The debate around the difference between leadership and management is sometimes dismissed as purely academic, and semantic. In successful delivery of change though, the two are distinct. Both are vital, but we often see leaders drifting into management. It’s like the captain of the ship rushing down to the engine room: they might think they’re being helpful, but who now is setting the overall direction, and how do the engineers feel?
What do the best change leaders do?
The best leaders of change concentrate on doing four specific things well that provide a spine for successful change – not to say they don’t do other things, but they should ensure these four before diverting attention elsewhere – particularly to places where others are already managing:
- Create and maintain a clear and compelling vision and case. Change is about doing new and different things, and leaders need to develop and communicate the argument, and the inspiring end-state vision. Simon Sinek talks passionately about the ‘Why’: if you haven’t seen his Ted talk, it’s well worth a look. A compelling case motivates others to engage.
- Establish the capability to change. Change doesn’t just happen, it requires resources and organisation. Leaders make sure that these are both in place, they commit to enabling the vision, backing words and aspiration with investment and support.
- Clear the way. Good leaders create the conditions for success. Having provided the resources, they help clear blockages – and this doesn’t necessarily mean getting the drain rods out and pushing, coaching to help teams sort their own problems is even better. They also invest heavily at the start, helping the change programme or transformation get over initial inertia.
- Inspire and enthuse. Change is tough; if it were so easy more change would succeed. Great leaders are personally invested, though not to the point of being blind to reason; they bring energy and enthusiasm, and lead by example. They know when to prod, and when to put an arm around the collective shoulder, and when to stand back; and they give time – that is the foundation of investment.
Leadership is situational, and all the members of a change team can do some or all of the above at different times; indeed, one indicator of good leadership is that the team starts to become a team of leaders. However, all change also needs at least one guiding light who brings organisational and positional power to bear. What the leader needs to be very mindful of, is drifting into management: don’t waste precious leadership time doing the work of others, however tempting.
So remember, if you’re the leader of the change, but suddenly find yourself hands-on in the detail, ask yourself, ‘who’s up on the bridge’?