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You Don’t Have to Measure It to Lead It

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick of people telling me, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” I blame this aphorism for a lot of the wasted measurement effort spent by today’s organizations. The problem with this statement is the use of the word “manage.” People see the word and assume that it’s the Big M use of the word: Management, as in “the Management of the Company.” But instead the statement uses the Little M version of the word: management, as in “management of the department budget.”

Don’t get the distinction? You’re not alone. But think about it this way: management and leadership are not the same thing. Management is the optimization of existing resources. For example, Question: “How will you cope with such a limited budget?” Answer: “We’ll manage.”

Leadership, on the other hand, is the introduction of change into an organization by defining a clear picture of a different future, motivating people to desire that future, and then showing your followers the first steps in achieving that future. Unlike management, leadership doesn’t deal with things the way they are – it deals with things the way they ought to be.

Need some examples? You manage an existing production line to optimize its efficiency, but you lead the creation of a new factory. You manage the care and feeding of cattle on a ranch, but you lead a cattle drive to move the cattle somewhere else. You manage a customer service call-in center to maximize customer satisfaction and minimize cost, but you lead the creation of a web-based self-service solution to serve as an alternative to call support.

In IT organizations, we have the need for both management and leadership activities. The IT infrastructure, including data centers and networks, lends itself to management. Application software development, on the other hand, requires a careful combination of leadership and management.

Almost no job is one hundred percent management or leadership, but as a general rule, higher-level managers and executives are likely to need more leadership and less management. That’s because executives typically have a longer-term view, and are focused on changing their organizations to meet future needs.

Misunderstanding of this concept by executives is prevalent because most executives start out as managers, and they have difficulty getting away from their old detailed measurement habits when they rise up through the organization. But think about the situation this way: management is like pushing a rope; it works only if you make continuous small adjustments to keep the rope in line. Leadership is like pulling a rope; the parts of the rope that are out of line will automatically align themselves with the direction of motion. When you push a rope you have to focus on the rope; when you pull a rope you focus on the direction in which it’s being pulled.

So let me go back to that measure-it/manage-it aphorism again. It is certainly true that you can’t optimize the use of existing resources (“manage it”) if you don’t have a good understanding of how the existing resources are being used (“measure it”). But how many times have you heard the measure-it/manage-it statement when in fact it’s leadership that’s needed – not management? You don’t need that same detailed information about existing resources if you intend to lead an organization in a whole different direction. In other words, you don’t have to measure it in order to lead it.

I’m not saying management is unnecessary – I’m just saying it’s totally different from leadership. For every organizational change that is led, there are many little changes that have to be managed. But don’t confuse the two. You can’t be an effective leader if you spend too much time measuring things.

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