Leadership vs. Management

Is a leader someone who inspires others or who rolls up her sleeves and gets to work?  This was a recent discussion between my son and I.  My son is a vice president at a well-known tech company.  My own experience is in education.  But both of us have been marinated in the popular theories about leadership.

Part of our discussion focused on issues of confidence versus competence.  My son brought home the difference discussing Harvard and MIT grads.  As an MIT grad himself, he was surrounded by brilliance and is highly competent.  But he looked down Massachusetts Avenue toward Harvard and saw a less rigorous curriculum, yet graduates who were convinced they could accomplish anything.  Harvard grads are more likely to become CEOs of Fortune 500 companiesEight of our presidents attended Harvard; none went to MIT.  Twice as many Nobel Prize winners graduated from Harvard as MIT.  Does confidence then trump competence?

Malcolm Gladwell in his book Blink discusses ways that individuals with natural advantages such as gender, height or attractiveness get promoted over their shorter, fatter and perhaps more competent rivals.  The average Fortune 500 CEO is six feet tall.  One third are over 6'2" tall, representing a tiny fraction of all American men.   What is it about tall men that makes them better leaders?

Anecdotally, I would say "nothing".  In 33 years working in schools, I worked for seven superintendents.   I worked for two who were over 6'2" (following Gladwell's research for CEOs).   The two tallest men chosen to head our district obviously impressed our school board or would not have been chosen.  But to what extent was their height and their self-confidence a factor?  Based on what we later saw in terms of work ethic and  performance, I wonder. 

All superintendents in my experience are ambitious and career-focused.  When I have known great educators, well-read and well-thought, passionate about children and about the power of learning, they've tended not to become superintendents.  Most have stayed in the classroom; a few became principals.

In 2008 our superintendent bought copies of the book Good to Great for all administrators in our district.  He assigned us to read and discuss the winning principles in the book, the characteristics that distinguished the eleven Great model companies.  The principles all seemed well and good, but by the time we were being asked to read and discuss, several of those eleven companies were either defunct or being bailed out under TARP for risky unethical business practices.  Circuit City was bankrupt.  Fannie Mae was in the midst of the mortgage scandal.  Wells Fargo was being bailed out by taxpayers.  In fact, in the past 10 years only three of those eleven companies have made gains.  Two are flat and stock prices for all the rest have fallen.  The exemplary leaders heralded in those eleven companies are not our best models.

Leadership, I was taught at the University of Oregon, is about vision and inspiration.  A leader sees where the organization needs to go and inspires others to take it there.  In various leadership trainings during my administrative career, I was taught that leaders work on the system, not in it.  My job was to understand the system at my school and identify its faults, guiding others to correct them.  The ultimate example of this was a training called The Breakthrough Coach, which taught principals how to divert most of their workload to their secretaries.  The message was that principals should not deal with minutiae, should not be so available to parents and staff and should be aloof, dealing with only mighty matters. 

According to the leadership gurus, the type of leadership I admire, the type of principal I thought I was, would be considered management not leadership.  Managers are hands-on, managers roll up their sleeves and model the work they want from others.  Managers are task-focused and monitor progress.  Leaders on the other hand identified the relevant metrics to measure progress and monitored the metrics, while inspiring others to care about them.  Well, in education we've adopted the metrics model.  I've seen the principals who only care about test scores and no, didn't care to be one.

With apologies to all the leadership gurus out there, those who believe that leadership is some tangible quality that applies across disciplines -- in business, government or education -- I actually believe it's something far simpler.  It involves knowledge, passion, work ethic and communication skills.

If you and I and ten other people were lost in the wilderness, which of us should assume leadership of our group?  The Harvard grad?  The tallest?  The most self-confident?  The one with the best leadership training or the most inspirational?  I have a feeling we'd agree it should be the one most knowledgeable about wilderness survival and navigation.

Leadership is situational.  No president has appointed a great education leader to preside as the supreme commander over troops at war.  Great business leaders do not make great education leaders (as we've seen in urban districts around the country).  And great education leaders are those who read about education, think about education and care about education.

My two cents.