Leadership and management are very different skills. Yet most of the time, we expect corporate executives to wow us with their detail-oriented approach to management and then suddenly metamorphose into visionary leaders the moment they’re promoted. It doesn’t usually work out, says Annmarie Neal, the author of the forthcoming Leading from the Edge (ASTD Press, 2013). “A leader is somebody who sees opportunity and puts change in motion. A manager is somebody who follows that leader and sees how to structure things to create value for the company,” she says. “I’ve found that the best leaders weren’t really good managers. Yes, they understood the discipline, but they weren’t the best accountant, or the best technical person, or the best brand manager. They can do it, but they have a way of [thinking about the issues] at another level.”
Of course, great leaders can’t eschew management altogether. When it comes to what Neal calls “the act of management – the 1950s and 1960s B-school management theory of analysis, planning, process, structure, and order,” it’s important for leaders to grasp its importance, and know how to supervise. But that doesn’t mean they need to do it themselves. “You need to understand there’s a discipline called management, and it’s valuable, and you can’t just be chaotic,” Neal says. “Facebook figured that out and that’s why they hired Sheryl Sandberg [as COO].”
Sandberg, with her wide-ranging skills, may be an exception. But in general, it’s very hard to find top talent that excels both in leadership and management. “Planning to the nth degree,” a hallmark of management, “bothers really good leaders,” says Neal. “They’re trying to figure out opportunities – what’s at the edge, the adjacencies, the disruptive space 3-4 steps away. They’re making social and political connections, and that uses a different part of the brain.” Meanwhile, top managers may be too detail-oriented to thrive as big picture thinkers. “It can be a hard transition for a really good manager to let go of those controls,” says Neal.
So why do we insist that leaders must rise from the ranks of managers? Neal says it’s the misguided legacy of performance reviews and how executives have traditionally been evaluated. “A lot of organizational process today stems from management in the industrial age,” she says. “It’s almost Taylorism; let’s ‘widget’ everything. But how do you ‘widget’ innovation? We have to step back and let the processes go, or somehow redesign them.”
In Leading from the Edge, she profiles one older executive who was on track for the C-suite and took a major assignment to develop a new international market for his company – a critical assignment, but one marked (as almost all new efforts are) by some missteps. “He was charting new territory for the company and the company was evaluating his performance based on traditional, core, S-curve values, but he was off building these new S-curves. How do you value a new, never-been-done-before business unit?” The executive believes his career stalled as a result. “It’s so easy to be a manager,” says Neal. “You’re rewarded for it, and probably you’re safer. You’ll ‘get better grades’ for it.”
In a study she conducted when she was a top executive at a Fortune 500 firm, she discovered that “people who were out of the box, pushing the edge, thinking in terms of the horizon…got lower [performance] ratings than the people who could show crazy execution on nonsense.” It’s a huge mistake – and a missed opportunity – for corporations, she says. You have to be able to evaluate managers and leaders on the criteria that matter most for each: “You’ve got to change that system. You can’t really want a system where you say, ‘I prefer you to drive nonsense…and that matters more than the person who puts their neck on the line.’”
Do you believe leaders must also be great managers? Does it matter?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on January 10, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.