Posted by: dstieglitz | August 31, 2009

Too Much Leadership, Too Little Management


     After his election victory, President Obama was widely hailed as a visionary leader who would deliver meaningful change. Expectations soared as people chanted: “Yes we can!” But what do the first seven months of his presidency tell us about leadership and change? Perhaps we aren’t as gung-ho for change as we once thought. Perhaps the level of risk we are willing to accept to accomplish change has changed. 

    Regardless of the causes of the current economic crisis, watching our homes lose trillions in value and our retirement plans fall to half their value has diminished our appetite for change. Our tolerance for bold innovation evaporated roughly six million lost jobs ago. As citizens, we are changing our behaviors to spend less and save more, and are increasingly worried that the government is spending too much. So worried that we would rather not have another economic stimulus even if it means a slower recovery from the recession. We aren’t so sure about policing the world in far-away places – the Afghanistan war is looking more like the Iraq quagmire every day. We want to improve the health care system, but not if it adds to a trillion dollars to a run-away annual deficit. Reducing global warming also sounds like a good idea, but let’s slow down and get it right the first time. “Yes, we can” was an invigorating chant a year ago, but what if we can’t?  Or worse yet, what if we shouldn’t? 

     President Obama seems to have relinquished management control of health care reform, climate control, and energy policy to Congress. He is more comfortable marketing grand visions than with the messy details of managing change. Managing change is hard – and in government it’s really hard! Even when he issues directives to implement campaign promises (closing the terrorist prison in Guantanamo, for example), nothing happens until someone comes up with an executable plan, negotiates compromise, and pays attention to the details – in short, old-fashioned management execution. Implementation of the “Cash For Clunkers” program is another example of a good idea poorly executed. 

     The difference between lofty ideals and effective execution is the difference between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Despite a cabinet and White House staff with impressive credentials, President Obama has outsourced management to Congress (less than a paragon of management excellence by anyone’s standards) while he delivers speeches around the country. Allowing Congress to develop a flawed stimulus bill was forgivable – we needed a bill quickly and could fix mistakes later. But that strategy with respect to health care reform has spawned health care bills (as of this writing there are several) that fail to contain, let alone reverse, the rising costs of treatment while adding an expensive mandate that everyone be insured. What can President Obama do? Come down from his cloud and start managing the government as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) that he is. 

     My point is not to bash a president who is working hard to meet the commitments he made to the American people. When I was CEO of my company, I fell into the same trap – albeit not on an international level. I set lofty goals without an executable plan. I pronounced high performance targets without having the resources to achieve them. I issued directives to my management team without establishing boundaries or measures of success. You may be doing the same things in your organization too. 

    As a management consultant, it’s heresy to say I’m tired of hearing about leadership – where is management? I believe a large part of today’s crisis was caused by inadequate management at the highest levels. Visionary leadership has become disconnected from plain old management execution. We got off-track by believing: “It’s more important to do the right things than to do things right.” The logic of that statement is understandable – but if we don’t do things right, doing the right things still leads to failure. Some executives use that statement to justify detaching themselves from the hard work of day-to-day management. They delegate management to lower levels that too often don’t share the vision, don’t have a plan, and/or don’t have adequate resources to pursue the lofty goals. We have too much leadership and too little management. Instead of separating leadership from management, executives must be both managers and leaders. Used together, leadership and management produce measurable results. One without the other either produces nothing, or produces the wrong things. Are you both leading and managing change in your organization?



  1. Curiously, I have focused my own blog on the topic of the balance between Leadership and Management for several years now and even did a post on Obama on his election – My assessment is that he is a rare executive – for both public and private sector – for his ability to navigate both te leadership and management dimensions. The evidence I cited was the predominant success of record in the prior two years – his stunningly led and managed Presidential campaign. Innovative in both it’s leadership (messaging as you note) and management (use of online, attending to many important details, process and resources).

    You seem to be making the core point that ‘the promised upside of change driven by leadership is not as critical as effective mangement to minimise downside.’ That point I don’t really dispute. I would dispute what appears to be an aspersion onto the Obama administration for doing all leadership and no management.

    If Obama was doing what you describe (poor execution on cash for clunkers, abandonning the details of Health Care Reform to Congress), then you might have the basis for a case, but I argue that you are misrepresenting the President’s positions and actions. Cash for Clunkers is widely viewed as one of the most successful government programmes in years (yes, there nothing is perfect in the behemouth scale of US goverment, but the biggest criticism is that it has been ‘too’ successful). The stimulus program is widely lauded as having kept the US economy from losing more jobs than it already has.

    I think if you want a case study in poor ‘management’ vs. ‘leadership’, then you might want to do a little historical retrospective on the W. Bush administration. The Iraq War will stand for a long time as one the most poorly ‘managed’ wars since Vietnam and the Spanish American War. Especially in the terms you define. Lots of ‘leadership’ with ‘lofty goals’ for ‘change’ in the Middle East. And when it comes to spending management, turning a record surplus into a record deficit dwarfs anything. I think you are confusing the mis-management legacy from the previous administration with the shortcomings of the current. Obama has had precious little time to turn around an entire mess. Not that he han’t done a lot that has impacted a lot (clunkers program, stimulus, foreign credibility), but 8 months would (less than 3 quarters) would be a short time for even a CEO like you for a relatively paltry multi-billion dollar corporation (compared to the USA which is a multi-trillion dollar entity) to effect a turnaround.

    I do agree with your core point that Leadership and Management need to be balanced. It is the core my my entire blog. I just take issue with you citing Obama as an illustration. Bad choice. If you want examples of great Leader/Manager executives, I would propose Konosue Matsushita, Red Auerbach, John F. Kennedy (Cuban Missle crisis was a mastery of ‘managing’ a situation), Lt. Col. Hal Moore, Allan Leighton, Bill Clinton (managing of the Mexican Currency crisis was masterful), Richard Noble and Bill Belichick.

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