It struck me recently that we celebrate people we call "leaders" and often denigrate people who wear the title of manager. As a person who cares about productivity and innovation, I know we need both equally.
A simple definition that you'll hear frequently is that managers do things right, leaders do the right things. What this means is that managers are process oriented while leaders are more visionary. I guess that's true enough, but I think several other factors come into play when considering the importance of each role.
1. A firm needs several managers but only one leader. Imagine a boat with several captains or
an army where each general operated completely independently. Managers are important
because the get stuff done. If there are too many conflicting directions from too many
leaders, nothing will get done.
2. Leaders can create or change a business culture, while managers reinforce the existing culture.
Individuals who have the gift for leadership rarely want to follow an existing culture and are
often trying to implement change. Managers gain power and security by being the keepers of
the culture and reinforcing the existing culture. Both of these roles are equally important and
help to keep each other in check.
3. Most leaders are not focused on the short-term. Managers are generally focused quarter by
quarter. Again, leaders are looking over the horizon, constantly interested in what comes
next. Managers are very tactical, interested in next quarter's numbers. Without strong
players in both roles, a firm is not carefully considering its short and long term health.
4. Leaders point to a direction, managers get the people there. Most really visionary leaders have
no real idea what it takes to actually get people where they want them to go. Leaders are
often completely sold out to their vision. Managers are the folks who break the big tasks down
into smaller tasks and jobs and get the machinery moving in the right direction.
5. Leaders can dictate dramatic change while managers change things incrementally.
What's all this got to do with productivity and innovation, my two favorite topics? Everything. Building a culture of productivity and innovation requires some vision at the top - a leader to understand the market dynamics and drive people in his or her organization to change. Once the vision is set, managers have to be on board to get the organization where it needs to be, and to constantly reinforce that culture and vision throughout the organization.
I think a good example is the old Hewlett-Packard. Hewlett and Packard created a vision and a company culture that exists, to some extent even today after the Compaq merger. Anyone who's met a former H-P manager can attest that the management structure within H-P understood the culture and their roles in that culture.
For a firm to become more productive and to differentiate itself through innovation, the right people have to be in place in the leadership and the management structure. Both roles are important and I think often we pay too much homage to the star CEO rather than realizing that both the leader and his or her management staff are required for success.