Should Managers Lead?

“Leaders break the rules for their followers.” Just one of my father’s many beliefs about leadership. Another one is that “bureaucrats can’t run a war.” He spoke with some authority, having led soldiers into battle in three wars, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. I often reflect on his views. His craziest one. “The true test of leadership is when you call your soldiers into the fight. You stand up, point your 45 toward the enemy, yell ‘charge,’ and run into battle while never looking back to see if they follow or not.”

I always found that one questionable. But the older I get, the more I reflect on it as the ultimate metaphor for leadership. My father’s point is that leaders must inspire action. They can’t just build plans and organizations and expect people to follow. As every leader learns at some point, every problem can’t be foreseen, nor can it be planned for. The old military axiom comes to mind. “All the planning ends when the first shot is fired.” The point is that leaders need followers who think, solve problems, and make decisions on their own.

This brings me to my personal view on leadership.

“Leaders must be able to manage. But managers don’t need to lead.” I could go further and say that managers probably shouldn’t lead in many cases. Managers have very different roles from leaders. In simple terms, leaders break things while managers build them back. Leaders and managers need each other. Leaders must look around corners, preemptively address coming problems, make difficult decisions, and know when to change course.

Managers generally don’t have that burden. Managers scale things or operate systems for rhythmic consistency of behavior over time. The true magic of business. The ghost in the machine. Great managers understand this. They know that much of what they do is not understood or even known. Due to its nature, it’s rarely the shiny thing in the room. But without it, nothing happens.

It’s like I often say to my wife, who misdirects praise for my creative skills, “Ideas are a dime a dozen. Getting them done is the real work.”

So can managers lead?

Sure. But should they? It depends. The mistake we often see in our work with leaders and their teams is that leaders and managers confuse their roles. The world is in awe of leaders. They are the ones who get recognition and praise. But experienced leaders know the price for this spotlight. The heat of it. The exposure. The risk. And they know their leadership is often questionable without great managers around them.

And great managers know their role in supporting leaders. They get the benefit of not being in the spotlight. Not owning the risk. But they carry the responsibility of achieving the goals. Often without recognition. It takes a special type of person to manage well. Selfless dedication to the mission. Confidence in their self-worth. And ultimately, an uncanny ability to regulate their ego, self-interest, and ambition.

Because in the end, leaders must inspire us to accomplish things we don’t think we can do. That means they often disrupt our comfort by purposely causing pain on behalf of the mission. While managers have to coach us through the pain of change to get it done. It’s the yin and yang of business. Each with an understanding of their roles and responsibilities and their mutual dependence.

This brings us back to the main question, should managers lead?

My military father would say yes, saying that the U.S. military is respected because it is a force of generals. All soldiers are taught to lead. So maybe that’s where we land. Leaders and managers have their roles. But great organizations don’t settle there. They ensure that everyone is taught to lead.

But let’s be clear, my father was a terrible manager. He was inconsistent and incapable of functioning during times of peace. But he was the guy to turn to when there was a challenge, an urgent moment for action, or a need for change. Leaders are like that. We need them when we need them. But managers are needed all the time. Now, if only we could get them to manage their ego, self-interest, and ambition. That’s another topic.


Want to read more from Renn? Check out his last blog on the key to returning to in-person work as a leader.

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