What Does It Mean to Lead?

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What constitutes management and leadership has long been a topic of debate. Some experts blur the line between the two — saying, for instance, that 21st century work calls for hands-on leaders who are closely involved with day-to-day operations. Harvard Business School professor Boris Groysberg and his coauthor Tricia Gregg make essentially that point in their contribution to our (Re)Learn to Lead series, which we published in the winter 2020 issue. Their analysis shows that the most visionary tech CEOs are those who innovate alongside their employees. For such leaders, Groysberg and Gregg suggest, doing, seeing, and guiding are all part of the same ball of wax.

Other experts, like Seth Godin, view leadership and management as distinct activities. Godin casts leadership as the stuff of breakthroughs, best exercised through human connection, and management as a means for incremental improvement, supported by data-driven methods and real-time monitoring. In a postindustrial world, he argues, we need more of the former and probably less of the latter.

Still, it’s possible to manage employees without watching and directing their every move. In her article about leading remote teams, Whitney Johnson explains how project management and collaboration tools provide the necessary transparency to keep people on track. Yet she also emphasizes the benefits of giving employees space to solve problems on their own, which helps to motivate them on a deeper, more intrinsic level.

To do that, MIT professor Deborah Ancona reminds us, we must cede a fair amount of control and empower individuals and teams to engage in sensemaking so they can respond nimbly to an ever-changing world. Most leaders know this in theory but are afraid, in practice, to let go of the reins. Those who do loosen their grip — and clearly articulate who they are as leaders and what they value — can promote creative thinking while keeping employees moving in a coordinated, productive fashion, Ancona says. They can have it both ways.

It’s disorienting, even anxiety provoking, to let go of the tried-and-true. But there’s no other way to move forward. In that spirit, London Business School professor Herminia Ibarra makes a strong case that leaders should throw out or at least dramatically change their organizations’ most iconic practices — those entrenched behaviors that signal “one is a good insider, a person who understands and can be trusted as a keeper of the culture.” It’s only by challenging those sacred cows that leaders can pull off real transformation.

If you haven’t checked out the (Re)Learn to Lead series yet, please do. I think you’ll enjoy it.



Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
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Comments (2)
Gregory Blass
Detroit is in midst of a major transformation resulting from a rather painful high profile bankruptcy that in hindsight has truly been a gift to the city.   In the quest to become and remain a sustainable city many things are being addressed to become just that..a sustainable city.  It is truly time to really dissect the educational challenge in the depth to have a sustainable economic impact.   A educational pursuit has two sides.....value to the students with a legacy of repeating poverty that needs to be reversed and the economic vitality that impacts economic development. After all education is currency of economic development 

We are working on a very unique vision that includes the business leaders for the state of Michigan an educational workshop foR SE Michigan and a hands on component dedicated toward the students that blends sports, esports and teamed based competition showcasing “Collaboration Without Borders”.  It’s is important to share the results statewide 
Greg Blass
I Agree with Groysberg and Tricia here : Leadership is about direction, impact and strategy. Management is about setting , controlling and monitoring processes that lead to the intended outcome, impact. Trully, the competency demands are different for these roles, complimentary as they are. In practice, what I have sadly seen is the confusion between the 2. i do not believe a true leader can manage well and I also do not believe a true manager can lead well : We have Managers and we have leaders! A personnel selection criteria that separates the 2 competences at the beginning of the recruitment process will be a sure guarantee of candidates success in Leadership and Management posting in firms.