What Leaders Really Do?

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HBR On Leadership CoverWhat Leaders Really Do?
by John Kotter
(featured in On Leadership)

Many organizations are over-managed and under led.
Management and leadership must balance each other; neither is preferable or better.
Companies should aim to develop “leader-managers” instead of either leaders or managers, ignoring the idea that people can’t finesse both. Regardless of whether a position is more management or leadership oriented, both roles are concerned with the following:

  • Deciding what needs to be done;
  • Creating networks of people and relationships that can accomplish an agenda; and
  • Trying to ensure that those people actually do the job.

Some conflict between leadership and management should be expected because of the differences in the nature of the goals of the two approaches to work. Planning is designed to produce orderly results, not change. Leadership and change management, by their very nature, give rise to uncertainty. Despite this dichotomy, the two must not operate in completely separate spheres; some overlap is important for the reasons below:

  • A vision must not ignore the needs of its constituents and have a basis in reality while pushing boundaries. Otherwise, it’s a pipe dream;
  • Planning is a long-term process aimed at providing an organization with long-term stability; however, a business environment needs to be dynamic and responsive to the market and changing company needs;
  • There’s a difference between alignment (share the vision and share the power) and organization (what the reporting relationships are and how much authority various roles need); and
  • A communications challenge – understanding the message is not the same as believing in the message.

The more change characterizes the business environment, the more that leaders must motivate people to provide leadership as well. As people become aligned, further leadership and alignment occur more organically across the organization. Conversely and unfortunately, many people’s workplace experiences lead them to place whereby they are less likely to possess the temperament for leadership. Moreover, leadership propensity is most often sparked during the early years of one’s career via early opportunities to actually lead and the resulting lessons of triumph and failure as well as subsequent opportunities to take risks and grow. Compare this perspective to statements in Discovering Your Authentic Leadership whereby the authors assert that the many individuals spend the early years of their career trying to establish themselves, i.e., earn money and make a name for themselves, rather than focusing on self-awareness. What are the implications of these two assertions? Could it be that people fall into management roles, ones of control and systems, because they’ve been taught that such is the route to organizational safety? Are people more often rewarded for feats of leadership or management (my premise is that people do more of what they perceive as effective)?

1.  How can managers help leaders better evaluate which risks are more or less worthwhile?
2.  How can leaders grow beyond seeing managers as the “purveyors of no” or people to be gotten around?
3.  What does a “leader-manager”, a person who can operate well in both spheres, look like?


Coping with change, rapid change

(Shouldn’t be reduced to charisma and vision)

Responds to complexity by offering consistency and order
Setting Direction

The aim is identify patterns and relationships.

Doesn’t produce detailed plans.Direction + organizational limitations and possibilities = overall strategy

Planning and budgeting

The aim is predictability and orderly results.

Aligning People

Leaders look for the right fit between people and the vision

Organization and staffing

Managers look the right fit between people and jobs/duties whereas

Providing Motivation

Leaders attempt to touch people at their deepest levels, by stirring in them a sense of belonging, idealism, and self-esteem.

Articulate the organization’s vision in a manner that stresses the values of the audience they are addressing.

Leaders involve people in deciding on the vision and such helps to give ppl a sense of control.

Provides control and solves problems

(monitoring outcomes versus the plan)

Managers strive to make it easy for people to complete routine jobs day after day.

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