The evolution of leadership

After a decade notorious for the misuse of corporate power, our ideas about leadership in business have come full circle.

See also ‘ Leaders in leadership.’

Maybe it’s fitting that the go-to analogy describing the difference between leadership and management has the whiff of another era. Start asking experts — academics, leadership consultants, whomever — to explain the difference between the two, and it won’t be long before you start hearing steam whistles. Leadership is having the vision to build a railway, they’ll tell you. Management is making the trains run on time.

In the public eye, it has not been a good decade for business leadership. From the dot-com bust through the financial crisis, from Ken Lay to Dick Fuld, a troop of high-profile executives aspiring to the “heroic leadership” model has paraded across the front pages and into infamy. Many seem to have had little real grasp of what was going on within their companies. Often, they seem to have been content to leave that to a managerial class supposedly located somewhere beneath them, out of sight and out of mind, while they themselves concentrated on articulating a smiling, forward-looking vision. But their follies, and the pickle in which they’ve landed their companies and the economy at large, has brought into fashion the idea that, now more than ever, “leadership” and “management” need not be viewed as such exclusive domains.

“It’s popular to view management as somehow inferior to leadership,” says Stephen Balzac, the president of consulting firm 7 Steps Ahead. “But in fact, good management is vital to successful leadership, especially as the organization grows larger.”

But the idea of the heroic leader has proven a hard one to dispel. It has long standing in the business world, with roots stretching right back at least as far as the early 20th century.

Inasmuch as anybody thought about leadership in business a century ago, they were probably influenced by the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor. An upper-class Philadelphia Quaker, Taylor worked his way up from the floor to chief engineer at a steel mill, refining his ideas about productivity as American businesses grew in size and scale in the wake of the Civil War. His seminal 1911 book, The Principles of Scientific Management, advocated the establishment of management as a formal discipline.

Taylor promoted the careful quantitative analysis of industrial processes and the assessment of their component parts in a quest for hidden efficiencies and increased productivity. “Every single act of every workman can be reduced to a science,” he claimed, and that included their motivation. Instead of motivating workers by coercion and ultimatum, Taylor advocated linking their compensation to their productivity. In many cases, that may have spared them the rod, but it did nothing to prevent them from being seen as cogs in a grand machine. The famous quip attributed to Henry Ford illustrates the attitude perfectly: “Why, when I only want to hire a pair of hands, do I get a whole person?”

The scientific management principles that Taylor espoused helped build most of the Fortune 500 of the 20th century, though as early as the 1930s, the Human Relations Movement led by Australian psychologist Elton Mayo began looking beyond the workforce as “mechanical contraption,” suggesting that leaders should listen more to their workers and encourage communication and participation. But there surely remained something attractive to the emerging managerial class about a theory insisting that they knew best.

If Taylor had written management’s Old Testament, its New Testament was handed down during the latter half of the century by Peter Drucker. The Austrian earned his reputation as the discipline’s philosopher king with books like Concept of the Corporation and The Practice of Management. That he felt management and leadership were necessarily of a piece was self-evident in his work. When in the 1970s he wrote that, “in modern society there is no other leadership group but managers,” it was part of a call for corporate and institutional responsibility to society at large. It was also a telling turn of phrase.

The sundering of leadership and management, though, continued through that decade — with the establishment of the first academic degree programs in leadership studies — and beyond. Rotman School of Management dean Roger Martin thinks that corporations’ traditional hierarchical structure has encouraged their separation. “Information flows up to the leader who, presumably powered by wisdom, courage and intellect not possessed by subordinates, synthesizes everything and pops out all the right decisions,” he wrote in an essay calling for the death of heroic leadership. “He or she then turns to motivating the doers in order to ensure that they faithfully and dutifully implement the vision.” He’s jabbing at the cults of personality that have grown up around superstar executives like Jack Welch and Steve Jobs, encouraged by the media, by executive pay structures, and by a business self-help industry that too often promotes the actualization of the individual over the hard work of fully engaging with the group.

But the recent pratfalls of so many leaders in the heroic mould reminds us how urgently the two ideas need reconciling. Henry Mintzberg, Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University, put it most simply in an essay published last year: “We’re overled and undermanaged.”

Allan R. Cohen, the Edward A. Madden Distinguished Professor of Global Leadership at Babson College, has been railing against the heroic leadership model since the ’80s. “In the last 10 years, there’s been a greater acceptance of the idea that you really can’t do it by yourself, that no one person is going to have all the answers and can control everything,” he says. “People in formal leadership roles need to both lead and manage. There aren’t very many jobs left where you get to do one or the other. If you can only manage, you become mindless and miss the turns in the universe. If you’re all about vision and where you’re headed, but you can’t make it happen, you become a dreamer and things collapse under you.” We’ve seen too many such collapses in recent years. Now, it seems, is not a time for heroes.