If you had picked up a book about the job of a business executive some 40 years ago, the chances are that it would have had the word ‘management’ in the title.

Management has its roots in administration, and administration was regarded as the core of a manager’s job throughout most of the 20th century.  In 1908, Harvard University founded the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration and enrolled its first students on a course called ‘Master of Business Administration’ or MBA.  Harvard University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell wrote in 1907 that he had reservations about an education in ‘general business’, but did see some value in training students in certain functions required in business ‘purely to train men for their career, as the Law and Medical Schools do’.[i]

In the early 1990’s, the institution set up to do that – which had by now dropped the word ‘Administration’ from its title and just called itself Harvard Business School – still called its core qualification the MBA, but was no longer training managers to carry out ‘certain administrative functions’.  Instead, it rather grandly declared that its purpose was ‘to educate leaders who make a difference in the world’.  It still does so today.[ii]

What had changed?

Not Management but Leadership

In 1977, one of the School’s Professors, Abraham Zaleznik, published an article in HBR called ‘Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?’  His answer was ‘yes’ – in fact he argued not only that management and leadership are different roles but that managers and leaders are different types of people.  The article won the McKinsey award in 1977, was reprinted as an HBR classic in 1992, and again in 2004.  The articles and books multiplied, leadership courses appeared in every Business School in the world, and today’s best-selling books about the job of a business executive are far more likely to have the word ‘leadership’ than the word ‘management’ in the title.

Zaleznik’s manager is an administrator.  Managers, he claimed, ‘emphasise rationality and control’, adopt ‘impersonal if not passive attitudes towards goals’, get people to accept solutions to problems by ‘balancing opposing views’ and, curiously, ‘avoid solitary activity because it makes them anxious’.  In a 1992 retrospective commentary Zaleznik added that whilst managers seek order and control, leaders ‘tolerate chaos and lack of structure’.

Leaders contrast with managers in every way.  They ‘work from high risk positions; indeed they are often temperamentally disposed to seek out risk and danger’; they are active towards goals, ‘shaping ideas instead of responding to them’; they try to ‘open issues to new options’ by getting people excited by their ideas, and thus ‘attract strong feelings of identity and difference or of love and hate’; and unlike the sociable managers they are people ‘who feel separate from their environment’.[iii]  The corollary, taken up by many since, was that business needed more leaders and fewer managers, particularly in an environment of rapid change.

Today we need leaders everywhere.  It seems we can hardly get enough of them.  Top business leaders become celebrities. Managers may be chummy, but they are a bit boring.  This attitude has got us into trouble.

The Cult of the Leader

As we have recognised that leadership matters, so we have turned leadership into an obsession and leaders into celebrity-heroes.  As we attribute more and more of a company’s fortunes to its leaders, and in particular its CEO, so we attribute less and less to the organisation itself.  Vast organisations, their people, their resources and their capabilities become mere instruments for the celebrity-heroes to wield in pursuit of their visions.  As the press adulate them, so they believe their own myth, and their judgement falters.  Some become egotists, driven by the will to power.

Zaleznick was certainly right about their appetite for risk, and their propensity to arouse love or hate.  Notions of stewardship and humility, realism and responsibility fall by the wayside.[iv]  Leadership turns toxic, even corrupt: remember Al Dunlap or Ken Lay?  What of our once-revered bankers?  The celebrity-hero can turn into a tyrant.[v]

These dangers are well-known.  Nobody celebrated successful leaders more than the Romans.  They wanted to encourage talented young tribunes and consuls to go out and conquer to add to the wealth of the Republic.  On returning, the conquerors were entitled to parade through Rome in a ‘triumph’.  They rode on a chariot, but according to Tertullian, they were accompanied by a slave who whispered in their ear: ‘Remember you are mortal’.

No-one feared the prospect of tyranny more than the Romans.  That fear led some of them to kill their most successful conqueror, Julius Caesar.  That did not stop some of his successors from declaring themselves to be Gods.  In the cases of some of the worst of them, such as Caligula and Nero, the Senate later revoked their claim.  They were the Richard Fulds and Fred Goodwins of their day.

Ultimately, we judge leaders by their success.  How much of that is actually down to them it is rather hard to say.  Most are agreed that much of Apple’s success is down to Steve Jobs.  He was visionary, ambitious and charismatic, a risk-taker driven by unshakeable self-belief.  These seem to be great qualities in a leader.  But that just depends on the words we use.

Suppose the iPod, the iPhone or the iPad had been failures. Then we might use different words to describe the same qualities Jobs displayed.  The ambitious visionary might be a megalomaniac fantasist, the charismatic self-believer a narcissistic conman, the risk taker a gambler.

