Next: You’re a Leader – Lead


In a previous post, I wrote about how much of what is being pointed to as the causes of some of our economic woes being grounded in weaknesses in the ‘conventional wisdom’ of management which had been questioned by Quality Management thinkers and which were described by Deming in particular as being “Deadly Diseases”.  I argued that, as part of any long term recovery, we would need to look to proven Quality Management principles for guidance and that the lessons of Quality Management (in particular where it is applied to information products and processes) need to be learned now as part of the necessary change.

In this post, I thought I’d turn my attention to just one of Deming’s 14 Points for Transformation, specifically Deming’s Point 7.

Institute Leadership with the aim of supervising people to help them to do a better job

You’re a manager… manage

All too often recently I’ve heard stories of people in organisations being presented with near impossible tasks, invariably featuring openly conflicting objectives and rigid constraints, being told from on high that “you’re a manager, manage”. 

But more management is, I would argue, one thing we definitely don’t need in organisations which are struggling with the challenges raised by poor quality information and data. What we actually need is leadership.

Leadership is a wonderful thing. In its purest form it doesn’t respect hierarchy and can flow from the top down and from the bottom up.  It can either be the inspirational CEO who rallies the troops around a clear vision and call to action (one thinks of Winston Churchill), or the inspired visionary in the trenches who sees a better way of doing things and just goes for it, triggering a transformation (Tim Berners-Lee springs to mind here, or Linus Torvalds)

Top-down leadership is relatively easy as it is based, in part, on authority. But relying solely on authority does not make you a leader. Relying solely on your authority makes you a manager. Leaders do something extra. They bring a “theory of knowledge” (to borrow Deming’s phrase) to the table, along with a clearly defined set of expectations and purpose which those of us lower on the ‘food chain’ can get behind (or disagree with). Furthermore, they are able to explain that purpose, those expectations, and their way of thinking in a manner that gets people motivated and directed towards clear action. 

Top-down leadership isn’t about slogans and grand visions. It is about having a plan for change which can be communicated. Joseph Juran has been oft quoted as criticising management for acting like saying the right magic words will bring about change when, in fact, what is required is leadership.

Magic words and slogans are just so much hocus-pocus. Real leadership lets you perform organisational alchemy.

Top-down leaders who get it right usually (but not always) create environments where bottom-up leaders can flourish, taking pride in their work and being proactive in finding ways to hold gains or bring about further improvements. However, Bottom-up leaders can spring into being in just about any organisation, and often from unlikely places.

Bottom-up leaders bring passion and in-depth knowledge of their area of influence to the table. As they lack authority, they rely even more on effectiveness of communication and a clear definition of a plan of action and a prediction of the results. Deming put it very well when he said:

Acceptance and action on a great idea depend on simplicity and brevity in presentation

But what is the difference between managing and leading?

Managing, ultimately, is about controlling risk towards the delivery of an objective based (primarily) on your actual or perceived authority in an organisation. Risk is bad. It is about juggling constraints within the parameters of your authority, remit, or political box.

Leadership is about feeling the fear and doing it anyway. It’s about having a plan or a vision of what should be based on a “theory of knowledge” and being able to persuade people to work towards that goal and find ways around the risks and implement change. It is about being able to either direct from the top (top down), or influence upwards (bottom up) so that constraints become irrelevant as you are actually transforming the environment to suit your vision.

Management is, essentially, playing safe. Leadership is putting your head (or other parts of your anatomy) on the block because you believe your cause is worth fighting for.

Leadership in Action in Information Quality

Jill Dyche recently wrote a great post on her blog about how the leader of a Business Intelligence team (BI) rose to the challenge of changing his organisation’s perception of the role of and importance of BI. He wrote a letter to the CEO outlining the critical role of business intelligence and information played in the organisation, both as fuel in internal processes and strategic initiatives, and also as products that were actually sold. This leader spelled out clearly the need for further investment, and spelled out the vision of these investments as part of a transformation to an Information-driven business.

He put his head on the block. He chose not to manage in the box he was being put in. He chose to try to bring about a transformation, to change the constraints . In his own words, the approach he was taking could be “career limiting”.

The end result? Jill describes it thus:

 At lunch afterwards, we celebrated the fact that the CEO had a new appreciation for the overall value of BI, and a new level of commitment. And that Paul, flush with his own success and looking forward to a new way of working, had increased his team’s budget by 30 percent.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be managing a 30% larger budget in the current economy?

