So, what is leadership?

It has been posited that “leadership and management (are) closely related but distinguishable functions”. While leadership takes the long view, management is concerned with business activities that focus on planning, maintaining order, keeping processes in control and optimization to meet clearly defined but shorter term objectives. As Drucker notes, management is about doing things right while leadership is about doing the right thing. Leadership is about differentiation, developing and executing strategy that provides sustainable competitive advantage. It is about creating a common vision and eliciting buy-in and the galvanizing support of the broad workforce.

Sometimes I think that there is a tendency to paint leadership as exciting and management as dull, rule-bound and mechanical. However, it is clear that business executives need to develop both skills because, as Kotter opines, companies can neither be undermanaged nor underled if they are to compete effectively. Leaders especially need to stay connected to their followers and walk their talk.

As Mintzberg notes, quoting Stanford University emeritus professor James G. March, “leadership involves plumbing as well as poetry”.

One element of leadership is about creating a powerful conversation with people to give them reason to pursue a vision. It may be hope that carries them through difficult times. I am a great admirer of Winston Churchill, who was able to inspire and hold a nation together during its darkest hours. While Churchill’s oratory skills were remarkable, he also had the necessary diplomatic acumen to hold a coalition government together during the war and forge close relationships with both the USA and Russia.

The second part of that story must not be lost however. No sooner was the war over than the British people sent Churchill packing, signaling their preference for a different style of leadership in peace time. Leaders do well to understand the importance of context and the need, while staying authentic, to don different masks in different situations.

September 2015