Are managers sacked for breaking the rules and leaders sacked for not breaking them?


It’s a nice idea from a well-respected source, and indicates yet another take on an old question about the difference between leaders and managers

I came across the quote in a chapter on ethical change written recently by two business school authors, By and Burnes. By coincidence, this week Tesco was involved in a story of managers sacked for breaking the rules, and a leader (Richard Broadbent) who sacked himself for not breaking enough of them.

A long-running debate

There has been a long-running debate about the difference between leaders and managers which goes along the lines that ‘managers do things right’ and ‘leaders do the right things’. This was popularized, if not coined, by Warren Bennis in the 1980s, when it found resonance with the New Leadership movement, and the virtues of the transforming leader.

Burnes and By are not necessarily ‘Bying in’ to the Bennis distinction. They are offering a critical challenge to others think a little more carefully about leadership, business, and ethics.

Testing the difference between leaders and managers

In Dilemmas of Leadership I suggest that concepts such as leadership and management are social constructions. In use, the terms tell us what sense we make of leaders (observable) and leadership (social constructions). By examining or testing the maps dealing with the topics, and looking for important dilemmas we see more clearly what sense is being made by the authors. We also see more into the sense we make locally in our own leadership roles.

Bennis writes powerfully of leaders as being ‘made’ rather than being ‘born’. His map is very much influenced by (and perhaps exerted its influence on) the New Leadership movement and its transformational and visionary leaders.

So are managers and leaders sacked for different reasons?

One way of rethinking this is by turning the narrative on its head. If managers are sacked for sticking to the rules, we need to study specific examples. What sort of sticking to the rules? Doing what they are expected to do, maybe. If leaders are sacked for not breaking the rules, they have failed to do what they are expected to do, and failed to challenge the rules (strategies, culture, and so on) that the organization had developed.

In other words, the distinction helps us learn what sense we make of the functional roles and less formal obligations of business executives whom we label as leaders and managers.

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3 Responses to Are managers sacked for breaking the rules and leaders sacked for not breaking them?

  1. Edward Spalton says:

    U remember a film set in wartime where the hero (it might have been John Mills, certainly someone like the characters he used to play) said “Regulations are for the obedience of fools and the guidance of wise men.

    Perhaps that’s the leadership attitude.

  2. Well, I like the quote. I have a concern that the leadership rhetoric defines leaders in terms of poor managers, and begs the question of how rule-breaking might not always be a good thing. I write with painful personal experience of organizational life.

  3. […] Are managers sacked for breaking the rules and leaders sacked for not breaking them? […]

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