There is some conceptual confusion in the way we talk about ‘leadership qualities’. What exactly are we talking about: personality traits, skills or behaviour?  Zaleznick suggests the issue is personality.  I want to suggest that while he may not be completely wrong, it is more useful to think about skills and to look a bit more closely about what we need business executives to be able to do.

Opposing leadership and management is a serious distortion. By lumping everything we want into the amorphous category of ‘leadership’ we fail to distinguish two quite different activities and skill-sets.  If instead we distinguish between them we may have more success in selecting and developing the kinds of people our organisations need.

The Long View

Outside the business world, some people had already started studying leadership before 1977.  In the military world, people started studying it a couple of thousand years ago.

Interestingly, the military are not dismissive of management.  Even more interestingly, they talk about something else we do not talk about in business at all.  They have a third concept besides management and leadership.  They call it ‘command’.

This word has an unpleasant ring to most civilians.  It conjures up ideas of being in charge and telling people what to do, which is a bit old-fashioned.  It sounds rather authoritarian, and often comes linked with the word ‘control’.

In military language, ‘command and control’ covers the various ways in which direction is given and the effects of actions are monitored.  In the language of business ‘command and control’ has become shorthand for ‘authoritarian micro-management’, which is just one – usually dysfunctional – way of giving direction.  Choosing to give the words ‘command and control’ this negative sense is strange, because business is quite keen on ‘control’.

In fact, most management teams feel the need to convince other stakeholders that they are completely in control of their businesses. They spend a lot of time and money on control systems to convince themselves that they are.  Equating ‘command and control’ with ‘authoritarian micro-management’ is a category error – it confuses ‘fruit’ with ‘rotten apples’.

Not using the word will not make the activity referred to as ‘command’ go away.  NATO defines command as: ‘the authority invested in an individual for the direction, co-ordination and control of military forces’.[vi]  Co-ordination and control are classic roles of management.  So perhaps the bit we don’t feel so comfortable with is ‘direction’.

Management, Leadership and Command

Command is something granted to someone by an external party.  The external party confers rights of authority and along with them go responsibilities and duties.  Responsibilities may be delegated or shared, but the commander remains accountable for the results.[vii]

In the British Armed Forces, command is ultimately granted by the sovereign, in the United States, by the President.  In businesses it is granted by the owners of the business, who are most commonly the shareholders.

The organisation is not the property of the commander.  It is entrusted to the commander for a time, during which he or she is its steward.  It implies a certain humility and a duty of care.

Command is as unavoidable in the business world as it is in the military one.  Because it is a real requirement, somebody has got to do it, and because of its central importance in business we have to talk about it.  So we do.  We include it under ‘leadership’.  As a result, we cause confusion.

Business thinking suffers by opposing management and leadership. The leadership literature contains futile debates because of a failure to distinguish leadership from command.  There is a trinity, and both officers and executives have to practice all three, because an organisation needs all three:

Figure 1

Figure 1 - The trinity

These three types of activity overlap, which is why it is easy to confuse them.  Indeed, a single individual might be doing all three in quick succession.  Accounts of their specific nature and their relationship differ, but I would suggest that they could be understood as follows:

Figure 2

Figure 2 - Elements of the trinity

Different Skills

Command is about setting direction.  The skills required are primarily intellectual.  Commanders develop strategic direction considering the interests of their stakeholders, the environment they are in and the capabilities of their organisation.  They also further build the capabilities the organisation needs to realise the strategy.  They then have to actually give direction by communicating their intent in ways the organisation can act on.  People have to know what they are supposed to do.  They have to be ready to act.

Management is about providing the means of following the direction and monitoring how it is being done.  It also requires brainwork, but is less conceptual than the work of command and more a matter of deploying assets: marshalling resources, organising and controlling them.  Managing means understanding objectives, solving problems so that they can be achieved and creating processes so that the work of others can be organised efficiently.  Good management means making the maximum use of physical resources, money and people. People have to have the means to do what they need to.  They have to be able to act.

Leading is about motivating followers so that they are willing to go in the required direction and perform their own tasks better than they would have done had the leader not been there.  Leaders have to balance their attention between defining and achieving the specific task of their group, building and maintaining the team as a team, and developing the individuals within it.  They will shift their attention across each of these over time depending on the situation.  If they neglect the team, it may disintegrate; if they neglect the task, it may not get done; if they neglect the needs of  individuals, they may become disaffected or a burden.  People need to be motivated to do what they need to do.  They have to be willing to act.

