Leadership Versus Management: Know the Difference

Editor’s note: Dr Boynton will attend the 2019 Seattle Study Club Symposium, where he will serve as the emcee, deliver a keynote presentation, and lead a breakout session.

The dental profession is in the midst of profound change, and how you respond will determine in large part whether your practice will thrive or fail. The growth of the DSO practice model, innovations in technology, patients who are more knowledgeable and demanding, declining reimbursement rates—these and other unsettling trends are placing enormous pressure on the once stalwart fee-for-service practice. At the risk of sounding trite, being a great clinician is no longer a reasonable guarantee of success in today’s dental practice environment.

As a business owner, you know that all systems must operate efficiently in order to be profitable and successful: customer service, bookkeeping, staffing, marketing, training, compliance, inventory . . . these and other administrative functions are critical parts of managing your business. But in today’s environment, the best-managed practice may not survive without a strong leader at the helm. Have you ever taken the time to think about what qualities make a good leader or how you measure up as a leader? Today, as a small business owner, your future may depend on it.

Leadership is essential to any company’s success, whether you own a large-sized firm, a small business, or something in-between. Warren Bennis, one of the pioneers of contemporary leadership studies, was fond of saying, “The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.” It’s a distinction that should speak volumes to anyone who seeks to both manage and lead an organization.

Bennis, who died in 2014, made a list of 12 differences between managers and leaders. For the most part, the items in that collection (including the statement quoted above) do not flatter managers. Among those points:

  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.

I would put a finer point on the matter. Managing and administering are critical tasks for every business. Without them, businesses wouldn’t execute our best ideas and carry out essential functions. Still, Bennis is right in a sense. Each of us needs to be a leader, not simply a manager or administrator. We need to not just do things right—which is about flawless execution. Companies have to also do the right things, which means making the right choices for the future and finding better ways to carry out the missions of our business.  I emphasize the word choice. Leadership can be summed up as being about choice—which markets, which services, which technologies, which partners and partnerships, which financial strategies—all of these are key choices. And then leadership requires making sure there is flawless execution. That’s where leaders have to make sure effective management is in place.

From another perspective, and as Bennis also said, “The manager administers; the leader innovates.” How true. Without leadership, there’s no agenda for innovation, and innovation is the lifeblood of progress! Without innovation (for us as individuals, our companies, our nation) there is no change and improvement. There’s no vision for the future.

So what does a great leader do? I’ve put together my own list of 10 things any leader must do to be more than just a manager. These reflect my three decades of working with leaders worldwide as a speaker, author, strategy professor, executive trainer, and dean of a management school at one of the nation’s premier universities.

1. Leaders Stake Out a Clear Vision

It’s simply impossible for organizations to do great things if they have no clear expectations of the future. Without a vision, people lurch in different directions. They run in circles. The result is a waste of time, money, and brainpower. Visions focus minds, hearts, and energy.

2. Leaders Get the Architecture Right

They design organizations that create the space for talent to soar. At a minimum, leaders remove all of the roadblocks that people must work around to do their jobs. The obstacles could be inadequate information, conflicting goals, mixed signals from the top, confusing reporting relationships—any organizational disconnect that saps energy and stifles talent critical to an organization’s success.

3. Leaders Are Dissatisfied with the Status Quo

They always think things can be done better—that more can be achieved. They disrupt frequently to promote improvement and positive change, not a downward spiral of energy and morale in the business. Great leaders realize satisfaction is closely related to complacency, and that’s the sire of mediocrity in any business.

4. Leaders Nurture Leadership from Every Seat

They make it clear that everyone should step up and find their spots, regardless of rank, title, or position. This is especially true when it comes to generating ideas. In organizations that innovate, people have to raise their hands and say, “I have an idea” about how to do something better. Then they have to pitch in to make it a reality. Every person in a business has ideas on how to make it better. Leaders are often in the worst position to have the best ideas, because they are so far from the details of the day-to-day. Tapping into each person as a leader is essential for high-performing businesses.

5. Leaders Get and Stay Out of the Way

Organizations spend loads of money hiring great talent—and then it’s leaders who often get in their way. I say: Put the vision in their heads and hearts, make sure they have the resources (time, technology, money to execute!), and get out of the way of your talented people. Once they buy into that vision of what you’re trying to achieve, they need to fill the space with their own energy and brainpower.

6. Leaders Promote an Idea-Intensive Culture—And They Do So By Example

In other words, they are themselves idea hunters. Leaders forge conversations on various topics with people in diverse fields and specialties far beyond their own. They go outside their organizations. They look for new ideas in offbeat places—that’s how to avoid the plague of ideas that lack imagination. Leaders also test out their ideas, in part by seeking honest feedback from those around them.

7. Leaders Encourage Dissent from Every Quarter

People should have no hesitation to say, “Wait a minute, I disagree” or “Stop! This isn’t a good thing.” Without that kind of pushback, the commitment to bad ideas escalates in an organization. A senior leader not only has to tolerate such disagreement and dissent, but he or she must find ways to reward the dissenters.

8. Leaders Experiment and Are Willing to Fail

We simply don’t know the right answers in advance of an innovation process. So, every step of the way, we need to experiment with our ideas. I’ve worked as a consultant and business school dean with Continuum, a leading global innovation and design consultancy, and I’ve learned much from their design teams about the power of experimentation. Almost as soon as their ideas materialize, the teams are putting them into play, whether it’s fashioning early physical prototypes, staging consumer experiences, or experimenting in other ways.  Being willing to experiment means you are willing to fail. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos prides himself on his failures that led to brilliant successes (Amazon Prime, the Kindle, and more). His statement in his letter to shareholders, which proclaims “I want Amazon to be the best place in the world to fail,” is a bold stroke of leadership and has lessons for us all.

9. Leaders Listen—And They Learn from All the People They Lead

They’re intensely interested in what their people know. I often ask groups of executives, “How many of you manage or lead people who know more than you do about the technical or core elements of the work your firm does?” Typically about 90% of hands go up. I drive home the point by saying, “the best ideas are often in their heads, not yours.”

10. Leaders Act As Ambassadors

As a dean, I’m constantly aware of the fact that I serve as an ambassador to constituencies ranging from our own students and others in the broader university to alumni and various business communities. A leader at almost any company is no less an ambassador. He or she must often relate not only to other units of the firm but also to shareholders, regulatory agencies, sustainability advocates, and many others. The leader is a visible face of the enterprise. Stakeholder relationships are pivotal to organizational success.

In the final analysis, leadership is about choice—and flawless execution. This gets back to my refinement of Bennis’s argument. He drew a sharp contrast between the leader (who chooses ideas and initiatives) and the manager (who executes them). The reality is leaders do both; they innovate and execute.

After all: What’s the point of having an idea if you don’t have the execution?