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Why management and leadership are more than managing and leading

Managing concentrates on what an individual manager does; it may be assisted by training. Such training may draw on individual competency models. Management, by contrast, is a function of what is going on around and between managers and in interaction with other organisational variables in the wider organisation system. Whereas competence is personal, management finds its expression in the space. For management and leadership to be successful, more than competence by managers is required. And the expertise required to bring it about is not training but systems thinking.

Managers’ agency to bring about improvement for their organisation counts for little if the space is neglected. It is like expecting fish to improve their own fishtank. After a certain point, polishing the fish no longer enables them to shine. The focus instead needs to shift to the quality of the fishtank – all those things that the organisation places in employees’ (including managers’) environment. The organisation can best improve management and leadership by how it shapes that space more than by polishing the individuals and pinning badges on them. While at least a minimum level of managers’ competence is necessary for them to perform in their jobs, it is it not sufficient for effective organisational management performance.

In the west’s individual-centric society it is a common mistake to think that services are delivered to customers by individuals (alone or in teams). But in reality, services are delivered by organisations working as effective systems, of which managers’ skills are but one component. Think about the banking collapse. Did managers suddenly become incompetent? No. Their competence didn’t change, and for the most part the managers were competent. Think about the collapse of Enron in 2001; this company revelled in its talent – the best that money could buy. Nonetheless, high input was not matched by high output; something was converting competent individuals into an incompetent organisation. Individuals’ ‘can-do’ competence requires a conversion process to translate input into a competent output and outcome. Besides a useful objective and valued purpose, the conversion process requires will and opportunity, in which the organisation plays a significant role.

Take the tragic death of Baby Peter Connelly in 2007 in the London Borough of Haringey. Several managers’ cases against dismissal went before the courts. A few years earlier the ‘disgraced’ social worker Lisa Arthurworrey who lost her job and was at the centre of the somewhat similar Victoria Climbié scandal in Haringey appealed and won her court battle to regain her professional reputation. She was able to demonstrate in court that the system (in Haringey) failed her, and not the other way round.

Of course, the shortcomings of managers and others play their part in systemic failures; managers bear a measure of responsibility. But the system needs to bear most of the weight. Managers cannot be exonerated, but neither can they be trained and then assumed to guarantee the organisation’s success.

Only when managers are wise enough to appreciate that their organisation’s success is not just about ‘me’ and ‘my’ development but depends on the system’s capability will managers and their organisations redirect their energy towards improving the system to make it possible to deliver management and leadership.

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