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Too much leadership or too much management?

11 May 2018

Too much leadership or too much management?

What did Mintzberg mean when he said that most modern organisations were over led and under-managed? The great management analyst and writer certainly got a debate going and it’s one with echoes today for HR leaders, as their role changes. If you think about the organisation you work in - does it still emphasise “inspirational” leadership but ignore day-to-day, belt and braces management? Or is the opposite true - an overemphasis on process and performance, with no vision or enthusiasm? 

Both approaches are being overtaken by developments in the workplace. Mintzberg accurately identified the fact that leadership and management go in cycles. He was describing a period where leadership had been extolled in corporations as the key business virtue, pointing out that you could not run an organisation on leadership alone. 

Today, organisations recognise that they need to function as a whole, with the entire workforce feeling that they are active participants in the enterprise. That’s why we’ve seen an increasing emphasis on employee engagement as a key influence on business success and productivity. 

There’s an understanding today that the culture of an organisation is as important as its structure, strategy or goals, in achieving success. The former model of an inspirational leader, followed by awestruck employees is not really appropriate in today’s more diverse and individualised world. 

However, there’s also a new realism abroad, and that’s why previously unheard-of jobs such as “Culture Manager” are often allied with “Capability Manager”. 

This is very much a move to foster engagement and a dynamic organisational culture and to link them to the skills and management that can harness the dynamism in productive ways. It’s a new way of resolving the conflict between the leadership view in which attributes are important, and the management view in which process and efficiency are key. 

Combining culture and capability should take us away from previous organisational models that aren’t serving us well in the digital age. Culture managers are able to pose and answer difficult organisational questions, such as what kind of culture the organisation needs to foster in order to succeed at what it does. It’s a much more people-centred vision of how an organisation works. To that extent, it’s a long way from the “inspired leader” model because it doesn’t promote the idea that one individual should dominate.

An effective culture and capability manager is someone who helps employees to understand what the culture of the company is about. These managers help in identifying what capabilities staff need to acquire in order to play their part in achieving success, both for themselves and for the organisation. They’re able to get employees to think about their behaviour in a positive way, select appropriate role models and move towards a productive way of working and thinking. 

These managers are also outward looking in that they are constantly horizon scanning to prepare the organisation and its members for any challenges or opportunities that may arise.

So is the old debate about management and leadership simply being re-framed in terms of culture and capability? No, because the focus now is not on a few high-profile individuals, but on the employees themselves. The emphasis on culture recognises the extent to which people differ, and the need to treat them as individuals while everyone contributes to a common culture. It’s a difficult line to tread but the tension can be a creative and productive force for the organisation.

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