Leadership is the most personal of the three.  If we try to motivate people by putting on an act, we will surely fail.  Authenticity is fundamental.  The three challenges of achieving the task, building the team and developing individuals imply some personal traits: task competence, social competence and integrity.  It is difficult to learn integrity, though the organisation may make it harder or easier to achieve.  But regardless of their personality, successful leaders get the right balance of attention between task, team and individual.[viii]

Why the Trinity Matters

The first point about the trinity is that no single element is more important than the other. Few need convincing that leadership matters.  Management may be unfashionable in business, but it has lost none of its relevance.  The military take it very seriously.  One of the most bloodthirsty Confederate generals of the American Civil War, Nathaniel Bedford Forrest,  once said that success in war was about ‘getting there fastest with the mostest’.   That means logistics, and logistics is about management: getting the right resources in the right quantity in the right place at the right time.  Command sits at the top of the trinity pyramid because it is not properly recognised and because it is in practice where the most significant deficits are found.

The second point is that the trinity describes types of work, not types of people.  Every officer or executive who rises to a senior position will have to achieve some measure of competence in all three.  At the beginning of their careers, as soon as they have one or two people working for them, they will have to start leading.  As they get promoted they will be made responsible for some assets and may end up running a department which will have to be not only led but managed.  Finally, as they rise through the ranks of middle management, they will have to learn how to exercise command.

The third point is that although the trinity does not define different people, it does define different skills. People’s ability to master them varies.  Some inspiring leaders are poor managers, some brilliant commanders are ineffectual leaders, and some very efficient managers can neither command nor lead.  Because all three sets of skills are equally important, there are two consequences.  It means that although the circles overlap, each of us must be aware of what mode we are primarily operating in at any point in time; and it means that organisations must beware of how they select their top leaders.

Doing Three in One

Exercising these three different skill sets well requires different mental attitudes.

In leading, we cast doubts aside and encourage people by focussing on the positive.  If things are difficult we help them to overcome the difficulties.  We persuade and cajole, we coach people through their problems and build their skills as they do their jobs.  Even if a strategy is not watertight, resolute and energetic leadership can make it work.  The leader is committed, passionate and determined.

In managing, we are making trade-offs, calculating and appraising.  We are dealing mainly with things.  We gather the facts and analyse them.  We are not trying to come up with insights or generate great ideas but trying to make things work.  We solve problems, minimising risk by favouring tried and tested solutions.  Detail and precision matter.  The manager is engaged, realistic and pragmatic.

In commanding, we step back from the detail, synthesise the facts and do our utmost to grasp the big picture.  We try to look at things in different ways.  We develop hypotheses and test them.  We generate ideas about possible direction and then probe them for weaknesses.  We make sober assessments of what our organisation is capable of doing and make sure we do not stretch it too far.  Peering through a fog of uncertainty, we must form some conclusions and act.  We strive to sort out the essentials and hone our messages until they are clear and simple.  The commander is detached, calculating and flexible.

If we are in management mode when we are called upon to lead, we are liable to come across as cold and calculating.  If we are in command mode, we will sow doubts in people’s minds.  If we approach the work of command in the belief that it is about leadership, we are liable ignore warning signs, produce biased appraisals of what is possible and come up with a gung-ho strategy that will send the organisation down a path to perdition.  The leader’s motto is: ‘Yes we can!’  The commander’s question is: ‘What should we do?’

Leadership style is a personal thing.  Command is different.  The way in which it is exercised should be attuned to the needs of the organisation and the situation rather than the habits of individuals.  An organisation needs a unified approach to direction-setting or it will get confused.  There are skills and techniques which have to be learned.  They are sadly neglected.

Leaders may be born or made, but nobody is born a great commander.  The good news is that people of the right intellectual calibre can be taught how to give good direction.  There is a rich literature on strategy development and courses are on offer at every Business School.  Organisational development is a discipline in its own right.  Sadly, however, the third core skill of directing, that of actually giving direction – the formulating and communicating of guidance and instructions – is neglected.

One striking feature of the great commanders of history – the likes of Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Wellington, Grant, or von Moltke – is that they were without exception superb writers.  Their outstanding powers of synthesis, decision-making and will would have been worthless had they not also been able to draw together their thoughts in simple, concise, unambiguous prose, even when under immense pressure.  They issued instructions in a way that enabled their subordinates to grasp what really mattered and so galvanised their organisations into coherent, purposive action.

Being One in Three

Senior people need both leadership and command skills and need to be self-aware enough to provide the organisation with what it needs at any point in time.  When developing strategy, they think like commanders; when they move to execution, they act like leaders.  The danger is charismatic leaders who neither understand nor have the intellect to carry out the tasks of command and so stay in leadership mode when command is needed.  If they become celebrity-heroes, they can wreak havoc.

