The world loves a leader. A leader inspires, motivates and guides.
What about a manager? A manager attends to budgets, hires and supervises.
Managers (if not the underlying activities associated with “management”) are going out of fashion. For example, between 1989 and 2017, the number of references to “managers” in Wall Street Journal articles plunged by 37 percent. The sum of stories using the word “leaders” has surged by about 52 percent. Relative Google search interest shows a similar divergence, with “leaders” of far more interest than “managers.”
Is our love affair with leadership intensifying at the expense of management?
Managers: An Endangered Species?
In research conducted with Kevin Kniffin and Hannes Leroy, Darden Professor Jim Detert set out to test whether our romantic entanglement with leadership is coming at the expense of management behaviors that are also important to organizational success.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the findings show that job candidates with perceived leadership skills were preferred, on average, to those who reflected the managerial mold, even in situations in which the behavioral strengths of a manager were better suited to the task.
Further, the preference was significantly stronger when decision-makers were given time constraints, rather than conditions that would allow for time to deliberate on the candidates’ situational fit — suggesting that the love for “leaders” (relative to “managers”) may be internalized and automatic.
And it’s not just semantics: Though there may be a corporate temptation to tweak job titles so as to avoid the M-word, replacing it with the word “leader” doesn’t fully make up for the negative perception of managerial behaviors. With or without a label, our preferences have more to do with what one is understood to do or be good at and which of the two camps those activities fall in. For example, we’ll take a “manager” who “inspires and motivates” over a “leader” who “hires and supervises.” It’s the behaviors we rank in a very hierarchical ordering.
A Note on Hiring: Don’t Stop Hiring the Managers
Companies still need those managerial actions performed; most cannot function without someone doing the budgeting, hiring and supervising. And given the finite nature of jobs and investment funding, romanticizing leadership could come at the expense of someone with objectively more important or valuable management skills in a given type of situation. It could be said, therefore, that our love of leadership might result in poor executive appointments.
Ultimately, leadership activities and managerial activities are both important to keep the ship afloat. So what are organizations to do?
Slow Down and Solicit More Feedback
Ask decision-makers to reflect deeply on their appointments to ensure candidates are chosen who best fit the real needs of the role or situation. Put together selection committees with different perspectives on the value of prototypical leaders and managers.
Don’t Fall for the Wordplay
Those hiring would do well to consciously avoid being swayed by labels candidates use to describe their prior experience or strengths. Remind those who hire that a prototypical “leader” is not best for every situation. Leadership language might sound like music to corporate ears, but the real question is whether the person shows the ability to do the job that needs to be done.
Be Aware of the Bias and Big Picture
Hiring managers should be aware of the potential downsides of over-valuing all things related to leadership and under-valuing managerial strengths, similar to the way they currently guard against biases involving female or ethnic minority candidates. And organizations should consider whether their corporate training departments focus on leadership-associated strengths at the expense of management ones. Do supervisors at every level, for example, really need training focused on core leadership behaviors like vision building and persuasive speaking when many struggle much more frequently with daily managerial tasks?
Implications for Further Research
Detert and his co-authors’ research can ground and inform our understanding of this practical subject matter and serve as the basis for more study. How do formative relationships like parent/child or teacher/student affect lasting perspectives on authority? How are expectations about those who run our organizations reinforced through pop culture? How do gender-associated factors influence preference for leader versus manager skill sets? And how are attitudes on leader versus manager behaviors created or reinforced in a national environment in which news is increasingly segmented based on political perspectives?
Our ingrained views of leadership and management labels have everything to do with our interpersonal relationships and understanding of roles in the workplace world. It’s time we think more seriously about the damage these labels might do.
Jim Detert co-authored “On Leading and Managing: Synonyms or Separate (and Unequal)?” forthcoming in Academy of Management Discoveries, with Kevin M. Kniffin of Cornell University S.C. Johnson College of Business and Hannes L. Leroy of Erasmus University Rotterdam School of Management.