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Warren Bennis on Leadership

Like other leadership gurus of his generation, Warren Bennis jumped on the disastrous 1980's management-bashing bandwagon, thus helping to create a distorted glorification of leadership.

Japanese business success in the West, beginning in the 1970’s, created a virtual tsunami, a tidal wave that flattened management and replaced it with leadership. This knee-jerk, emotional reaction prevented us from reinventing management. We have been paying the price ever since.

The bottom line is that, management upgraded can do much of what 1980’s leadership gurus such as Warren Bennis assign to leaders. Consequently, we can say with confidence that Bennis’s notoriously well known clichés glorifying leadership and condemning management are total biases with no foundation in fact.

Bennis is right that leadership is badly needed. But we can’t fully capitalize on it until we upgrade management and develop a new understanding of leadership.

Bennis regards both managers and leaders as occupying roles in charge of people. He differentiates them in terms of style, making it clear that leaders simply do it better. Specifically, leaders for Bennis are inspiring and emotonally engaging. But this line of thinking is doomed to fail because style is fundamentally situational. That is, some leaders are inspiring; some are not. Some followers need to be inspired; some don’t. Some managers may be controlling but some aren’t. Thus there are no universal style differentiators.

A way around this dilemma is to switch our focus from people in roles to the processes of leadership and management. This change of emphasis shows how all employees can both lead and manage and gives us a completely new perspective on how these two functions work. But first, let’s take a look at Bennis’s infamous clichés.

Bennis’s Biases

Warren Bennis is famous, notoriously so, for the following one-liners that purport to differentiate leaders from managers:

  • The manager administers, the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy, the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains, the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structures, the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when, the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager has his or her eye always on the bottom line; the leader’s eye is on the horizon.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

Many of these clichés are simply rewordings of the same message, hence managers can only administer, copy, maintain, imitate, do things right and accept the status quo.  Conversely, leaders innovate, originate, develop, challenge the status quo, look to the future and do the right things.

However, none of these one-liners has any truth to it. To see this, we need to redefine management and leadership.

Management Rehabilitated

Management is not a role by definition; managers apply the same management processes that non-managers use. Rather, management is a process or tool for achieving goals. It can be defined as achieving goals in a way that makes best use of all resources. Not being a role, it is a tool that everyone can use, not just all employees but all people who want to make best use of their resources in relation to their goals.

This definition includes self-management: managing your own time, career and finances. Clearly you can be quite creative in how you manage yourself. You aren’t restricted to administering, imitating or maintaining the status quo. We escape these damning phrases by defining management in terms of outcome or purpose and that completely leaves open the means, the input side of the equation.

Management is like investment, which is aimed at achieving the best possible return. Management also aims at getting the best return, but on a wider set of resources, not just money. Effective management, like effective investment, achieves the highest return possible. Both are tools or processes for making the most of certain resources in relation to particular goals.

More precisely, management is a function, which means defining it in terms of the purpose it serves. Analogously, a hammer is defined by its purpose in pounding in nails, a heart by its function of circulating blood. The function of management is to achieve objectives in a way that makes best use of all available resources.

Notice that our definition doesn’t specify people. When we manage our time or finances, we are not managing people. Hence, management can’t be controlling by definition. In any case, the means of managing people are totally open. Thus particular managers could be controlling, but they could also be empowering, supportive and nurturing. The style they use is partly determined by their personalities but, more importantly, by the types of people that they need to make best use of in relation to their goals.

Before we say more about how management works, we need to redefine leadership.

Leadership Reinvented

Leadership, like management, is not by definition a role although it can be shown on an occasional basis by people in roles. Like management, leadership is a process that can be defined functionally in terms of its purpose: to influence people to accept a better way, either by example or by promoting a new direction. Leadership works through influence and its function is to move people in a different direction.

A crucial advantage of this definition of leadership is that it covers leadership across organizational boundaries whereas conventional definitions limit themselves to people showing leadership downwards within organizations.

For example, a green leader promoting environment friendly policies in Australia could have a leadership impact on communities in Argentina without being in charge of those who follow. Similarly, companies like Apple lead by example in their markets.  Hence, our definition doesn’t even require the leader to be an individual, let alone in charge of those who follow: the leader can be a group.

How Leadership and Management Work

Clearly, if leadership can be shown across group boundaries, then it can’t be a role within the follower group, it can’t be a responsibility for that group and it can’t make decisions for it. All it can do is influence the follower group to move in a different direction and that is how leadership works.

