Managers or Operators
Early in my exposure to organizational leadership I heard a speaker, whose name I have long since forgotten, say that leaders focus on doing the right thing and managers focus on doing things right. By the latter, he meant the “right way” as defined by existing policies and procedures. As a physician I thought of these as paralleled by diagnosis, which is a process for which there are a range of better and worse ways to act, and prognosis. Prognosis is always much more uncertain and requires leadership on the part of the physician to help define the “right” course of action for a given patient. Later, I came to see the distinction in business was often one of focus. Leadership involved a forward-looking view that was more global in outlook while management was focused on making the processes work to produce the intended result today and into the foreseeable future.
Recently, Steve Denning has written an article which begins with a discussion of the “leadership disease.”
“The well-meaning efforts of business school writers, like Warren Bennis and Abraham Zalesnik, to inject an ethical element into leadership becoming separate from execution, while management is looked down on as something mundane, tactical, empty of ethics, and beneath the serious attention of genuine leaders. Leadership is increasingly seen as a set of attributes rather than a function of getting results.”
Rather than depend on Denning’s recap, I took the time to find a copy of Zaleznik’s often-cited article. Zaleznik was interested in personality differences and noted:
“A managerial culture emphasizes rationality and control…a manager is a problem solver…(but) What it takes to ensure a supply of people who will assume practical responsibility may inhibit the development of great leaders. On the other hand, the presence of great leaders may inhibit the development of managers, who typically become very anxious in the relative disorder leaders seem to generate…To get people to accept solutions to problems, managers continually need to coordinate and balance opposing views…Managers aim to shift balances of power toward solutions acceptable as compromises among conflicting values. Leaders work in the opposite direction. Where managers act to limit choices, leaders often develop fresh approaches to long-standing problems and open issues to new options…Leaders work from high-risk positions; indeed, they are often temperamentally disposed to seek out risk and danger, especially where the chance of opportunity and reward appears promising.”
I read this paper as describing tasks and personality types likely to be successful with the different tasks, but Denning summarizes the model as practiced inhabiting all bureaucratic organizations.
“First, the manager focuses on procedure and not on substance…Second the manager communicates to subordinates by “signals” rather than clearly stating a position…Third, the manager plays for time. With conflicting rules and procedures, and conflicts about priorities between different senior managers, managers have no way of knowing what the right answer is. The idea of using their own judgment is at odds with the idea that they left their own views in the entrance lobby.”
Of course, the challenge is not either/or. Kotter has argued:
“Leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Each has its own function and characteristic activities. Both are necessary for success in an increasingly complex and volatile business environment.”
Denning notes this dichotomy has caused problems because “management eats leadership for breakfast.” This is true because:
“Management is systematic. Leadership is episodic. Leadership depends on individual effort. Management runs on processes that like a machine grind on regardless. Management builds on unstated assumptions that are difficult to eradicate. Leadership depends on one-off explicit statements that are easy to ignore. Management is like the operating system of a computer. Leadership is like the apps that run on top of the operating system. Leadership can embrace technical solutions…but if management is not in sync, change will never happen.”
The truth of these assertions is evident to anyone like me who has tried to provide public leadership in a health care system not disposed to accept physician input. Recently, though, I have read articles by CMO’s that refer to management teams as “operators.” It made me think of the military, where attainment of important objectives often depends on the NCO “operators.” These operators knew where, when, and how, to circumvent the “system” to get things done. Maybe what is needed now is to redefine management as knowing when and why to break the rules. People of all sorts can certainly do this—think obeying speed laws or wearing face masks. Perhaps what health care organizations need is more operators. But just as in the military, the officers need to protect their operator sergeants, or else the sergeant will let the officer go down in flames.
8 November 2020
 Denning S. Reclaiming Leadership in the Age of Agile. Forbes.com., 25 October 2020. Accessed 26 October 2020 at https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2020/10/25/reclaiming-leadership-in-the-age-of-agile/?sh=4d6a14a5711f
 Zalesnik A. Managers and Leaders: Are They Different? HBR January 2004, pp. 74-81, reprint from 1977. https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.aptahpa.org/resource/resmgr/imported/Zaleznik_Managers%20vs%20Leaders_2_LR.pdf. Accessed 8 November 2020.
 Kotter JP. What Leaders Really Do. Cited by Cheverie J. Managers and Leaders: Are They the Same or Different. The Professional Development Commons, 21 March 2016. Accessed 8 November 2020 at https://er.educause.edu/blogs/2016/3/mangers-and-leaders-are-they-the-same-or-different.
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