Many of you have heard me make a clear distinction between leadership and management. I believe that leadership is an impersonal activity. Management is a much more intimate activity. Leaders stand before the group and paint a compelling picture of the direction the group is going. They seldom if ever go door-to-door to make sure every person in the group understands their role in the process. They don’t have to get to know each person intimately to be effective. The power of their words and their personable demeanor is enough to mobilize, energize and clarify. Managers, on the other hand are more involved. They have the job of encouraging, supporting, and developing each person and making sure each one has what is needed to do the job they have been assigned to do. It is a day-to-day, face-to-face, one-on-one kind of deal. Management makes the difference. Of course both functions can be embodied in the same person, but they are two distinct roles.
One of the things that distinguishes a person in a leadership role is their ability to sell a compelling future to themselves, to other individuals, or to a group of individuals. As I’ve said before, leadership is a simple activity, but as I have also said, simple does not mean easy.
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Chip Heath is a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University’s Graduate School Of Business. He said recently in the McKinsey Quarterly, “Effective leaders are masters of simplicity.” He further suggests that leaders are good at identifying the most central core elements of strategies and highlighting them consistently. (Much like standing on a hill with a banner raised screaming, this way!)
Examples of this abound. One of my favorites of course is David Ratcliffe when he was CEO of Georgia Power. In the midst of a high profile lawsuit, David decided that the most important, most central, core element of their strategy for overcoming the pain of the employee lawsuit was to focus on the organization’s values. For two years straight, he worked relentlessly to elevate the importance of a set of values, called Southern Style. He never made a speech without mentioning them. He tied them to the diversity initiative and to a Leadership Challenge to become the most trusted leaders in the industry. He made his expectations concrete by telling simple stories. Most of the stories had to do with his upbringing in a South Georgia farming community. One of those stories is highlighted in the Introduction of my book, Managing Differently. But, he also told personal stories about his own journey to understanding the value of each individual employee and customer.
It was virtually impossible for anyone at Georgia Power at that time to misunderstand or mistake the expectations for them as leaders, managers, or individual contributors. David used a combination of simplicity, concreteness, and stories to make clear the direction that Georgia Power was going in, and that each employee would be held accountable for living out those expectations.
Leaders tell stories. That is a fundamental characteristic of effective leaders. The impact of storytelling is to clarify, simplify and illuminate the principles, processes and practices that the leader expects of himself, others, and the corporation.