Metal spheres in a circle show example of leadership from the center.

On Monday morning I was in a rare circumstance — the CEO of a large urban bank was knocking on my corner office door, asking to have a few minutes of my time to philosophize about the future of the new economy. We talked about a great many things, and the minutes turned into hours. Toward the end of the conversation, this CEO recited a well-known quote from the early 20th-century visionary businessman Peter Drucker, often considered the inventor of modern management:

“Management is doing things right;

leadership is doing the right things.”

I didn’t think much of it until later that evening when, back to something a little more my style, I was riding my bike home in the dark to our small two-bedroom apartment, trying to stay warm despite the many holes in my 50-year-old gloves. What struck me at that moment, having lived in two distinct worlds in one day, was how stark the differences must be between the experiences of leaders and worker bees. It’s the classic president-military relationship: one calls for war and the other sheds blood.

I’ve given lots of thought to the challenges that come with being a leader (see my piece on Marissa Meyer), but it’s been a while since I ruminated about the worker bees.

The difficulty I have with Drucker’s statement is that it positions leadership as the higher form of the two. Yet management in this context is where the rubber meets the road and, frankly, where I see real leadership happening day-in and day-out.

As Dave Ramsey says,

“Bosses push, leaders pull.”

Consider a small health insurance company with a member services office. This company is a socially-responsible insurance company that operates with an employee-ownership model and democratic decision-making. They also do something many insurance companies do not: they cover all pre-existing conditions. Over the last three years they’ve been experiencing a significant decline in net earnings and cash flow. Their business model can no longer sustain covering pre-existing conditions. So after collecting feedback from each employee, the leadership of this company decides they are no longer going to cover pre-existing conditions.

One day a member comes into the member services office with a debilitating pre-existing health issue and begs for care, but cannot afford to pay out-of-pocket. Everyone in the company has already made a decision not to cover this care — even the people on the front lines.

Three employees are in the office. Let’s call them “managers” by Drucker’s definition. They each see the situation unfold and none can dig up the courage to turn the member away. Finally one of them steps up to the counter, takes a deep breath, smiles, and welcomes the member over. This manager states the company policy honestly, gives the member space to have an angry reaction, and kindly walks the member through other available options. The other two managers let go a gargantuan sigh of relief knowing they narrowly avoided causing sadness, rage, and disappointment.

In this situation, who is the leader? The CEO of the company, who had to make an onerous decision to compromise the company values in order to stay alive? Or the office worker who, when everyone else faltered, stepped up to the task of delivering an unfortunate message honestly, face-to-face, and who absorbed the guilt of provoking fear and fury?

Are leaders people who are given titles, or are they people who step forward when others step back?

I am not suggesting that these are exclusive of each other. Rather, I am suggesting that opposing “management” and “leadership” is not a substantive comparison. It doesn’t capture the essence of real leadership. Real leaders demonstrate courage not with their words but with their actions; whether they are called “managers” or “leaders” bears no importance. When I spend time with real leaders, I am inspired to become more like them not because they told me so but because they showed me so.

There is no better landscape to explore real leadership than in parenting my one-year-old. Because she is pre-verbal, explaining why something is “right” will not make much of an impact on her right now. But she will mimic every single action I take.

So if I want to teach her to put on her socks, for example, I might as well just sit down and put on my own socks. Telling her why she might not like cold feet won’t get us anywhere. She’ll just laugh at me, and she might as well — trying to lead with words really is as silly and childish as a one-year-old.

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About The Author

The Emotional Businessist's picture

"I like to explore the intersection between emotion and business in the public-profit world. I have observed a natural tension in this space which leads to juicy and provocative conversations. I try to remain detached, stay open-minded, and play devil's advocate to seek and speak the truth."

TheEmoBiz lives in the forest with a spouse, toddler, and dog, has been working in business for over a decade, has a daily spiritual practice, and comes from a family of writers. Follow @TheEmoBiz on Medium and Twitter.

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