Manage Stuff. Lead People.
Dr. Jensen was not having a good day. He had told everyone exactly what to do at the beginning of the day and yet some staff members didn’t seem to be engaged, others were doing only what they had been told and nothing more, and with a few others, he frankly had no idea what they were doing. He always felt torn between doing what he loved – helping patients – and having to run the practice. There had to be a better way.
The problem was that Dr. Jensen had been doing exactly what he had learned from countless business articles on how to manage a business. But it was just making him tired. In short, he had been taught to manage, when what he should have been doing is leading, a very different thing.
Managers, the way we know them in business today, were invented in the Factory System of the Industrial Age. The assumption was that workers would always work better if someone was standing over them telling them what to do. Or even worse, they’re not smart enough to figure things out without a manager.
But managers are the core “business disease” of the Industrial Age, and although we supposedly left that all behind in the 1970s, almost all businesses today still reflect the tired, ineffective top-down hierarchy of management that has worn Dr. Jensen down. Leaders have been around since man lived in hunter, gatherer groups, but management is a very new, and very different thing. Managers are a sacred cow that have only been around for a little over a century, and they should go away as quickly as possible. Few things are as disruptive, unhelpful, and unproductive in the workplace as managers. Dr. Jensen was only doing what he had learned, but it isn’t helpful.
Solve and Decide, Or Become Less Important?
The manager’s worst habits are to a) solve things and b) decide things. No other actions are as debilitating as solving and deciding for others. When a manager solves and decides, the only thing left is to delegate tasks to be executed – “do this or that, at this rate”. But when we delegate tasks, people feel used. Managers who solve and decide things are fundamental in the dehumanizing of the workplace, because tasks are for machines.
Leaders do it quite differently. They train others to solve problems and make decisions, and then they get out of the way. If you’re becoming less and less important in your position, you’re leading.
The Best Business Leader Makes The Fewest Decisions
The art of traditional management involves planning, organizing, staffing, controlling, and awful assumptions like “manipulating human capital”. In the management model, people are “capital” to be manipulated and controlled, just like chairs and desks.
In contrast, the art of leadership is to know how few decisions the leader needs to make.
Ricardo Semler owns an estimated $1billion private company called Semco, and hasn’t made more than a few decisions in 20+ years. Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter and CEO of Square says, “When I’m making decisions, I’m not leading. Both of these are great examples tremendous leadership, and we should all aspire to it by training others to “solve and decide” and then, by getting out their way.
It works because these guys have trained others to solve problems and make decisions. Having gotten out of the way, the leaders are now free to ask questions, review, assess, and think about the future. If you’re making decisions for others, you’re managing. If you’re just asking questions, you’re leading.
Here’s a short hand explanation of the difference that you should memorize:
Managers tell, leaders ask.
Managers make decisions and then just tell people what to do. Leaders agree on a result, then ask good questions to make sure others are making good decisions. Then they get out of the way, because leaders focus on results. Managers focus on the process, so they can never get out of the way. Agree together on the result, then allow and require others to figure out the process.
What Are You Delegating; Tasks or Responsibility?
We said earlier that when managers delegate tasks, people feel used, because tasks are for machines. But leaders delegate responsibility – “get a great result – a much broader thing that requires thinking, solving, and deciding. When given responsibility, people take ownership, and ownership is the most powerful motivator in business. Are you delegating tasks that simply require action, or responsibility, which requires the whole messy, creative person to show up?
Management Is Not Leadership
Management is a very recently invented construct, but leadership has been around for centuries. We’ve conflated the two. Here’s a simple reference for pulling them back apart.
Manage Stuff, Lead People
The fundamental flaw in the “manager as a solution” mindset is that people need to be managed. They don’t. They need to be led, and the difference is not semantic, it is gigantic. Dr. Jensen resolved to stop telling people what to do and instead decided to focus on a simple two-step “engagement” process.
- Decide together with each staff person what result they should be getting on whatever process was in question. Great leaders don’t even “tell” the result, they get people involved in owning the result.
- Ask those involved to figure out the process for getting that result. When they brought it to him, his commitment was to not tell them what he liked or didn’t like, but to ask good questions to help think through the process.
What Dr. Jensen found, to his surprise, was that some staff members loved having the responsibility of figuring out how to get results, and others actually didn’t. But he was tired enough of making things happen that it became mandatory – you either make decisions because you want to, or because you have to. They were all adults and could make great decisions at home. Now they were all allowed or required to be that same adult at work. It didn’t happen overnight, but quicker than he thought, people began to take on great responsibility, freeing him to be the great dentist he loved being.
People Are Not Stuff
To get this right, we need to separate people from resources. Human “resources” is a terrible description of people. A resource is “stuff”, and stuff needs to be managed. People don’t. The Factory System reinvented people as extensions of machines, and when people are extensions of machines, they are “stuff” to be managed. But if they are fully human, they require leadership instead.
In our company, we only manage stuff; paper, numbers, software, processes, systems, delivery of goods and services, accounting, marketing, sales, etc. These are all “things” to be managed, and everyone in the business manages stuff. But we don’t need someone with the title of “manager” to hover over any of us to ensure the stuff will get managed. People manage the stuff, and we lead the people by vision, guidance, training and support, and then most importantly, by getting out of the way.
The manager’s quest is to be as helpful as possible for as long as possible. The leader’s quest is to relentlessly train others to solve and decide, and become less important every day.
It’s important enough to say twice: the art of leadership is to know how few decisions the leader needs to make.
Stop managing (telling) and learn how to lead (ask). You’ll have a lot more rewarding practice, and everyone who works with you will be taking charge like you always wanted them to.