By Dr Suze Wilson
In the business world, it’s become almost mandatory for those staking out a claim as a mover and shaker to position themselves as not ‘just a manager’ but, more potently, as ‘a leader’. As part of this shift, ‘leaders’ are now expected to develop bold, imaginative visions for the organisation’s future that spark up employee enthusiasm and result in transformational change.
Being a leader is now tied to expectations of rising above the mundane, detailed, routine matters of daily organisational policies and work processes and to instead focus on the long-term, strategic issues and challenges facing the organisation. Leadership is also taken to indicate great interpersonal skills (often called EQ), such as the ability to contend with a multitude of stakeholders, sense what is unspoken, but which needs surfacing, and to relate easily to all different kinds of people.
Being a ‘manager’, in contrast, has come to imply a rather more stolid approach, one which is good at detailed planning and fine tuning what’s already in place. ‘Managers’ are thought to be less equipped to win over ‘hearts and minds’ in the way that leaders can. ‘Managers’, then – at least according to this way of thinking – lack vision and strategic nous, lack boldness, can’t imagine, much less deliver, major change and aren’t that great at building relationships which get the best out of people. While ‘leaders’ have a vision for a dramatically better world and can connect in a heartfelt manner to gain support for such efforts, ‘managers’ are rationalists who appeal to cold, hard logic and facts.
What's the point of leadership if it has lost touch with daily reality?
For my part, I’ve many concerns with this kind of simplistic dichotomy in which ‘leader’ implies everything that is bright, shiny and exciting and ‘manager’ implies a plodding dullard. I think we do need people focused on keeping things running smoothly – and so-called leaders far too often turn out to be narcissistic, self-serving jerks. Leadership that has lost touch with daily reality also isn’t of much value – even though it rewards leaders who operate in such rarefied air with huge sums of money.
Overall, then, we’re probably overstating the value and impact of leadership and undervaluing the contribution of management. And we need both, not just one or the other. Despite these concerns, given the way that ‘leadership’ has been emphasised by business, academics and consultants in recent decades, it’s interesting to consider differences in style and focus between Jacinda Ardern and Bill English. What’s on offer when we look at them through the lenses of ‘leadership’ versus ‘management’?
Jacinda vs Bill: Leadership vs management?
Having sat through several hours of the ‘Jacinda vs Bill’ debates, my take is that Ardern does draw on both leadership and management, but her primary, or preferred, approach is leaderful, emphasising values, vision and transformative change. She talks a lot about the kind of future she wants for New Zealand and underpinning this are values of inclusion, equality, caring and stewardship.
Her communication style has considerable emotional warmth to it, with frequent smiling and hand gestures indicating a desire to connect with, and include, others in the vision on offer. Labour’s campaign slogan, ‘Let’s do this’, reportedly coined by Ardern herself, seems designed to elicit enthusiasm for bringing about dramatic change.
Ardern is, at times, less sure-footed on managerial details, but this is not often the case. She doesn’t appear to undervalue the significance of management, then, but will likely expect her caucus and the public service to do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to translating vision into detailed action if elected. Given her role as Labour Party leader, then, it’s hardly surprising that leadership constitutes Ardern’s preferred focus as she aims to become our next Prime Minister.
English, in contrast, functions almost continuously in a managerial mode, emphasising plans, details and incremental progress. English argues ‘people can’t go shopping’ with Ardern’s values, reflecting that from a managerial perspective ‘values’ likely seem too ephemeral and lacking in detail. He repeatedly offers a ‘steady as we go’ approach, arguing that National needs more time to incrementally bed down changes it has introduced over the last nine years.
His style of speaking, while often emphatic, is less warm and inclusive, is more fact-than-feeling in its orientation. If he’s strong at operating as a manager, however, English seems almost averse to entering into ‘leadership’ as characterised above, (recognising that this is not the only way to think about leadership). A key example of this came in the second debate, hosted by Paddy Gower on TV3. Asked about their vision for the future, Ardern had a ready answer and it was bold and spoke to the heart, but English virtually rejected the relevance of the question, focusing instead on the importance of specific plans and actions.
Who needs a vision, he basically asked, when National had delivered the Waterview Tunnel. The irony that English’s response, when asked for his vision, was to talk of a tunnel must have struck many people. The question that therefore arises is if English, as National Party leader and possibly our next Prime Minister, prefers management to leadership, where will the leadership come from if National is re-elected?
Dr Suze Wilson is a senior lecturer from the School of Management at Massey University.