It’s time to stop talking about leaders and managers and focus on leadership and management instead. People in charge should be called executives, bosses, chiefs, captains, presidents or premiers, anything but leaders or managers.

Talking about leaders and managers creates the impression that only positional authorities can lead or manage. This is a serious problem for leadership thanks to our tendency to depend on leaders to take care of us and do much of our thinking for us. In a knowledge driven age where business needs faster innovation and better employee engagement, our concept of leadership is self-defeating. After all: how can you empower people by fostering dependency?

Further, because we don’t like to be managed, we have a negative attitude toward managers. We see them as bureaucratic controllers, heartlessly obsessed with numbers and efficiency.

The escalating importance of knowledge workers, Richard Florida’s creative class, goes hand in hand with rising democracy, collaboration and the “wisdom of crowds.” Greater employee engagement and faster innovation both require greater shared ownership, not just over execution but strategy too.

To encourage shared ownership, we must recognize that ALL employees can both lead and manage, not just those in positions of authority. So far so good, but we’ve talked about informal, dispersed or distributed leadership for years. So, what’s new? Well, these concepts are the proverbial rearranging of the deck chairs on the titanic. The “informal leader” of conventional leadership theory is still the person who other team members turn to for guidance. This is still about occupying a role, albeit informally. We need a completely different concept of leadership to move fully away from leaders and managers conceived as role occupants.

Roles suggest exclusive clubs; roles have walls. It’s time to break down the walls and let everyone in.

Leadership and management as tools, functions or processes

Moving beyond roles requires a functional slant, where leadership and management are tools that anyone can use even if only occasionally and for specific purposes, to achieve particular goals. Tools available to all cannot be monopolized by the few.

While a tool is often an object, like a hammer, it can also be a process, such as grinding, distilling, assembling, writing, selling, adding or subtracting. We could just talk about processes but so many processes are automated and some occur naturally, like aging, decaying and freezing. Processes that are tools are those, like writing and selling, that we can pick up and set down at will as the need arises, that we can apply to achieve a particular purpose.

The leadership process

Leadership can be defined as showing the way for others, either by example or by advocating a better way. It is the process of influencing people to change how they think or act.

Notice that this definition is totally independent of both person and role. Consider market leadership, where one company, such as Apple, leads its competitors in mobile telephony, music distribution and computing. Here, we are not even talking about a person and certainly not one who is in charge of the people who are led. Apple leads Nokia in smartphones but is obviously not in charge of Nokia. This is an example of the process of leading. In this case, one company is leading a competitor.

Similarly, Martin Luther King’s protests against segregation on buses had a leadership impact on the general public and the U.S. Supreme Court when the latter ruled such discrimination unconstitutional. Jack Welch showed leadership by example to businesses around the globe when they adopted his strategy to be number one or two in a market. When green leaders like Al Gore promote energy efficiency and communities who have never met him adopt his proposals, he has shown them leadership as an outsider. When front-line knowledge workers succeed in convincing their bosses to make product or service improvements, they show leadership bottom-up.

Thus leadership is an influence process. Actually, every form of influence is a similar process, as is readily seen with selling. When you try to sell someone your used car, you only succeed when someone buys it. Similarly, you can try to lead your colleagues, but leadership only happens when people choose to follow. Both leading and selling are in the eyes of the beholder, which is why odd leaders can gain a following and why, with selling, we use the old clichés: “there’s a sucker born every minute” and “there’s no accounting for taste.”

This is not to say that all forms of influence count as leadership. TV ads influence us every day but that is not leadership, nor is selling, bribing or coercing. Leadership occurs between people who value, and are striving to achieve, the same ends. But, they don’t need to actually work together. A community in Indonesia that follows green leadership proposals originating in Norway shares their values around energy use even if there is no personal connection involved.

Because leadership can only work through influence, it can’t make decisions for those who are led. Apple leads by example, not by deciding anything for its competitors. This is true also of Martin Luther King, green leadership and that which is shown bottom-up. Thus, on this view, there can be no autocratic leadership. Only a person in a role with authority over others can decide for them. All such decisions are management actions, never leadership.

The management process

Management can be defined as achieving goals in a way that makes best use of all resources. Like investment, it aims to achieve the highest possible return on the use of certain resources. Management is thus a process of organizing and using all pertinent resources in such a way as to achieve any goal profitably, cost effectively or to meet other stakeholder needs. In some situations you might manage a project where quality and timeliness are more important than cost or profits.

Whenever you prioritize, you are managing your time. When you decide to take an MBA to develop yourself, you are managing your career, aiming to get the best possible return on all of your self-development efforts.

Management works in two ways: (1) by deciding what resources to use and (2) by making best use of them. If you manage people, the latter includes developing, supporting, encouraging, coaching and empowering them. If you are a jailer, you need to be controlling. Or, if you are operating in a culture where employees routinely steal from their employers, you won’t be very empowering. But if you are managing intelligent knowledge workers, you need to be a catalyst, facilitator and supporter not an authority.

Applications of leadership

Criminal or terrorist organizations can apply leadership to achieve evil ends. Because it is simply a process of influencing others, leadership is value neutral.

However, leadership can be used to promote higher values, such as treating others fairly, being honest, helping others, being unselfish or anything else under the sun.

It can also be used in technical contexts that do not directly involve human values.  Showing leadership in a high tech product development context can be independent of people-related values if it simply influences the alteration of products. Of course, leadership could also be used to persuade employees to make cheaper products that are known to be unsafe.

