Leadership Q+A: Management and leadership overlap more than you think

MT'S LEADERSHIP WEEK IN ASSOCIATION WITH UNILEVER: The idea that leaders inspire while managers execute is wrong, says Nigel Nicholson of the London Business School.

Last Updated: 07 Jun 2013

Q: Why do we need leaders?

Nigel Nicholson: All social groups and systems need coordination and direction that’s what leaders are for. We are social animals and therefore we need co-ordination, and coordination by people who are accountable and we trust is something we prefer - the roots of that come from the tribe and the family.

But although we tend to put leadership into one box, it can take very many different forms. Sometimes it can be shared, other times you want it embodied in a single strong figure, or a dual leadership model - there is no single best way, it just has to be the right one for the situation.

Q: Is there a danger that too much focus on leadership turns being a leader into a status symbol?

A: Yes. I don’t think we have been helped by the people who draw a very sharp distinction between leadership and management. This idea that leaders inspire while managers execute is terribly destructive in my view. Leadership needs to be humanised, and managers need to think of themselves as having a responsibility to lead. They are two very overlapping circles - making management personal is what makes leadership.

There are also problems with structure and hierarchy - these can be great for getting things done but not so good for understanding. You can get things flowing from top to bottom very smoothly but do things go the other way, from bottom to top?

Ultimately as a leader you are rendering a service to a community in some form. Sometimes the service is to tell people what to do, but sometimes it is to listen and to stand behind them.  

Q: Is there a recipe for being a leader?

A: There are lots of strategies - one of the most important is what I call de-centring. That’s about how to see the world through someone else’s eyes. The best leaders are able to understand that different people may have very different perspectives, and to understand what’s holding those perspectives in place. Leaders need investigative skills, to know how to look for what is not immediately visible. You need to keep your eyes and ears open, but you also need to have a well-defined purpose or you just become a tourist.

Q: Is there a difference between male and female leadership?

A: There is a biological element to leadership - men do tend to be hard wired to be more concerned about status. We’ve created these hierarchical systems with tournaments to win - they are boys games, and many women don’t like them. Some of them will play, but lots just aren’t interested. So the reason we don’t have more women leaders is because we’ve created a kind of boys world of leadership which they are not really terribly interested in.

- Read the full debate on leadership here.

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