asker of questions, like: What do you think? What options do you see for tackling this issue? What are the pros and cons of your recommendations? What obstacles do you foresee? How do you propose getting around those obstacles? What are the implications for other parts of the business? How can we keep our costs down?

Bill sees himself as a coach, enabler and facilitator. He strives to engage people’s brains, not just get them using their hands. For Bill, good questions are essential to get people thinking and solving problems themselves. Bill feels that, whenever he decides how to solve a problem that his team could solve, he disempowers them, does their job for them. Bill is also a bit of a cheerleader. When deadlines get tight and people are struggling, Bill always seems able to lift their spirits with some inspiring words about how important their work is and how much the team’s efforts are appreciated.

Steve Parker is at the same level in the company as Bill but he doesn’t manage anyone. Steve is in charge of innovation. His job is to circulate around the company and provide support to anyone with good ideas for new products across the entire product range. Steve regularly holds brainstorming meetings with different employee groups to see what new ideas they can develop, but he spends much of his time talking to customers, keeping an eye on competitors and looking out for emerging trends in the industry. This job really suits Steve as he doesn’t care for managing people at all. Further, he lacks Bill’s patience to monitor and fine-tune an ongoing operation like manufacturing. Steve is more of a starter than a finisher. In addition, Steve has a creative person’s temperament. He can immerse himself in a technical problem for days while hardly speaking to anyone. Sometimes he expresses himself with warm excitement. Other times he gets impatient and starts yelling at people.

When Steve develops a new product idea or latches onto one someone else's, he starts the often arduous job of convincing top management to invest in it. Steve has an enviable track record in this regard. The company’s success is very much a result of the constant stream of new, leading edge products that Steve champions. Sometimes Steve is able to present such a compelling factual case or demonstration of the new idea, that management is easily won over. Other times, the proposal is not so easy to sell and, if Steve is really convinced of its merits, he loses his temper with the senior management team, bangs the table and shouts at them. Steve convinces management to back him most of the time and they have become used to his unpredictable influencing style.

The question is: Who is the leader? Bill or Steve? The conventional answer is Bill, but he can be seen as an excellent manager, not a leader at all. Bill gets things done with great efficiency but he rarely champions any new directions. His facilitative style helps him draw ideas for process improvements out of his team. He expresses the company vision in a stirring way but his entire focus is to motivate better performance, to execute existing directions as well as possible. Of the two, it is only Steve who promotes new directions. His leadership is directed upward in the first instance, but it is this leadership that has made the company the most successful in its market.

Bill is a modern manager, not a cold, calculating controller, but an inspiring, supportive coach. What makes him a manager is his focus on execution or implementation. Bill is not a leader because he never champions any new directions. Conversely, Steve is never involved in managing the implementation of any of the new product ideas he champions. His leadership stops once the senior management team buys his latest idea. They know that he can’t be trusted to manage people or any ongoing operation, so they never ask him to take on such responsibilities. The company recognizes that they are fighting a war of ideas with their competitors, that constant innovation is the key to their prosperity. They realize that leadership, for them, means continually looking for better ideas and having the courage to champion them even when they initially seem odd.

Steve’s leadership is a lot like that which Martin Luther King showed when he pushed to end segregation on buses in Alabama, thereby leading the U.S. government to make such discrimination unconstitutional. While Steve lacks King’s oratorical skills, they both aimed their leadership efforts at those in charge of affairs. In King’s case it was the U.S. government, while for Steve it was his senior management. Both championed new directions and neither had a hand in implementing their proposals. Neither managed the people who acted on their leadership. This shows that leadership can come to an end once the target audience buys the new direction, that leadership does not entail managing people to get things done.

Of course, the same person might both lead and manage, but the conventional view that leadership means being an empowering coach is wrong. Leadership has always had something to do with showing the way, providing direction. At the same time, we recognize that people in charge of teams need to be better coaches, facilitators and developers of others. Our mistake is calling this leadership. We are so wedded to seeing the person in charge of a group as its leader that we are prepared to redefine leadership, effectively moving the goal posts from providing direction to being a coach or facilitator. The risk is that we lull ourselves into a false sense of security by thinking we are leading when we are actually managing, hence failing to show the real leadership our business needs. Leadership, whether you are a manager or not, means having the courage to challenge the status quo, to suggest doing something different. Leadership so defined can be just as readily shown by front-line employees as it can from the top.

Bill’s success shows that emotional intelligence is essential for a manager while Steve’s erratic influencing style shows that leadership primarily requires having the courage of your convictions. A leader’s influencing style can vary from a hard, quiet business case, through example, emotional appeal or an aggressive, frontal attack on the status quo. Effective managers are internally focused. Leaders must continually scour the market for new directions to champion. But Bill’s contribution is just as important as Steve’s. Without Bill, new leaders to replace Steve might not be encouraged or cultivated.

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