Leadership vs ManagementBy Chris McDougall January 7, 2021
My niece hates her physics classes in high school. This isn’t too surprising; 15 year-olds aren’t generally noted for their love of high-school level physics. In Ella’s case, her specific dislike isn’t the math or the formulas; it’s the lack of applicability she finds when all the confounders are taken out. Her frustration stems from the fact that whenever she has to come up with an answer, she is told to ignore the effects of the confounders; things like heat losses, air resistance and friction. But Ella knows that you can’t ignore friction in the real world. Clausewitz knew that you can’t ignore friction in combat. And every leader should realise that you can’t avoid friction - that is, you can’t ignore reality - in leadership.
When it comes to leadership, the reality is that management can’t be separated. If you want to be a leader, you can’t operate in a vacuum where management doesn’t apply. Just like engineers need to account for the effects of air resistance and other impositions of working in a real physical state, so too do leaders need to account for the realities of dealing with real humans in real relationships. And this means having to apply management theory to everyday lives.
Leadership and management aren’t behaviours that sit at the opposite ends of a single spectrum. They are complementary lines of effort that enable teams to perform at a higher level.
Army states that it wants leaders, not managers. Not everyone supports this belief, but it’s popular enough that when people say that Army needs leaders, not managers, it’s taken at face value that Army prefers certain behaviours in those who influence others. It prefers those who inspire through example, who motivate through their communication of a vision, and who are prepared to bend rules in order to achieve the best outcome. It prefers these in comparison to the implied actions of a manager; someone who concentrates on process, who ensures administration is up-to-date and who enforces rules every time.
These descriptions; however, lack context. In all honesty, they lack any real usefulness. Army needs both these things, and the epitome of a leader-manager is that person who we often refer to as a boss.
Everyone in Army has a boss. From section commander to our service chief, we’ve all got someone who approves our leave apps. A good boss crosses the not-actually-there divide between leader and manager, and performs both functions to the best of their ability. A bad boss is someone who concentrates on only one of these areas – leader or manager – at the expense of the other. Despite the common logic, someone who focuses on leadership behaviours and ignores their managerial responsibilities is a boss with a team who dislikes them. This isn’t saying a boss shall give equal weight to both roles either; Army is a huge bureaucracy, and that means getting things done needs people who can navigate a process, and when needed, reform processes for the betterment of the organisation.
Despite the accepted school of thought, good management is in fact fundamental to good leadership. If a commander communicates an inspiring and compelling vision for their team, but doesn’t write anyone’s PAR, they are a terrible boss. A team leader whose fieldcraft is second to none, but who hasn’t approved a leave app in months, is a terrible boss. The OC who delivers an inspiring CONOPS, yet fails to complete the admin required for force preparation, has robbed Army of deployable capability. A boss who puts in the time to do the small things; filling in forms, completing risk management plans, correcting staff work, and the myriad of other thankless managerial tasks that come with rank in our organisation, is laying the foundations of being a good boss. Good bosses apply those behaviours that best suit the circumstances to generate the best output from their team.
Those bosses who consciously prioritise managerial actions are, in fact, displaying leadership behaviours. These are the actions that show that a boss cares for their team, and caring for others is a foundational trait of a leader. Leading from the front is one way to inspire and set an example, but so too is sacrificing opportunities for self-advancement in order to ensure a subordinate receives their entitlements on time. Leadership comes in many forms, and one of those forms is management actions.
None of this is to say that bosses should blindly follow all the rules and be a slave to process. A good boss knows when the rules are the best way to get the desired outcome and when a convoluted process is in fact the most efficient way to support a team member. Good bosses will also know when to fight the outcome if the process is prioritised over the person, and possess the communication skills to argue why the rules might not apply at certain times. Management and leadership aren’t two ends of a spectrum; they are complementary lines of effort that all bosses need to excel at. Bosses don’t have to be a leader or a manager – they have to be both at the same time.
Good bosses inspire and motivate, but they also fill in forms and count the dollars. They are a blend of leader and manager that understands when to perform those actions that will enable the team to get their job done, and allow the collective output to be greater than the sum of the parts. Army is making good progress on its leadership journey, but we will do well as an organisation not to get too wrapped up in maligning managers and lauding leaders. It might be better to focus on how we can make better bosses; people who understand when and how to prioritise their behaviours and actions in order to get their best out of their team. We all need bosses who inspire and motivate, but we also need ones who understand that no-one is motivated unless they feel their boss cares enough to be a manager as well.
If a 15 year old can understand that physics isn’t complete without accounting for the reality of energy losses, Army leaders can understand that leadership isn’t complete without accounting for the requirement to engage in management. Physics might be a dry subject at high school, and management might be less exciting for a boss; but it was applied physics that put humans on the moon, and it’s dedicated management that sets the conditions for leaders to reach for the stars.