When we talk about military, green, financial, technical, product or thought leadership, we are not talking about six different kinds of leadership but simply different contexts in which leadership is applied. It is the same tool or process just used to achieve different ends.

Leadership varies in two ways:

  1. The context in which it is applied
  2. The form that influence takes

Let's look at each of these ways in turn:

  1. As we have seen, context can vary widely, from criminal organizations to the most kindly ones imaginable. Leadership is a GROUP phenomenon, bearing in mind that a GROUP can be one that works together or even all people around the world who share the same values, such as making best use of energy, for example. A market composed of competing companies is also a group in this sense.
  2. The form that influence takes can also vary widely: from an inspiring vision to a firm statement of facts. It can be emotionally uplifting or a hard-hitting dose of reality. It can be quiet or loud; it can be shown by example with no words spoken at all. Where a large organization or culture is asked to make a major change in direction, a visionary, emotionally inspiring vision is likely to be required.

But in a front-line technical context, evidence-based decision making rules and, here, citing hard evidence quietly or even aggressively can be sufficient. The key point is that there is no universal form of influence because leadership is in the eye of the beholder; influence must be tailored to particular audiences.

Servant leadership is a good example of our tendency to confuse context with the meaning of leadership. Servant leadership is not really a distinct kind of leadership but rather a particular application of the same tool within the context of a preferred set of values. Those who advocate servant leadership confuse ends and means. They admire the values or ENDS of service to others and the virtues of selflessness, but that doesn’t affect the MEANS, how leadership is shown.

Leadership is still a matter of showing the way for others, either by example or by promoting a better way. It works through influence just as it does in any other context or with any other values or goals. We say that leaders have followers, but how can you follow people unless they are going somewhere desirable ahead of you or pointing the way? This is true of green, financial, thought, market, servant leadership or any other context: only the goals or values differ, not the way leadership is shown.

Applications of management

As with leadership, management is a value-neutral process. We need to allow that criminal organizations can, in principle, be as well managed as the most admired Fortune 100 companies.

Management, as a tool, can be used by small groups, companies, countries and individuals. We can manage ourselves, our finances, our careers, our leisure activities or anything else that is sufficiently important to us that we want to do it well. Management is thus not a role, but a way of handling tasks that are important to us. Naturally, the more complex the task, the more carefully we need to prioritize and allocate resources.

The only difference between senior executives and front-line employees (as far as management is concerned) is that the former have more resources to manage and more authority to allocate them as they see fit.

Benefits of viewing leadership and management as processes or tools

  • Associating management with the role of manager is disempowering because it creates the impression that managers do all the important thinking and deciding while employees are just there to implement. This old-fashioned view is obsolete and must be rejected in a knowledge driven age.
  • By recognizing that all employees manage, we can encourage them to manage even more, take more ownership and engage themselves.
  • With the management load spread more evenly, greater shared ownership and employee engagement are fostered.
  • Recognizing that all employees can lead, in the sense of promoting a better way, encourages faster innovation because it associates leadership with having a better idea for any aspect of how a business operates.
  • Breaking the link between leadership and positional authority can help rid employees of their dependency on bosses, thus stimulating them to think more for themselves.
  • Alignment with the reality that occupying a position doesn’t make one a leader or a manager.
  • Clarifies the fact that even executives only lead and manage occasionally. These are tools they apply when needed. It is not who they are.

In short, we live in a more complex, democratic world where we need greater involvement of everyone. Roles have walls. It is time to tear them down.

Resistance to viewing leadership and management as tools

Calling leadership and management tools or processes that anyone can use is great for making sense of how front line employees can show leadership bottom-up. However, it is important to recognize that groups and organizations fall along a continuum. At one end of the spectrum are simple, traditional groups such as street gangs and businesses that make simple products such as lumber or offer simple services such as fast food and car rental firms. These groups might retain hierarchical structures where the boss is the boss. There is also a cultural dimension: some cultures, where the boss must be respected at all costs, may be less receptive to bottom-up leadership.

At the other extreme are complex, innovation driven businesses that change rapidly and are populated by highly educated, intelligent knowledge workers. The idea that all employees can show bottom-up leadership applies most readily in these organizations, less so in those that are traditionally structured.

Also, the need to foster employee engagement and innovation is (relatively) less critical in businesses driven mainly by service and cost so there is less need to let go of the conventional image of the boss as leader. Because well-educated knowledge workers want to work with their minds, not so much their hands, they need to be more involved in strategic thinking to feel a greater sense of ownership for the business as a whole.

This is not to say that traditional organizations could not benefit from breaking the stranglehold that executives maintain over leadership and management. The point here is simply that organizations at the less complex and less fast changing end of the spectrum are likely to offer the strongest resistance to such ideas. The danger is that they may use their perspective to dismiss the whole idea of reinventing leadership and management as tools for all, not recognizing that it is primarily in their own organizations where these ideas are not as immediately applicable. Still, resistance may well come from executives in all industries if they may see this reformulation of leadership as a threat to their power and status.

Finally, however much sense it makes to recast leadership and management as tools that all can use, we may feel some lingering longings for the idea that leadership is about the person in charge, the heroic individual who can soothe our anxieties and give us a sense of purpose. Recognizing that there are different types of organizations, that those at the fast changing end of the spectrum may call for a different kind of leadership helps but we also need to take a hard look inside ourselves and ask why we have such a strong need to look up to, and depend on, one person. See The Ideal Leader and Beyond Folk Leadership for more on this issue.