7 thoughts on “Next: You’re a Leader – Lead”

  1. Daragh – Excellent post!

    Leadership is one of my favorite topics and I couldn’t imagine writing a better post about it.

    I have always advocated that leaders must know how to listen well, foster open communication without bias, seek mutual understanding on difficult issues, and truly believe it is the people involved that create success in any endeavor.

    Best Regards…


    1. Jim
      Thanks for the “attaboy”.

      I wonder what the movie 300 would look like if the Spartans had been managed instead of lead?

      Would we still think of the Battle of Thermopolae as an example of a great (albeit tragic) military victory of an under resourced army against a numerically superior opponent, or would King Leonidas have seen out his years on the lecture circuit talking about resource management?

  2. Hi Daragh,

    Very interesting post indeed and I remember we had a conversation on leadership, or lack of it after one of the major compliance steering meetings when we worked together.

    If I should pick one aspect of leadership that interests me most is how leaders are going to be shaped in the years to come. More often than ever before, future leaders will made decisions under increasingly stressful circumstances to enable organizations and individuals respond to change quickly, most effectively and with long-lasting impact.

    As many businesses already moved towards more interconnected operational model, future leaders would have to know how to manage global teams outside the physical boundaries of an office where face to face interaction would be minimized – so whole array of challanges around establishing authority and inspiring performance across global teams will become very relevant in addition to already mentioned qualities. The organizational challenges like recruiting, motivating, rewarding and retaining talent will most probably remain for leaders to build and sustain competitive environment.

    I may be little biased now but I believe that a new breed of leaders will be born in environments similar to warfare where workers are shaped by perform-or-die concept and are not binded by petty moralities of corporate culture and unions. To raise from the mud of management mediocrity, the future leader would need to get his/her hands dirty, follow a vision and deliver quality results which are visible and impactful.

  3. Dan

    I remember that meeting well. At least one of us was crying into their coffee afterwards.

    I think that you might be a little extreme in your view that corporate culture and unions are “petty”, but I agree that leadership that brings about real change often has to shake the status quo that corporate culture and “vested interests” like to have maintained.

    My view is that the leader of tomorrow (and I mean quite literally the day after today because the challenges are that great) needs to be able to communicate the shared objective and vision well enough that the various interests can be aligned towards it…

    The organisation we both worked for had (and still has) a dysfunctional culture where people were encouraged to avoid making hard choices in case they were wrong. In other words… to manage, not to lead. Anything “new” had to be very carefully and diligently sold, and even at that it had to be sold by someone with some top-down authority.

    Leadership in an environment like that is tough and any success is often precarious.

    Increased virtualisation of teams, and the related issue of multiculturalism (how do you norm a team where 1 is in India, another in Ukraine, another in Iowa?), – at least in my view – means that leaders will need to be more reliant on clarity of goal and objective rather than relying on “social short-hand” alone to motivate people. Technology can help manage tasks, but leadership towards objectives is the real challenge.

  4. Great post Daragh.

    Actually just been reading this by Chris Brogan and it strikes a similar chord, we’re so often surrounded by mediocre managers but true leaders of motivated tribes are few and far between.

    If you read about the big Lean implementations that have really worked well, they’re always driven by passionate leaders who throw caution to the wind and refuse to accept blockading and obstacles.

    If only IQ was as “sexy” as BI in the boardroom…

  5. Great post Daragh.

    It reminded me of a book I read; Perfect Projects by Eddie Obeng. Writing about leadership he surmises that ‘you can only manage people you have authority over, but you can lead anyone’

    He observes that managers on the whole are appointed by other managers. Other people choosing to follow a person makes them a leader.

  6. Richard,

    That’s a nice quote and observation from Eddie Obeng.

    One of the challenges I’ve wrestled with in information quality and governance projects has been that most of the people I’ve had to steward on projects have not been accountable to me but I’ve been accountable for the project.

    That’s were I really saw the difference between project management and project leadership. Basic management of tasks didn’t deliver the projects – building a team ethos and focus (leadership) made everyone work almost independently towards the same goal… and projects got delivered quickly. Of course, as project manager I was like the proverbial duck, calm and serene on the surface but paddling hard below the waterline to make sure that the management didn’t get lost in the leadership.

    Managers get things done because they (or the “hand of god”) says they should be done. Leaders get things done because they make everyone want to do it. The real genius (in my opinion) is balancing the two.

Comments are closed.