What We Really Need – It’s Not Leadership

Prefer to watch rather than read?  Click here to watch me go through this on video – 5 mins, and with captions if you need no sound.

The stupid ‘manager and leader’ thing came up again on LinkedIn this week.  This time it was in the form of this:

…as always – leaders are cool, managers are the worst.

Them Book Words

So I thought I’d have a look into the usage of these words.  Google does a thing called ngrams which shows you how often given words appear in books it’s knows about.  Here’s what we get:

Look at the blue ‘management’ line decline from 1993 (which is when Kurt Cobain strummed his acoustic guitar on MTV Unplugged) to the present – that’s a 39% decline, compared to ‘leadership’ which has steadily increased for over 100 years.

Looking directly at the word ‘Manager’ gives an even starker situation:

…that decrease from 1994 to now is one of over five times.  Or back to levels seen in the 1800s.

What do we make of this?  Well – management and Managers just ain’t so hot right now!

What Them Words Mean

Now to some actual definitions.  Using google again, here’s the first definition of ‘manage

“be in charge of (a business, organisation or undertaking); run”

And if we go to the ‘similar’ definitions, we find:

“Use (money, time or other resources) sensibly.”

Turning to ‘Manager, we get:

“a person regarded in terms of their skill in managing resources”

Hold these thoughts.

And now to ‘lead’, I’m going to use the three definitions:

“cause (a person or animal) to go with one by holding them by the hand, a halter, a rope, etc. while moving forward.”  Example sentence: “she emerged leading a bay horse”!

“be a route or means of access to a particular place or in a particular direction”

“be in charge or command of”

Those ‘lead’ words don’t sound so modern under these definitions, especially with mentions of animals (not saying horses aren’t great if you’re into them BTW).

 OK, So What’s ‘Leadership’ Then?

Let’s make sense of this.  See ‘leadership’ or ‘to lead’ as to “cause movement in a particular direction”.  Doing this is a combination of tangible and intangible things, systems, mindsets, behaviours, cultures, relationships….all of it.  But in the end, it’s just causing movement in a particular direction (not just any direction).

Simple.  Not easy.  But simple.

But It’s NOT Leadership We Need

Here’s the thing – I once again read last week “people are crying out for leadership”. 

They’re NOT!

People are crying out for management. Yes, boring management.

The key thing we can get from the definitions of management is ‘to use well’.

Ask yourself – are used as well at work as you could be?  What would your people say?  What’s your best guess as to what the number would be if you put this question into your next staff survey?

Now..perhaps the word ‘used’ isn’t the best, but it’s a condition of being psychologically OK that we feel like we can use our abilities to do something that matters to someone else.  In other words, we don’t just want to be used well…we need to be.

And that’s what good management does.

Leadership is still useful – bit of context, purpose, getting clear on the destination, helping people see why it matters…all that is good.  But it’s management that we need.

Toaster Management

Look at it this way.  The words ‘human resources’ bothers some – “people are people, not resources” sort of thing…but what if we take it to an extreme and say that we treat humans as machines?

Like…say…your toaster!

If you had to produce 12 pieces of toast, and the current toaster was all you had right now, would you use the method on the left or the right?

And why not the method on the left?  Because it wouldn’t be sensible.  It would not be a good use of the resource.  It would not be good management.  You’ll get zero pieces of toast.

You can get a toaster for 30 bucks.  If you’ve got a team of 10 people, you’re likely running annual salaries up around $1 million.  Yet we manage our cheap toaster that has no feelings better than our expensive humans who do.

Bringing it Home

It’s a rare workplace that’s not subjecting it’s people to loaves of bread being stuffed into the top.  And the less popular ‘management’ becomes in place of ‘leadership’…the worse it’s going to get.

But imagine this.  A workplace where:

  • People sit down and work out what’s actually possible in terms of volume, quality and time.


  • Work is arranged in a way so that what needs to be done next is clear enough to get on with things

What would this feel like?

We would see people going home either energised, or if tired, due to the effort in creating value. A much different feeling to being tired from having to continually bat away more loaves of bread being stuffed into the top.  

It would be a workplace that would feel switched on and in the flow as the sense of progress increased, and there would be enough slack to enable people to try new things that would advance the organisation forward towards it’s goals.

And…you know what people would say?  “That place must have great leadership”.  When this happens, I recommend you nod and agree, because if you told them that all we did was decide to manage our resources in a way that actually looked after them…they wouldn’t believe you.

Management.  It’s so NOT hot right now.

And so needed.

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