The Biggest Obstacle: Leading Versus Managing

Posted by Dr. Gwendolyn Galsworth   |  

The year: 1989. Florida Power & Light had just won the Deming Prize, Japan’s national quality award*—and became the first overseas company to do so. There were a lot of high-flown speeches in the aftermath and deservingly so. But for me, what stuck were the words of CEO Charles Turner:

The biggest obstacle to improving productivity is management’s inability to recognize that it must lead the company out of its productivity problems—not manage it out. There is a great deal of difference. Leading means setting the vision, inspiring others by example, and following up to see that the vision is met.

Do not confuse managing with leading. Yes, they need each other—but they are not the same thing. They each have a central role to play—but sequence matters. Begin with managing and you will find it very hard to introduce the leader mind set. Begin with leadership and managing can and will and must align with it and become a powerful support.

Managing is a peace-time activity. And its behaviors align: We keep things going and stay on an even keel. We monitor, track, and check. And then we check again. Management is about stabilization. Leadership is about growth. Management creates short-term safety and a knowable future. Leadership creates short-term risk and future expansion.

When I went to school, I dreamt of becoming a linguist. But I did not know how to get there from New Jersey. I became a Latin Teacher instead. As things turned out, I have become a linguist—of sorts. My field of investigation is the workplace and the language I study is that of visual devices.

And as I studied, I realized this. The day-to-day visual vocabulary (devices) that support effective managers—KPIs, dashboards, variability—is radically different from the physical vocabulary that supports effective leaders—Operations Systems Improvement Template, X-Type Matrix, The RoadMap, The War Room. Why? Because the outcomes each is responsible for are radically different.

Leading means deciding and driving. Managing means “making slight adjustments; coping.” Did you know that? I didn’t—until I decided to check the historical roots (etymology) of the word management. That’s when I discovered that “management” made its original appearance as the Latin word for hand: manus. Then it traveled into the French and Italian and came to mean “handle” (respectively maneger and maneggiare). Over time, this morphed into a term that meant “putting horses through their paces.” And so it entered the English language.

Both definitions are revealing. Management as handling a situation (aka, making small adjustments; dare we say coping?). Now we begin to understand what Charles Turner meant when he warned that we cannot manage our way out of our productivity problems. Ross Perot said it another way: “Inventories can be managed. People must be led.”

If we are to get the right meaning, we must first get the right word. The rest—expectations, behaviors, and outcomes—follow from there, quite naturally. And aren’t those important, even mission critical, when we, as leaders and managers, are entrusted with the life and prosperity of a company and the people who work there.

Yes, every manager has moments of genuine leadership—deciding and driving. Every leader spends much of his or her day managing, making small moves in correct a situation, not revolutionize it. But the overarching outcome of each position is both different and vital to the company’s well-being. Your company needs both managers and leaders.

Consider these things as you contemplate the current dynamic across your managers, executives, and, yes, supervisors as well.

* Adapted from the manuscript of Galsworth’s next book, Visual Leadership: Principles and Practices (Winter 2017)