Things are managed; people are led.

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November 14, 2012

Things are managed; people are led. Legendary chairman and CEO of Herman Miller, Max DePree, writes in his first book, Leadership is an Art: “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.” To give people access to that reality. To tell people in the organization what reality they and the organization are living in. To make perfectly clear what the organization does, why, and where it is going (mission, values, vision – or if you prefer, setting direction, creating alignment, and gaining commitment). As a superb coach, he exposes reality in order for people to see it. From there, he sees that the organization provides the focus or structure to work towards their future. In other words, he becomes the keeper, coach, and trainer of the culture to align the resources for productive work.

This begins to look like the heart of leadership. Of the myriad ways of seeing or defining leadership, whether by a quote or as a complex sociological process, we nearly always see the concepts of direction setting, of productive work done by people and things, and working toward some new place, a desired end or goal. We cannot escape the reality of aligning people and things to work toward the future, and we cannot escape the reality that we can do what we do better.

I define leadership as: The social process by which direction is set, resources are aligned, and commitment is gained to work toward the vision of the organization.

It is not the same thing as being a leader. It is a sociological phenomenon because it involves the movement of mindsets of people. What this looks like in organizations and what senior, mid- and lower level leaders think about this varies as widely as do individuals in the human race.

Governing boards have a particular role and perspective. CEOs and senior management have their own, Directors and Managers have another, and the lowest level supervisors yet another. And rarely are these worldviews effectively congruent with progress toward the future.

Exploring opportunities for organizational development, leadership development, culture change, or other aspects of change in organizations begins at the top of management and should flow as an integrated whole. This means, in an ideal world, that human resources and organizational learning departments are implementing a plan that is designed to support the business strategy of the organization, creating growth in the leadership pipeline for operational performance and succession. Alas, this is rarely the case.

Building and improving managerial skills helps foster a culture of accountability and effectiveness with a bias toward action. As Confucius said, “The essence of knowledge is having it, to apply it; not having it, to confess your ignorance.” It is a perfect opportunity to initiate organization-wide culture change.

Management and leadership education can take many forms, but a critical question should always be: What is our goal for our education?