Great commanders who are not great leaders are not so much of a problem.  In fact in the right role, which is often at the very top, they can be outstandingly effective.  Because of their integrity, dedication to the task, and professional competence, they inspire confidence and people will follow them.

The humble but strong-willed ‘Level 5 Leader’ described by Jim Collins is made of this stuff.[ix]  Collins identifies eleven such characters, all at the helm of his ‘good to great’ companies. In the military realm one could add Grant or von Moltke.  In fact, Collins has not discovered a new level of leadership, but the completely different realm of command, but he writes as if leadership and command were on a continuum and so creates confusion.

Tom Peters expressed some scepticism about ‘Level 5 Leaders’ by trenchantly observing: ‘More Collins, more claptrap’, and listing other leaders with different personalities who had a great impact in their diverse domains.[x]  Neither Collins nor Peters can explain how these uncharismatic people were able to be so effective, because they lump leadership and command together, prompting a sterile argument.

Different personalities tend to find that one of the three sets of skills comes more naturally than others. Individuals are unlikely to be equally good at all three.  This is the half truth Zaleznick identified when he called managers and leaders different people.  Whilst our propensities and natural strengths differ, most of us will be able to develop some competence in all three of them.  We just should not expect to get three A grades.  Nor should our HR department expect us to.

Of course, occasionally some folk emerge who are outstanding at leadership, command and management, but they are rare, and therefore often become celebrated, as Welch is in our day and Nelson was in his.  In practice, most companies looking for people to fill their top jobs will have to choose from among people with varying strengths in the different realms, and at the very top, making the trade-off in favour of command skills will generally be well-advised.

Every organisation needs command, leadership and management in order to prosper. So to provide it with all three, the most pragmatic solution is usually to put together a team which can collectively offer all three, rather than waiting for a genius to turn up.

The Implications

The trinity defines the work of the executive as much as the work of the officer.  We need to talk about command as well as leadership, so we need a word for it.  The one which suggests itself most readily is ‘directing’.  Directing is command in business.

The trinity has implications at all levels for each of us as individuals, and for how companies select and develop people.

For individuals, it is a call to self-awareness: are you more of a leader who can rally the troops or more of a director who can think through a strategy?  What mode should you be primarily operating in at any point in time?  And how should you manage your career to make best use of your strengths?

For learning and development, it suggests a review of what skills you train people in and how you do it.  Leadership is a personal thing which has to be grounded in the personality of each individual.  Directing is a matter of technique.  The organisation should decide how it is to be done and train everyone to do it in that way.  Far more effort should be devoted to developing the thinking and writing skills everyone has to learn in order to communicate clearly and simply.

For HR and Boards, there are implications about succession planning and who we place in the top positions. Faced with a choice between a charismatic leader-type and a less inspiring but more thoughtful director-type, we might be better served by the latter in the top job.  But is it the strength of the team that matters – for example, a ‘director’ as CEO, with a ‘leader’ as COO and a ‘manager’ as FD might be a good balance.  If you want to find all the qualities to the same degree in one person, you may have to wait a long time.  Trying to teach cats to bark could take even longer.

In our endless debates about the nature of leadership, perhaps it is now time to cut through some of the noise and start acting on the lessons evident from the last 2,000 years of history.

[i] Rakesh Khurana, From Higher Aims to Hired Hands, Princeton University Press 2007, pp. 112 – 3.

[ii] Ibid, p. 355 and www.hbs.edu, ‘About Us’. Perhaps one day the MBA will indeed be replaced by the MBL – but what’s in a name?

[iii] Abraham Zaleznik, ‘Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?’, Harvard Business Review, March-April 1992, reprint 92211.

[iv] See Mathew L.A. Hayward, Violina P. Rindova and Timothy G. Pollock, ‘Believing One’s Own Press: The Causes and Consequences of CEO Celebrity’, Strategic Management  Journal 25, 2004, pp. 637-653.

[v] Compare Chris Bones, The Cult of the Leader – A Manifesto for More Authentic Business, Wiley 2011.  Bones anchors his critique in the ethos of what he calls the ‘L’Oreal generation’, whose motto is the narcissistic slogan ‘Because you’re worth it’, further intensified in the business world by the belief that success is about winning a ‘war for talent’.

[vi] Army Doctrine Publication Volume 2: Command, Army Code 71564, Chapter 1, § 0103.

[vii] Ibid., § 0105.

[viii] This model of leadership was developed in the 1970’s by John Adair, and is the standard model taught in the British Army amongst others.  Adair has expounded it for the business community as well in many seminars and books such as The Skills of Leadership, Gower, 1984.

[ix] Jim Collins, Good to Great, pp. 17 – 40.

[x] Tom Peters, Re-Imagine!, Dorling Kindersley 2003, p. 44.