Why is John Kotter still talking about management vs leadership?

Former Harvard Business School professor John Kotter is a leading authority on the topic of leadership. So when he speaks, people listen.

Unfortunately, his recent article on Harvard Business Review dragged out for yet another public airing the tired decades-old debate on the differences between management and leadership.

Kotter doesn’t actually define the terms in his article. Instead he provides examples of each:

Management is “planning, budgeting, structuring jobs, staffing jobs, measuring performance and problem-solving, which help an organization to predictably do what it knows how to do well.”

Leadership is “taking an organization into the future, finding opportunities that are coming at it faster and faster and successfully exploiting those opportunities. Leadership is about vision, about people buying in, about empowerment and, most of all, about producing useful change. Leadership is not about attributes, it’s about behaviour.”

Below are the three main misconceptions about leadership according to Kotter, and my thoughts on each of them:

1. People think management is the same as leadership.

Well, why shouldn’t they? Most employees are not academics splitting hairs on technical definitions. They are people who want to do a good job, and care deeply about what kind of support they are getting from the company, be it adequate staffing or a clear corporate vision.

2. People think that only senior executives lead.

Kotter talked about leaders setting a vision and getting buy-in, empowering people and producing useful change. I don’t see how these are not the sole responsibilities of senior executives. In fact, I imagine they would be pretty miffed if every employee starts persuading everyone else that the CEO’s vision is wrong and how theirs is the right way forward for the organisation.

Of course, employees should provide feedback and contribute their ideas, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the CEO to make the call and decide on the destination.

3. People think that leadership is personal charisma.

Kotter is now running his own consultancy firm, Kotter International. On his company web page on Change Leadership, he says:

“When leadership exists without management, the company is only as strong as its charismatic leader.” (emphasis added)

So on one hand, Kotter argues that leadership is not about personal charisma. On the other hand, he tacitly acknowledges the prime role of charisma in a leader.

We are persuaded by our feelings and emotions. How effective can a bland and colourless senior executive be in selling his vision? The good news is that like any other skill, persuasion and salesmanship can be practised and improved. So what we think of as charisma is not a mysterious innate and immutable quality, but a changeable attribute that can be moulded over time with deliberate practice.

I’m not sure the average employee would care much about whether “problem-solving” is resides in the “management” or “leadership” basket. But he would probably expect the senior management to do all of the above well, so that he could just get on with his work.

Instead of mulling on the differences between managers and leaders, we should be talking about management skills and leadership skills. A company needs to possess the right amounts of the right skills to overcome the challenges they are facing, whether these skills reside in a single person or a team.

About Hun Boon

A little bit of this, a little bit of that.
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