Leading or Managing? Or why Hannibal Lector might have been called Cecil…

The need for real Leadership is a constant cry from Business Gurus, Union Leaders and employees. But does that mean that Management is suddenly unfashionable? Or is the relationship between the two more subtle than we thought?

We’re often asked whether the modern working environment demands leaders rather than managers. And it’s a question that we are sometimes reluctant to get involved in as it presupposes a neat answer that will universally apply.

Let’s be honest, the word ‘Leader’ sounds more glamorous. From Hannibal to Schwarzkopf (That’s Norman not Elizabeth, in case opera fans were getting confused) it stirs up images of people of action, making great things happen, getting things done. But, in the everyday world of an office or contact centre is such an iconic image relevant?

Kotter’s View

John Kotter, the US management thinker tried to reduce it to an aphorism by stating: “Managers manage detail; Leaders manage change.” And if you’re desperate for a neat phrase to throw into your management toolkit then that will serve as well as any.

Our belief is that every managerial role – from front-line Team Leader to Senior Director – calls for elements of both: Kotter’s Leader and manager. All managers have to manage detail, all are required to lead, but the degree to which a manager manages or leads depends on the level she or he occupies within the hierarchy.

In this article, for the sake of clarity, let’s give the role of the front-line manager the title of ‘Team Leader’ to distinguish their duties from those at more senior levels.

Team Leaders mostly manage the detail

For example, a Team Leader looking after a front-line team will have the bias in their Management / Leadership style skewed towards managing the detail. Many of the tasks they are preoccupied with will relate to ensuring that essential procedures are followed and that any interface with customers – internal and external – is consistent and to the highest possible standard.

However, this does not mean that a Team Leader has no leadership requirement; there are many occasions where the Team Leader must show leadership qualities.

For example, the Team Leader will try to maintain stability and consistency within the team, yet be working in an environment that is constantly evolving and changing. These external changes will inevitably exert pressure to change within the team.

Perhaps the company has made the commitment to upgrade its software; then people within the team will have to learn new skills to use the upgraded system. It is the lot of the Team Leader to handle what might well prove – at first – to be an unpopular change.

And don’t forget that change can come from the most unlikely places: European legislation, changing social patterns, culture change, all external forces that can – in dramatic ways – impinge on the internal workings of an organisation.

Middle and Senior Managers need to ditch the ‘small stuff’

As one moves through the ranks, however, the mix between detail and managing change starts to profoundly alter. After all, a manager’s manager should be leaving the detail to their direct reports; they should be spending more of their time on the strategic imperatives, feeling for the winds of change and devising how the department and company will have to respond.

But if only it were that simple! So often senior managers fret about the detail, and soon their preoccupation with such ‘small stuff’ drives their direct reports to despair – or the sits vac pages of their trade magazines. Such managers often can’t see the damage that this type of intrusiveness can have.

One trainer recalled to us the following conversation they had with a senior manager.

“The trouble with my boss is that he interferes in everything I do.”

“You have eight people,” the trainer responded, “Do you interfere with their work?”

“Oh no,” the manager replied, “I help them!”

There is a continuum that stretches between the front-line manager and the Chief Executive. As one travels along it towards the senior person’s responsibilities the need for detail must diminish and the concentration on strategy and change grow.

Getting the mix right

A front-line manager will have a requirement, albeit a lesser one, to provide leadership; a senior manager will, likewise, have a lesser requirement to manage some detail. But each role has a clear and unequivocal function to satisfy: the Team Leader manages the day to day, and the Chief Executive manages the month to month and the year to year.

After all, imagine if Hannibal had spent all of his waking hours worrying about the stitching of the soldier’s uniforms, the feeding of the elephants and the resolution of every petty squabble that broke out between his men?

His name would have passed unseen into history and a certain Mr Lector might have been christened Cecil.

Doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it?

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