But, if leadership can only influence a change in direction, then ALL decisions must be managerial. This includes strategic decisions, not just those pertaining to efficient execution. But don't leaders make decisions too? Yes, but they can't SHOW leadership BY making decisions, except by example, because deciding for a group is not a form of influence.

Applying our Definitions to Bennis’s Biases

Bennis claims that leaders innovate while managers only administer. Our view says that both can innovate. Managers can innovate in either of two ways: by deciding on a new direction or by facilitating innovation in others. Leaders can only advocate a new direction to influence people to change.

His claim that managers focus on systems and processes while leaders focus on people is simply wrong. Managers need to motivate, empower, develop and yes, inspire people to work harder. They can also inspire them to be more creative. Keep in mind that the function of management is to get the most out of all resources and that must include inspiring people in order to help them achieve their full potential.

Leaders do, however, focus on people as Bennis claims, but not in the way he thinks. Only people can be influenced of course, not things. But the leader’s focus on people has nothing to do with developing or empowering them. This must be the domain of management if leadership can work across organizational boundaries where the leader has no power to develop or empower followers.

One of Bennis’s most popular clichés is his claim that managers do things right while leaders do the right things. Strictly speaking, leaders don’t do anything; they influence others to do things. Also, leadership can be used for evil ends so their focus need not be on the “right” things except in the sense of what seems right to the leader. Of course, leaders do things when they lead by example, but Bennis's claim is that leaders make the right decisions, which, if leadership is influence, can't be a way of leading.

Conversely, managers need to do the right things and do them right if they are to achieve their goals in a way that makes best use of all resources. Because management is a decision making function, it must decide on what goals to pursue in the first place if it is to be effective. 

Bennis claims that managers rely on control, leaders on trust. All roles and responsibilities, even being a lighthouse keeper, depend on trust. But leadership is not a role, hence not a responsibility. Strictly speaking, like all other forms of influence, it is an impact on people, one that can have good or evil ends. Further, managers don’t need to rely on control. They can use whatever means necessary to get the best out of people, including allowing them to manage themselves if that is what will work best.

Yes, the leader challenges the status quo in order to influence a change in direction, but managers can also challenge the status quo by deciding on a new direction or by facilitating such a decision in others.

The Role of Vision

Bennis interviewed numerous political leaders and CEOs and found them all to be very focused on getting things done, starting with a compelling vision. With leadership and management redefined, we can say that it is managers who get things done. Leaders can only promote a new direction.

But, because the means of leading people are completely situational, leadership may or may not require a vision. In small scale technical contexts a good idea for a change to a product could influence people to change their focus. It doesn’t need to be as grand as a vision. (See Vision and Leadership). Clearly, leadership must provide direction, but in some situations, like a crisis for example, a vision is not essential. Further, leading by example does not work through the verbal articulation of a vision at all.

Bennis, like most other leadership gurus, studies glamorous, high profile leaders in business and politics. But this is like trying to understand everyday influence by examining the spellbinding power that rock stars have over us.

It is strange that leadership gurus focus on media personalities, so-called “great” leaders to understand leadership generally. In The Ideal Leader, I argued that our fixation on such larger-than-life characters says more about us and our needs than it does about leadership.

There is no good reason why we can’t learn just as much about leadership by observing the actions of a front-line team leader or an employee who, by working smart, leads others by example.

Focusing on glamorous leaders has the unfortunate consequence that we are led to believe that being a leader means being a certain kind of person, generally a pretty heroic one at that. But if leadership is a process of influencing people to think or act differently, then there is no special kind of person required.

This is because leadership, like all influence, is an impact and that means that what it takes to influence people is totally situational. Thus it is not about the person leading at all, but what it takes to influence a particular group of people. For some it may take a vision. For others, quietly stated hard facts might do the trick. Again, the function of leadership is to influence people, but the means are whatever will work.

In conclusion, Warren Bennis has had a lot to say about leadership that has resonated with a lot of people. But if leadership is really about challenging the status quo, then it is time to question status quo views like his that have prevailed for so long. It is time to bring management back from the dead and put it back in its rightful place as a key driver of organizational prosperity.

Most importantly, we need to see that the views of all leadership gurus who did their seminal thinking in the 1980's are very distorted because of the irrational rejection of management that occurred at that time.

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