To manage to lead or to lead the manage

This story is not about management and leadership. It is about people development in their arena.

Shall I put this high potential in a leadership program to polish his/her soft skills? Or would it be better off exposing him/her to real problems? When shall I allow him/her to manage others? Shall I ask what s/he would prefer: to be a superhero or a regular manager?

It is not simple but still relatively easy to take a decision for somebody else, isn’t it? After all the person is the ultimate responsible for his/her own development, right? Then what a manager is expected to do?

Having the goal in mind, knowing the available resources, the manager has to put the right resources on the right place at the right time.

Of course I do what I find best for the case, the company, and the person. And of course my perspective is subjective, it is formed by my own experience. I make here a retrospective of my leadership and management path in order to sum it all up and hopefully explain why I take the decisions I take on people development.

Tactical management: the hero

This is the approach I used to naturally start with. A.k.a. improvisation, tactical, situational, reactive, spectacular in many cases, and most importantly: gains trust! Acting this way makes you look like a leader.

You generate a contaminating impulse and hit the target NOW. You are recognized by the team because all of a sudden you make things easier for others. Sometimes it is even fun! So they want you as a front man.

The problem is that this state is not sustainable.

To keep rocking, you should change your arena often. No matter how energizing this experience is, you are living on the edge. The expectations are set. You are the problem solver and you are perceived as responsible to solve all the shit in the world.

Those expectations are external and fade out with the time. But, together with the fade out, the need of adrenaline persists and you start to internalize the old expectations. Thus despite the numerous opportunities to manage, I wanted to be the hero, I needed it so badly…

As an ex-colleague of mine once said:

It is not a shame to eat shit. It becomes a shame when we start to like it.

Although I though I have got his point, it was not exactly the case. The phrase laid down on the back of my mind and so I’ve spent years in this mind trap.

The hero is there to make a jump from the stagnation to a new order. Then he has to die. It happens that the heroes are the new power pretenders and this fight is their new source of adrenaline. But more often this is simply a fear in the power-holders while heroes continue the search of adventures (and make mess).

Thus the hero becomes a problem: s/he is considered destructive for the new order.

Still nobody wants to see the clash of a magic with the cold reality. The regulatory organs prefer to rather preserve the heroism as a mystic legend and get rid of the problem. How to do it? Hm…

During the human history it happened (not for once) heroes to be killed by their own camp. I really don’t advocate such a cruelty but, you see, I start to understand the reasons behind.

Nowadays it is much easier, right?

Managed stagnation

This is the opposite of hero management. For some this is another management style even though I would simply call it supervision of the established order. Even if I never managed to live with that, I saw perfect example of it. All of them boring.

Still the relation the managed stagnation has with management is important: the manager shall be there to identify the need of stagnation in the given moment, to find a suitable supervisor to maintain the status quo and close the case when the moment is gone.

The problem comes when the moment gets way too long and the manager falls asleep.

‘Cause the supervisor will keep forever doing what he does best.

What is the management style that stops tracking the need of stagnation over time?

Lazy management

I love it. Those are people who believe in perpetuum mobile. The incredible optimists! Those are the ones who dare to bet on self-managed teams and afterwards get surprised that the teams fail.

(Yes, the roadblockers of Agile/Scrum are often the managers who advocate it.)

The Lazy manager has a strong flair for the potential benefits of different approaches, classic but also exotic. They are proud and rewarded because they allow the currently suitable alternatives to grow.

The problem, again, is that the lazy manager inevitably forgets to manage.

This holistic chronic hands off that allow natural leadership to flourish but also the natural tendency of chaos.

What is the style that does expect and foresee the moment of current practices is gone?

Strategic management

This is a kind of manager that:

  • Does not forget the imposed state of managed stagnation.
  • Adopts exotic approaches and techniques but will switch them off when the situation is not in favour of them anymore.
  • Appreciates the hero and moves him away from the newly established order before the hero becomes destructive. This manager can decide it is time to coach the hero on how to survive and prosper is calm times.

This is somebody who does all that because s/he understands the reasons behind the current situation, sees the changes out of his area of influence and is able to redesign the organization accordingly.

By difference of the tactical manager, the strategic manager acts proactively. His behaviour might look like an improvisation and it might be so occasionally but it is just another instrument in the toolset that he keeps at hand.

In order to be proactive, the strategic manager makes prognosis.

The problem is that the prognosis might be totally wrong at times. Which is scary !!! (I am failing!) Well, actually it is rather useless, right? RIGHT?

This kind of reasoning, I assume, makes lots of people prevent to spend their energy in building prognosis. The advantage to have a prognosis, even when you know how far it is from the reality, is that you can use it as a basis for further reasoning and so to build a better one. And then prepare a plan that has the same level of probability or even worst.

Additionally in order to build a prognosis, often you need to find the right source of information, to conceive a new model, to find the right team for an experiment… It is a time consuming, creative process, not something you can easily do on the front line. This means it is not really possible to be a hero and make strategies.

We hit another problem: it is not cool to be on the backstage and draft nonsense.

Correct. You know the luck comes with the preparation. The alternative is… again improvisation.

Once you have a prognosis, you can work on the direction you need to go. Once you know the direction, you are ready to make a plan and orchestrate a change.

“The purpose of any plan is to be changed.”

I can’t remember anymore who said that but I adopted it as a guiding light in my practice. It really makes a difference.

Despite all the preparation, your prognosis might be that you can not build a realistic prognosis now and you will not be able also in the future.

For some the clear conclusion that you can not have a prognosis might be an unacceptable problem.

Others take this knowledge and step ahead. The prognosis is not a must in order to have a strategy. Ready orchestrate another type of change, still beautiful, more agile.

CAUTION: such nonlinear reasoning can destroy the holly order in any moment. Huge problem for those, who do not feel the urge to adapt.

You are completely unpredictable, they say, we can’t trust you.

This is why strategic management is not tolerated in many organizations (I say).

Let’s not deal with the corporate fears now but continue just a bit more with the retrospective.

Once the change initiated, imagine you hear your empowered team yell in front of a black wood, a dark mystic area that freeze their bones. What would you do then? What if you don’t know how to help? You feel your own bones frozen and hear yourself yelling in the same high octave.

You have a problem: no potential hero, a team ready to run away, your bones still frozen.

This is the moment of truth where you understand if you still have enough fire in your soul. Can you step out of the backstage and lead by example? The stake is your purpose as a manager.

Here the loop closes: the strategic manager knows when and how to be a hero. There is no more problem, just opportunities.

To learn how to build strategies you need to understand what means to be a hero, when the managed stagnation is needed, when the order shall be destroyed, how to sniff relentlessly for environmental changes, how to build prognosis and plans, and of course, you need the fire in your soul burning high.

I don’t know where I am exactly on this path, if my loop is closed.

I know that, as far as I see the path,

  • I don’t want to develop people as supervisors, there are enough already;
  • I don’t want to create heroes and then leave them die.

I want heroes that think ahead and adapt. But how?

  • Have an eye for high potentials;
  • Let them dive in critical situations although the crisis has different dimensions for each individuals. So better say tailored crisis;
  • Let them taste the fruits of the win and the pain of the loss, nourishing the hero in their minds;
  • Wait awake to see them ready to think ahead;
  • Talk and hope they will open their eyes for the future;
  • Watch from distance how they close the loop.

No hurry.