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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.
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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.