Rabbits and elephants, and their role in leadership

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Written by Paul Matthews on 9 August 2017

Someone asked me today about the difference between leadership and management, and the way he said it, he seemed to think that managers were somehow lesser beings than leaders.

He seemed to have fallen for this meme that managers should aspire to be leaders, that any self-respecting manager when asked what they are going to be when they grow up, will say 'I want to be a leader' and look longingly into the distance.

There are any number of quotes and pithy statements about the difference between management skills and leadership. One of the classics is attributed to both Warren Bennis and Peter Drucker who said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

Another one I heard that rather amused me is “Noah was a leader when he got lots of people in the middle of a desert to build a big boat. He was a manager when he stopped the elephants seeing what the rabbits were doing on the voyage.”

If the job of a manager is to get people to do what needs to be done, then the role their leadership skills must play is to get those people to want to do what needs to be done.

I think this apparent separation is unfortunate and encourages people to think that they are either a leader, or only a manager. Maybe a more useful way to think of it is that management requires a vast array of skills, one of which is leadership.

Some management roles require very little in the way of leadership skills, and little in the way of time spent doing leadership type things; and some management roles require considerable leadership skill, and most of the time doing leadership type things. And every combination in between.

The trick therefore is not being either one or the other, but bringing to bear the right mixture of skills at the right time to get the job done. And this mixture will vary as you navigate your day as a manager/leader.

This trick becomes more difficult when we factor in the bias that most of us have towards management type activities. Management seems to be more predictable, more black & white, more ‘manageable’. It tends to operate on a more easily understood cause and effect model.

If I pull this lever here, then a predictable result will happen over there. It also tends to be reactive and concerned with what is directly in front of us. We gravitate towards that certainty and predictability.

Leadership activities on the other hand must deal with the unpredictability of people. Leadership needs to be future oriented and creative. There is always a whiff of uncertainty about leadership. Indeed, one of things that some leadership programmes teach people is to look like you know what you are doing, even if you don’t.

If the job of a manager is to get people to do what needs to be done, then the role their leadership skills must play is to get those people to want to do what needs to be done. If you don’t do enough leadership stuff, you will find yourself working harder as a manager to get the same results.


About the author

Paul Matthews is the founder of People Alchemy and an expert in workplace learning, especially informal learning, learning transfer, performance consultancy, and how L&D can help achieve business targets.


Read more from Paul here

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