23 October 2018

Leadership versus management - conflict,
innovation and synthesis.

Leadership and management are closely entwined, but there is a fundamental difference between them. Understandably the lines get blurred because great leaders are often also very good managers — but not always.

Being a great manager does not automatically make you a great leader. Leadership is about the progressive endeavour to renew and create, whereas good management can simply be about the preservation of what works. This can be a source of conflict in many organisations because great leaders are visionaries, whereas managers are most often firstly concerned with the task of maintaining optimal operations. The gap between these two goals can be wide and treacherous.

Business academic and author Clayton Christensen delineates this distinction perfectly in his landmark book The Innovator’s Dilemma, by exploring the often conflicting demands between a future punctuated by disruptive innovation and a present marked by the dictates of solid management principles.

Writing in 1997 against the backdrop of major changes in the computer industry, Christensen’s research delves into the paradox of why industry-leading companies fail:

It shows that in the cases of well-managed firms ... good management was the most powerful reason they failed to stay atop their industries. Precisely because these firms listened to their customers, invested aggressively in new technologies that would provide their customers more and better products of the sort they wanted, and because they carefully studied market trends and systematically allocated investment capital to innovations that promised the best returns, they lost their positions of leadership.

It’s a conclusion that hardly makes sense on the face of it, but is at the heart of the innovator’s dilemma: “ executives can simultaneously do what is right for the near-term health of their established businesses, while focusing adequate resources on the disruptive technologies that ultimately could lead to their downfall.”

Twenty-one years later and the disruptive technologies Christensen was talking about in his book have only accelerated to become an even bigger X-factor for businesses. It could be argued that imaginative, visionary leadership is even more crucial in 2018 than it was in 1997, with almost every industry confronted by a tsunami of change in the shape of technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things.

Organisations are made up of enablers and disablers; people who pursue the new and people who seek to maintain the old; those who see things as they are and those who see things as they could be. Both play their part. Great leaders understand the need to synthesize these two positions. To encourage the diverse and open exchange of views and ideas. To weigh, balance and test. To be challenged by the intelligence, knowledge and creativity of the team around them.

As Christensen pointed out more than two decades ago, it takes more than just good management for companies to be successful in the face of disruption. It also requires visionary leadership and the courage to walk with others on the journey to fulfil that vision.

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