Person as Bridge to the Manager-Leader Divide

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In his classic HBR article, What Leaders Really Do (1990)[i], John Kotter differentiated leadership and management: “Management is about coping with complexity.” Without management, chaos ensues, threatening the “very existence” of the firm. By contrast, leadership “is about coping with change.” Leaders motivate and inspire people. They align their actions, get them moving in the right direction. Both are vital “systems of action” for practicing executives.

Management contributes stability. It produces results reliably, using repeatable processes and practices to meet predictable demands. Sound mechanistic, even boring? Perhaps, but it’s just this monotonous regularity of performance over time that pays for the more visionary, inspirational work many find more exciting. Kotter argues that the answer to the dilemma is a hyphen: “Smart companies value both… They try to develop leader-managers.”

I believe a simple and truer answer goes beyond the hyphen. And I differ with Kotter’s suggestion that the either-or focus[ii] only becomes critical as people are promoted to executive positions. My quarrel with this solution is that it divides conceptually the role-based patterns of thinking, action, and relating to others which live and have impact through the intentional behavior of one person. Intention in this context implies purposive action and in-order-to motivations.

An Example May Help

Jane, whose job it is to implement a new program designed to improve patient safety, asserts influence through the quality of her personal presence (i.e., authentic, inspiring, credible, trust-worthy, likeable, etc.). Her authenticity is earned. She’s been willing to admit what she does not know. She acknowledges her mistakes. She’s willing to take risks based on her judgement and confidence. Her leadership won’t be worth much unless or until she has demonstrated these qualities.

But that means she has also already demonstrated managerial competence. If all that others have seen her do is spout big ideas and pump sunshine, they won’t trust her competence, credibility, or capacity to get things done; she’ll be written off. And let’s get real: Their trust concerns her maturity, judgment, and skill, qualities cultivated over time. These qualities better be in evidence long before seeking an executive position. This development implies changed ways of being as a person.

It’s More than Ears-Up Learning & Skill

There may be merit in distinguishing skills of management (efficient systems) from skills of leadership (aligning people). But aren’t maturity, judgment, trust and credibility equally relevant to management and leadership? And aren’t these basic qualities of the person known to us as much by our felt sense of them as by any intellectual or observational acts of mind? What does that tell us? I believe it tells us that there is a kind of underlying personal development that generates leader-manager maturity.

It’s that maturity that we must understand and encourage early in a person’s career. How do we do that? It’s a matter of noticing, knowing, and understanding[iii]applied to ourselves and others. We do this by starting with self-awareness: “What’s my personality? What’s my temperament? What are my interpersonal needs and styles? What is my ‘take’ on these questions, and how do others view me?”

It’s only from doing this that we learn to raise similar questions about what we notice, know, and understand about others. Moreover, it is not a one-time thing. This kind of personal development is helpful whenever we find ourselves at an “inflection point.”

What we learn from this development is that there’s another system of action that is even more basic than management and leadership, i.e., communications and communicative action. Kotter points out in his original article that the work of leadership occurs through “informal” patterns of interaction. He believes that management is more formal. And other management scholars[iv] have called attention to how reliant we must be on the art of conversation in leadership.

Person as Bridge

I believe that informality and conversation are equally essential to management and leadership. I also believe that an informal and conversational style is rooted the person and his or her way of being. We must notice how these ways of being make the most difference in our individual roles and real-world situations. New situations and challenges will make new demands. We can notice our felt sense of readiness or un-readiness if we know enough to pay attention.

Knowing enough to pay attention involves recognizing my feelings: “this could be an inflection point in my growth and development as a person.” Beyond noticing this, I can then inquire about what this feeling is telling me with an attitude of curiosity and while suspending judgment. This way, the full and "messy" meaning becomes available for inquiry and understanding. It helps to have the help of a well-trained other. It accelerates your learning and focuses your efforts at adaptive change.

It’s this noticing, knowing, and understanding process, pursued with a curios non-judgmental attitude that feeds our development. It takes us to who we are, our habitual ways of being, the “pinch-points” that signal needs for change. And as persons, we must learn to treat these pinch-points as our friends; they’re seeking to awaken us to opportunities for growth. And this growth is fundamental to whatever we do or wish to do as managers or leaders. 


[i] This article was also republished by Harvard Business Review in 2001 as an HBR Classic.

[ii] Kotter erects as something of a “straw man,” the view that people tend to best at one or the other but not both, i.e., that we are not born leaders, that leadership can be learned. I would say, neither are we born managers. Both are learned, and, as I argue later, both rely on something even more fundamental, personal development.

[iii] This link will take you to an article I wrote on personal development, which elaborates what the noticing-knowing-and-understanding consists of.

[iv] See “The Power of Conversational Leadership” in Harvard Business Review (23 July, 2012) by Boris Groysberg & Michael Slind.