A Leader at Work
The sun danced on the bed’s stainless steel rails as the late afternoon sun filtered through the blinds. The hospital orderly, a petite, Latina woman in her mid-50s placed her polishing cloth in the blue plastic bucket. Then, she calmed the wrinkled sheets with long, slow, smooth strokes. She picked her bucket and clipboard, checked a few items off her list, and then turned to speak with the bald woman in the other bed.
I heard them laugh as I watched from the corridor. The orderly then walked out of the patient's room into the noisy corridor, and face-to-face with me.
"Excuse me ma'am, may I ask you a question?"
"Yes, of course," she smiled.
"You do such a wonderful job here, what are you thinking as you clean these beds?"
A broad smile spread across her face and lit up her big, brown eyes. Her machinegun response with a heavy dose of Spanish accent came straight at me.
"My supervisor told me a long time ago to make up the patient's room thinking that the next patient going to be in the bed would be my mother."
I returned her smile, "Thank you for making a difference to all the mothers in this hospital and their families."
She thanked me for making her day and floated down the corridor.
What do you think that story has to do with leadership? Leaders in my workshops often say it reminds them about these leadership themes:
Motivation - the orderly’s supervisor knew how to inspire her people.
Depth – you can’t have a great organization without developing great leaders at all levels.
Rewards – leaders must take the time to provide positive feedback.
Defines leadership – the supervisor’s action define the leader’s job.
What Is Leadership?
Let’s focus on this last point for a moment and then discuss the leader/manager question. There are many definitions of leadership. In fact, leadership scholar R. M. Stogdill concluded, "there are almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept." (1) After years of reviewing leadership research and teaching leaders at all levels, my practical definition of leadership, illustrated by the orderly’s the story, is:
"Leadership is the process of unleashing the energy of people toward worthy goals."
What comes to mind as you read that definition? First of all, do you even have a process – a defined methodology – of leading? Don’t worry if you don’t; most leaders I teach and coach don’t either. Second, do you think of those you lead (at work, home, at ASTD…) as a charged battery that you can tap into to accomplish goals? If you reflect on exceptional leaders (e.g., Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Winston Churchill, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Steven Jobs, David Packard, Kathryn Graham… ), you’ll realize that their ability mobilize the energy of others to accomplish extraordinary results was central to their success. George Washington thought that his job was to remove obstacles so that Americans could unleash their energy in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness. (How much better would the world be if more politicians, corporate executives, teachers, parents... applied this definition?)
A third leadership question that arises when I tell the above story is this: Are we talking about management or leadership?
Lunch with Peter Drucker
When I worked for the global giant Siemens many years ago, I reported to a boss who thought he was leading us, but Don was only managing us. Don seldom inspired strategic thinking, innovation or cross-functional collaboration. He was always focused on expense reports, detailed plans and objectives. An illuminating lunch with Peter Drucker years after I left Siemens helped me understand that the best leaders are also great managers and vice versa.
The purpose of my luncheon meeting with management guru Peter Drucker, whom Harvard Business Review considers the “father of management,” was to discuss the overall strategy and future of a new organization we were building at UCLA (where I was an executive). After soaring with Professor Drucker’s illuminating ideas, I found myself back in my office tethered to the details of the day - reviewing budget details. These two experiences summed up my responsibilities as the chief administrative officer of this organization. One minute I was thinking big picture and developing long-term goals, the next I was clarifying objectives and managing operations. I was answering YES to the question, am I a leader or a manager? Exceptional leaders have been answering yes for years.
Leaders Who Managed
Consider Sam Walton, the founder of retail giant Walton stores, who envisioned a chain of stores worldwide as he analyzed the weekly sales reports of his early stores. Roberto Goizueta, who led Coca-Cola to become the most well known trademark in the world, was known as an above-the-fray CEO and a hands-on detail man. Even Henry Ford, the visionary who revolutionized the assembly line and was awarded 161 U.S. patents, was also known as a detail man. In his illuminating analysis of industrial leaders, Professor Edwin Locke points out, that “this constant movement between concrete (details) and the abstract (vision) is critical in business because one has to know not only where one is going but how to get there.” (2)
How often do you find yourself engaged in what some call “leadership” activities, such as developing long-term goals or strategies, collaborating with others across divisions or departments, inspiring change or innovation among your team members? Do you also engage in what many would label traditional “management” behaviors, such as clarifying objectives and expectations, developing plans, managing operations, or monitoring your environment? Whether you consider yourself a leader or a manager, success in today's flat, complex and interdependent work environment demands that you use the complementary skills of both. Of course, there is a difference regarding the amount, nature, and exact mix of these skills depending on your level of responsibility in the organization. Yet, wasn’t the orderly’s supervisor acting like a leader when she inspired the orderly toward a worthy goal? Moreover, what about the hospital’s CEO? Doesn’t he or she need to manage budgets and operations in order to accomplish the hospital’s goals? Science answers yes.
After reviewing approximately 1,300 scientific studies on leadership in his comprehensive book, Professor Gary Yukl concluded that, "most scholars seem to agree that success as a manager or administrator in modern organizations necessarily involves leading." (3) To which I add; success as a leader also involves managing.
Just Say YES!
Next time someone asks you if you are a leader or manager, just say YES! Then tell them a story about the orderly’s supervisor who inspired her team with a vision of a very clean operation.
P.S. Dave Jensen transforms proven leadership tools into client success stories. Dave is an executive coach and an engaging speaker at conferences, meetings, and retreats. He can be reached in Los Angeles, CA at (310) 397-6686 or http://davejensenonleadership.com/
1. Cited in Yukl, Gary; Leadership in Organizations, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2006, Page 2.
2. Edwin Locke, The Prime Movers: Traits of the Great Wealth Creators, American Management Association, New York, NY, 2000, page 49
3. Yukl, Gary; Leadership in Organizations, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2006, page 6.