July 29th, 2022

TJ Kastning

There is a cultural/media reaction going on to the concept of boss vs leader. You see a lot of memes and pithy quotes on the difference.

Some have this idea that leadership can be a process of entirely positive reinforcement, devoid of hard accountability, and that is sadly mistaken.

The point here is that leaders should lead from the front, whatever that means to them. There’s something about many of these memes which represent employees as victims of their managers which is horribly dystopian. That perspective won’t lend to many good work relationships.

Management is presented as top-down and heavy-handed while leadership is relational and inspirational. Often it is presented on LinkedIn simplisticly. Real management is extremely complicated because it is human to human and multifaceted uniquely to each person.

Here’s a more nuanced (and helpful) example:

But I digress, simplistic principals can be true too.

As in all stereotypes, there is some degree of truth to this dichotomy. Managers who don't care about people are not great managers. Leaders who take all the credit are selfish and insecure. You can further simplify; morale failures do not make good leadership.

However, there is a variable to this people-relationship equation that doesn't get so much attention. Too much of this leadership/management effectiveness conversation is narrowly placed on the leader as if leadership happens in a vacuum. It’s like evaluating fine Mont Blanc pens for writing on tissue paper. It’s never going to be good. The medium matters too. Those being led matter a great deal.

Some people won't be inspired. Some people won't be gently led. Some are stubborn, proud, and difficult. They may even be a high-performer in a certain aspect of their job but incorrigible elsewhere. What do you do then? How are you supposed to inspire those who can't be bothered to take their career seriously? Point is, there are issues with some people that are more deeply fundamental than a boss can responsibly invest in. Each must decide where that line is for themselves.

This is where leadership or management, whatever you want to call it, turns more into a chess match than cooperation. The process of aligning them with the organization turns more into leveraging them into alignment. It's painful work. Pounding square pegs in round holes often hurts the peg and the hand.

The easy and right answer is to let those people go. But what do you do in a market like this where finding replacements, much less someone with the right attitude, is particularly challenging. So you bear with them.

It's important to recognize at this stage that they are keeping their job out of your lack of options, not their performance.

What's the solution? Develop options for one. This is a great motivator behind investing in a robust network to hire from as a guard against being held hostage by underperforming employees.

Frankly, I see a lot of leaders being taken advantage of by employees who simply refuse to care about their work. That's one of the great drivers behind the recruiting demand, find people who care. These leaders nobly blame themselves for the wrong problem though.

A failure to quickly hold underperformers accountable and firing those who resist will be forever taken advantage of. Work leadership just cannot solve some people's fundamental issues that creep over to work from a personal perspective. I stress, sometimes it can, but often it cannot. Judge wisely.

When you find people who care, leading them with care is extraordinarily easy.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of compassionate leadership and condemn immoral management techniques, and I also propose we keep in mind that those being led have a big say in how things go too.

The main difference between the two is that leadership is about influencing people to follow, while management focuses on maintaining systems and processes.

The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership by John C. Maxwell