Some say that it is naïve to debate about whether management or leadership is better, so it slightly pains me to publicly admit that I had a healthy debate on the topic a few weeks ago.  The view of the person that I was talking to was that leadership could be learnt and whilst I don’t entirely disagree, in that I think there are levels of leadership that can be learnt, I think true leaders have ‘it’ in them, ‘it’s’ there from an early age, whatever ‘it’ is.   

There are far too many books written on the subject and perhaps I should read one of them, but someone pointed me in the direction of Warren Bennis’ book On becoming a Leader, where I found the following list distinguishing between the two:

  • 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 structure; 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 an eye always on the bottom line; the leader has an eye 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 own person
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

I quite like it (I’m sure Bennis will be relieved!), I can relate to it and I think it sums it up pretty well.  

I haven’t shared the list so that whoever is reading this tries to work out which category they fit into but more to highlight that different roles will produce different results.  The challenge is getting the role right for the situation, and also the right person for the job role.

Neither is better or more worthwhile than the other; the above list exposes two very different but equally valuable mindsets.  They are interchangeable, each works best in the presence of the other, and many people possess and practice both. Sometimes subconsciously, but often due to experience and general awareness, we can determine which mindset we need to employ in which situation.

Most favour management.  It is more comfortable, we are happier reproducing what we know already, or more to the point think we know.    For obvious reasons we often favour the status quo.  I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, but we like equilibrium, we don’t like it when things are uncomfortable.

The challenge is that now more than ever, the NHS need leaders to take a very deep breath to move out of their comfort zone to think differently.   Frequently management is based on the response to yesterday’s questions.  How often do you hear ‘but we’ve managed it like this for years’?. Whilst some of the responses to the questions remain valid for the here and now a good many do not, they are out of date and little is achieved by walking backwards.   Leadership is needed to address the questions of today, to help move forward to tomorrow.  This may sound terribly obvious, but we don’t always do what is obvious, and we need to as we enter into more challenging times.  

The point is not that management is bad and leadership is good but to acknowledge that they are different and that they serve a different purpose.  The fundamental purpose of management is to keep the current system functioning whilst the fundamental purpose of leadership is to produce useful change, especially transformational or non incremental change.  

The risk of strong leadership with no management is complete chaos, but the risk of strong management with no leadership tends to be a very bureaucratic organisation entrenched in the past.  

It is human to revert to what we are used to, defensive routines are common when we are stressed and / or anxious.   Whilst everything else around us might be changing exponentially, most organisations (whatever their trade) continue to do what they have always done, at least for a period of time, before they realise that this isn’t going to be enough.  In fact the best outcome in these situations is to get better at what has always been done, but whilst good this is not good enough.  

One thing is clear, that doing things how we have been doing them in the NHS is not going to be good enough, neither is doing things a little bit better.  Change should start with us and we should all take personal responsibility for our part in it rather than waiting for someone to tell us what to do or how to do it.   As Mahatma Ghandi said ‘we must become the change we want to see’.  This might sound very simple, but there are things that we all could do differently starting right now.