The Most Important Article on Leadership Ever Written
To say that is not to say it is the best article on leadership ever written, though it certainly ranks up there.
Rather, it’s the most important because of discipline-altering conversation it started and change it created.
The article is “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?,” (pdf) by Abraham Zaleznik. It was written back in 1977 and published in Harvard Business Review.
As HBR later summarized, Zaleznik argued that “the theoreticians of scientific management, with their organizational diagrams and time-and0motion studies, were missing half the picture — the half filled with inspiration, vision, and the full spectrum of human drives and desires. The study of leadership hasn’t been the same since.”
The conversation that Zaleznik’s article started, for example, is behind John Kotter’s classic 1990 article “What Leaders Really Do” (pdf) — which may take the title for the best article on leadership ever written.
Both articles remind me of Churchill’s point that “the hard part is not winning the war; it’s persuading them to let you win it.”
And, to be honest, the biggest obstacle to “winning the war” — whether that means accomplishing your mission as a ministry or non-profit, or transforming your industry and creating great products worth talking about as a for-profit — is often managers.
It just has to be said.
There is a paradox in my saying that. For I agree whole heartedly with Marcus Buckingham that the manager plays a critical, essential role in the modern organization. We need managers, and they are key to creating strong organizations.
But what we need, as Buckingham also shows (see his fantastic book on management, First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently) is real managers. That is, managers who trust their people and don’t have an inflated sense of control and risk aversion.
The problem is not management, but management gone bad. Managers too often focus on obstacles and what can’t be done rather than what can be done and how to find creative ways around the obstacles.
We need good leaders, and we need good managers — managers who manage right. And the last I checked, a militant commitment to mediocrity was not part of the definition of management.
Perhaps understanding leadership a bit better will help us all become better leaders and managers. To that end, I offer both of these articles.