What do you think of when you see the word “management”?
Probably nothing good. Management seems to have become a dirty word, the antithesis of what a real leader is supposed to be.
I believe it’s time to rethink that view. To be a truly effective leader, you need to develop a full suite of both leadership AND management skills.
Leadership is the act of setting a vision and then bringing people along with you to achieve it. It encapsulates empathy, courage, humility and integrity. Management is about planning, directing, organizing, and monitoring to ensure things go well. It requires competence, diligence, and discipline.
Leadership and management are what a good leader DOES. One without the other is ineffective at best and dangerous at worst. A quick history lesson can illustrate this point.*
It’s almost Memorial Day in the US. For those that may not be familiar with it, this holiday began as a way to remember the service members killed in the US Civil War (1861-65), the bloodiest and most transformational war in this nation's history. And while we probably spend too much time scouring history’s battlefields trying to understand what makes a great leader, there are some broad parallels between their period and ours that merit a deeper look.
The mid-19th century was a time of dramatic upheaval for the US. Fundamental cultural issues, including slavery and women’s rights were being openly, and sometimes violently, debated. New technologies such as railroads, telegraphs, and steam power were being adopted at what must have felt like a breakneck pace, deeply affecting the economy, the nature of work, and even the very way people interacted with each other. Immigration had surged, and most of those new people had different cultural and religious backgrounds than the existing population. These and many other factors resulted in increasingly partisan politics, as intransigents on both sides dug in and vilified each other.
Sound familiar? OK, then let’s keep going.
For the past 150 years, historians have tried to explain how the South – with less people, a weaker economy, and a much smaller industrial base – was able to hold off, and even push back, the North for so long. The most common and compelling explanation is the quality (or lack thereof) of the North's military leaders, particularly in the eastern sphere of operations. This was where the war would be lost or won.
General George McClellan, known as “Little Mac” to his many admirers, was the first to lead the newly formed Army of the Potomac. "Little Mac" was also known as “Little Napoleon,” ostensibly for his military prowess, but in reality for his exceptional ego. After being appointed to command, he wrote his wife that “finally, they have called upon me to save the Union.” He built himself up by tearing others down, publicly berating the capabilities of his peers and superiors. Seeing himself as vastly superior, he refused to consider their ideas. He put enormous effort into political maneuvering to protect his image, time that would have been far better spent trying to defeat the enemy.
That said, McClellan was a brilliant planner and administrator, strengthening the defenses around Washington, dramatically expanding his army, and improving their readiness with drills and training. He was adored by his troops because they felt he never took chances in deploying them. This seemingly positive quality was also his undoing, as he repeatedly failed to take decisive action when needed.
In today’s parlance McClellan was a very competent manager, and his empathy for his troops was an admirable leadership trait. However, that over-sized ego prevented him from accepting good direction or advice. More damningly, he lacked the ability to move forward in the face of fear and ambiguity. As a result, the Southern armies continually slipped away to fight another day. This ultimately cost far more lives than it spared.
McClellan was replaced by General Ambrose Burnside in late 1862. A mirror opposite, Burnside was more than willing to take decisive action, but was apparently incapable of effective planning. Over just 5 days, 12,000 of his men were killed or wounded at Fredericksburg in an ill-conceived series of frontal attacks. Confident to the point of arrogance, he resisted changing direction in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. He lacked both leadership and management skills, and his people paid dearly for it.
Burnside was quickly replaced with Joseph Hooker. Hooker was seen as a “soldier’s general,” widely respected not only for taking care of his troops, but also for effectively deploying them on the battlefield. Hooker was a strong manager, displaying mastery of areas like planning, logistics, and training. Unfortunately, Gen. Hooker had an even higher opinion of himself than his troops did, considering himself irreplaceable. Hooker was knocked senseless during the battle of Chancellorsville when a cannonball struck nearby, but he refused to let his very able second-in-command take over. The North’s large and well-trained army was defeated with great loss of life because their leaders, tied down by Hooker’s self-importance, were not able to react to the rapidly evolving situation. He just could not let go.
Hopefully you’re seeing the pattern here. You may have even been reminded of some people you know today, so let me skip ahead a bit.
In March of 1864, Ulysses S. Grant was given command of all Union armies. Grant had already distinguished himself on the Western front as an aggressive fighter and a brilliant manager. His battle orders were clear and well-planned. More importantly, he kept his large force well supplied over long distances. As (the real) Napoleon famously said “an army marches on its stomach,” and Grant’s ability to keep his people fed facilitated multiple victories.
Once promoted to the overall command, Grant’s leadership skills became even more apparent. He had a clear vision of what was needed - destroying the South’s ability to fight - and he kept that the focal point. As Steven Covey wrote more than a century later, “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
Grant got the best out of his people, collaborating with them to build a strategy and then empowering them to carry it out. By his own admittance, he made many significant mistakes, but he took on those lessons, adjusted as necessary, and kept pushing ahead. Long before it became the topic of so many books and blogs, Grant “demonstrated humility, moral courage, and determination.” (Historian Ronald White)
Just over a year after assuming command, Grant’s vision was achieved with a decisive final battle at Appomattox. There are many reasons for the North’s victory, but key among them was Grant’s ability to develop and utilize all of his management and leadership skills, and this country is far better for it.**
Thankfully few of us will ever be called to a situation like what Grant faced, but the lesson is timeless and germane. If you want to be a more effective leader, don’t ignore those management skills!
Hoping you have a safe and reflective Memorial Day
* The facts throughout this piece are drawn heavily from Wikipedia and Ron Chernov’s masterful biography Grant. The opinions are my own, but are in line with much of the mainstream thinking. However, as with most significant historical events, there are a multitude of views on this period and they continue to evolve over time.
**As you can see, I’m a fan, but Grant was not without his flaws. However, he continued to grow as a person, developing progressive viewpoints well ahead of his time. Chernov’s book explores these in depth.