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© 2024 N. Dean Meyer and Associates Inc.
Excerpt from www.NDMA.COM, © 2024 N. Dean Meyer and Associates Inc.

Executive Summary: Leadership versus Management

the difference between working in the system, and working on the system

by N. Dean Meyer

"When you're up to your ears in alligators, you've got no time to drain the swamp!"

"But wait, while you're fighting one alligator, what do you think the rest of the alligators are doing?"

"I don't know. What?"

"They're breeding!"

Clearly, alligator fighting alone is not enough. We need to drain the swamp.

Said in more businesslike terms, we need to work on the system as well as in the system.

Some equate leadership with supervisory skills -- guiding, developing, and inspiring talent. Some think leadership is the ability to influence others, with or without formal authority.

I propose that we use the word "leadership" to mean something more profound: Leadership is working on the system, and management is working in the system.

It's all too easy to get sucked into management -- the crisis of the day, the "tyranny of the urgent over the important." But clearly, executives (at every level) need to reserve time every week for leadership as well as management.

So that begs the question, what's what?

What's What?

Leadership is working on the system. It's work which improves the organizational ecosystem in which we work.

Its scope includes: transformation planning, structure, cross-boundary teamwork (walk-throughs), resource-governance processes (budgeting, demand-management processes, culture, cross-functional best practices, performance metrics, dashboards, benchmarks, and incentives.

How can you know if a task is really leadership? As a general rule: the results last beyond any one project, and beyond your tenure in this organization; the results are lasting changes in our organizational ecosystem or operating model

Management is working in the system. It's working on the organization's current set of deliverables, and keeping the current organizational operating model running.

Its scope includes: projects, service delivery, customer relationships, staff supervision (hiring, guiding, inspiring), ongoing innovation within your line of business ("keeping your saw sharp") such as technology exploration, improved procedures and processes to deliver your products/services, tools, strategic innovation initiatives (which are projects).

As a general rule: the results are not lasting changes to your organizational ecosystem or operating model.

Examples illustrate this distinction:

  • Installing an investment-based budgeting process is leadership. Using it to do the budget each year is management.

  • Designing a demand-management (intake and priority setting) process to manage expectations and align work with customers' strategies (a part of our internal economy) is leadership. Operating that process there forward is management.

  • Working on your organization's culture to become an employer of choice is leadership. Hiring great talent is management.

  • Designing project-management practices is leadership. Running projects utilizing those practices is management.

  • Policy development is leadership. Policy compliance could be either: systemic changes to induce compliance forevermore are leadership; doing today's work in keeping with policies is management.

  • Designing your planning processes is leadership. Doing your planning each year (strategic and operational) is management.

  • Designing your metrics and performance management process is leadership. Giving staff feedback and appraising performance is management.

Strategic Management

It's not that leadership is more important than management. Everybody needs to do both.

Furthermore, within the management category, there's strategic work to be done.

Examples of strategic management duties include:

  • Strategic and operational planning for your business within a business.

  • Innovation initiatives to improve your business within a business.

  • Competitive benchmarking (considering outsourcing your competition).

  • Talent development (including inspiration).

  • Improving your group's procedures and processes.

These are distinct from tactical management, which is working on your current projects and service deliver.

Time Commitments

At the C-level, the ideal time distribution is heavily weighted toward leadership. For example, a target might be:

  • 50% (or more) leadership

  • 30% strategic management

  • 20% (or less) tactical management

As they continue to improve the organization's operating model, executives should be able to further empower staff and rise to more strategic levels of management and leadership.

At lower layers of the organization, the proportions necessarily shift toward management. But even at the individual-contributor level, some time must be reserved for strategic management and leadership.

How Will We Find the Time?

Is this Catch-22? As you improve the organizational operating model, you'll have more time for leadership. But right now, you don't have time to work on the organizational operating model.

You may indeed be up to your ears in alligators. But it's not acceptable to say you have no time to drain the swamp. Clearly, that's not good leadership.

In the short term, the challenge is to free up more time for leadership and strategic management. The more you invest in the organizational operating model, the easier it will get to find the time.

There are things you can do to clear the urgent from your agenda to make time for the important. Examples include:

  • More delegation

  • Knowing what's worth not doing

  • Learning better time management

Rising above the day-to-day and investing in your organizational operating model is one of the most critical challenges executives face. Even if it seems you don't have the time, somehow, you have to do it.


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