Doing Things Right or Doing the Right Thing

Are we managers or leaders?

Some say “Managers do things right; leaders do the right thing” suggesting that there is a profound difference between managers and leaders. Scholars add more details to the distinction: “Managers deal with people and performance, while leaders deal with setting goals and creating a vision,” or “Managers deal with complexities, and leaders deal with change.”

Yet, in my experience, all project and portfolio managers deal with people, with goal setting, with complexities, and with change. The work of project and portfolio managers is tied directly to change, new products, new services, and new environments. For our projects and portfolios, we are expected to set directions, solve problems, and communicate, communicate, communicate. These are leadership duties, still, per our titles we are managers. Are we supposed to only “do things right” and leave “doing the right thing” to the leaders?

Is there a disconnect here? Is there truly a difference between the two roles? Let’s see how Peter Drucker, the well-known management consultant, clarifies this. This is his story:

An HR executive from a certain company had called Mr. Drucker to ask if he could give a lecture on leadership to the company. On the phone, Drucker explained to the executive what he thought the responsibilities of an effective leader were, and he describes the interaction that followed: “After I had said these things on the phone, there was a long silence. Finally the executive said: ‘But that’s no different from what we have known for years as the requirements for being an effective manager.’ ‘Precisely’, I replied.”

The mistake that people make is to transpose the differences between leadership and management onto the people holding the titles of ‘executive’ and ‘manager. Peter Drucker did not differentiate between the two roles. In his mind, organizations needed effective leaders to be effective mangers to perform well and vice versa; we all are charged ‘to do the right thing and to do things right’.

People who hold any position of responsibility must carry out both leadership and management functions. We need to think of the two terms ‘leadership’ and ‘management’ as a continuum. At times our jobs may deal with a stable process involving clear goals and minimal change, and in such cases we may need to concentrate more on management. At other times, our jobs may involve change, goal-setting, and vision creation, all of which may require us to concentrate more on leadership.

If we are to be effective, there is no way we can escape the leadership functions altogether without the danger of becoming administrators or even bureaucrats. Further, there is no way we can escape the management functions without the danger of becoming just dreamers.

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