Thursday, February 22, 2024

The intriguing paradox of leaders and managers

The number of leadership books that is being published has been on the steep rise. Search on Amazon for leadership books returns staggering over 100,000 results.  In the same way the number of leadership development programs available in the market is akin to any commodity available off the shelf ready to be picked; a lot fewer than the programs to develop efficient managers.

There is no dearth of quick recipes like “60 minutes to become great manager” or “30 minutes to leadership skills”. I am amazed how these quick fix formulas are going to transform an insipid executive into effective leader or efficient manager.  I am yet to come across fast track formula like “one minute doctor” or “one minute lawyer” or “30 minutes to become a great engineer”.

Managerial skills and Leadership like any other profession of medicine or law, warrants years of conscious working and training to build upon critical inherent qualities.

The core problem arises when organizations spend substantial time and resources in developing hierarchical leaders rather than spotting the ones and train them, who show exceptional leadership qualities irrespective of their position in the organization.

It’s paradoxical when an exceptional manager is elevated one fine day, and finds himself in the leadership role. He attends multitude of leadership development programs; spends numerous hours in an attempt to develop leadership skills and behavior. This is good, but might be too late to be effective. As rightly said, old habits die hard; the quality which makes him exceptional manager itself contradicts to his role of a leader. Those qualities are deeply ingrained in his DNA. There is no point in flying a fighter jet with chopper training.

Consensual Decisions

Managers, who are good team players, predominantly are consensus managers. They run the show by unanimity. This works well to manage the laid down processes and procedures. Consensus managers, once in leadership role, take decisions which are amalgamation of other’s ideas and decision. Democratic style working comes naturally to them.

Exceptional leaders, though shows excellent team building skills, works selectively on consensual mode. They are capable of taking visionary decisions and aligning the team to attain the desired objectives.

Managing by consensus becomes impediment in tough situations when manager-turned-leader finds himself at the forefront in battlefield.


Leaders are visionaries. Excellent operational skills of an exceptional manager stifle this basic leadership skill. Conventionally programmed for so many years to work within laid down process and operational parameters, managers find it hard to visualize the bigger picture and find themselves choked in larger role of visionary.

Exceptional leaders thrive on complex circumstances and see opportunities in chaos and confusion.     

Controlling and directing

Managerial breed predominantly thrives on controlling and directing. This behavior can prove disastrous as a leader where the challenge is to engage the people from their heart and align them to the bigger picture.

Leaders exhibiting control characteristics fail to win over people. Great leaders work by influence, not by control. They handpick best people to work with them, give them complete freedom and let them learn by mistake. They bring about the desired behavior and outcome by influence.

I wonder when organizations fail to spot the basic flaw where the leadership roles are strongly attached to stiff hierarchies. They must be aware about the irrecoverable loss that these leaders can inflict upon the organization by applying built-over-the-years skills of great managers. They struggle to strategize and find it hard to provide long term direction. Hence natural progression of managers to being leaders in stiff hierarchical organization doesn’t work unless the managers are spotted early, who has the uncanny ability to foresee and strategize, and trained to don the cap of leader in the true sense.

In a recent HBR blog article “We Wait Too Long to Train Our Leaders” Jack Zenger wrote about leadership training which generally takes backseat in organizations’ leadership building pursuits. Zenger writes that leadership training starts too late for managers; although they “practice on job” irrespective of training. In my opinion, this is like shooting in the dark with misplaced hope to hit the bull’s eye every time. 

Zenger alarms about managers practicing leadership without training because:

·      Practicing without training ingrains bad habits.

·      Practice makes perfect only if done correctly.

·      Young supervisors are practicing on the job whether they are trained or not.

There is no fast-track recipe to build leadership skills. A small behavioral change is reinforced by a lot of practice; and leadership is more about behavioral transformation, and less about operational and technical acumen.

Organizations should run leadership development programs, training their exceptional managers, early on their careers, for tomorrow’s roles of leaders.

Leadership strategy needs detailed roadmap. The key is succession planning. Spotting the tomorrow’s leader from the pack of exceptional managers; and this is no mean task. This needs character and exceptional ability to practice.

Not surprisingly, the companies who are consistently performing are ones with better succession planning and adept leadership building abilities. Merely making managers to sit on leadership positions without training them early on; or without thoroughly scrutinizing their ability has its own blind spots. The price to pay for this mistake might be considerable for stakeholders.

Zenger writes “”With all the money and effort being spent on leadership development programs, why don’t we have better leaders?” The answer to that question is obviously complex, but could a part of the answer be, that we have simply waited too long to develop these skills? It may be possible to teach old dogs new tricks, but there’s no question that the sooner you begin, the easier it is.”      

There have been various schools of thoughts, with conflicting viewpoints, when it comes to leadership and managerial skills.

What is your view…?

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Hardeep is an entrepreneur, marketer, blogger, an ardent reader and avid writer. He expresses his unbiased views especially on the matters of Business, Tech & Life through this blog. He can be reached at


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