Leadership vs. Management

I’ve become quite a fan of Bob Sutton’s blog recently. In addition to presenting interesting research that you probably haven’t heard about, he’s irreverent and funny. (No more so than in his post on the “asshole collar.”) So I paid attention when he wrote that

one of the dangers of talking about leadership versus management is that the implication is that leadership is this important high status activity and management is the shit work done by the little people.  My view (and there is plenty of evidence to support it) is that effective management — the work done by the collection of bosses and their followers in an organization, if you will — is probably most crucial to success. After all, they are the people who turn dreams into reality.

This comment brought me back to the examples of lean leadership at Lantech and Group Health that I’ve learned about. In these companies, senior execs — leaders — have standard work that involves regular visits to the gemba and communication with the line workers. Even though they’re responsible for the grand vision and strategy, they also know the nitty gritty of daily work. Sutton says that they realize they have a

deep understanding of the little details required to make [the grand vision] work — or if they don’t, they have the wisdom to surround themselves with people who can offset their weaknesses and who have the courage to argue with them when there is no clear path between their dreams and reality.

Sutton cites Medtronic’s Bill George, Xerox’s Anne Mulcahy, Pixar’s Brad Bird, Steve Jobs, and Francis Ford Coppola as leaders who understand this. (Bill George spent about 75% of his time during his first 9 months on the job watching surgeons put Medtronic devices in patients and talking with doctors and nurses, patients, families, and hospital executives to learn about customers and users of his products.) I don’t know if any of these folks are considered “lean” leaders, but by this definition of leadership, at least, there’s not much difference between being good and being lean. (Something I touched on in this post for Mark Graban’s Lean Blog as well.)

I think that one of the great benefits of the various lean tools is that they help leadership get deep into the weeds. Value stream maps, A3s, and the fundamental principle of “go and see” is all about understanding the details of daily life for front line workers and managers. These tools make management part of leadership.

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