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Splitting Leadership and Management as a Social Defence

Stephen Billing, October 21, 2012

In a classic article published in Human Relations in 1990, James Krantz from Yale and Thomas Gilmore from Wharton consider the splitting of leadership and management to be a social defence against the anxiety of engaging directly in detail with the ambiguous difficulties of the organisation.

They are using the term "splitting" in a psychodynamic sense, where two aspects of a whole are divided off from each other and one aspect is idealised while the other is denigrated.

Managerialism is the exaltation of technique and method – tools, strategies and process are implemented into an organisation without regard to the specifics of the organisation. It is an elevation of technique over situation. An example is when new managers establish processes that they used in their last organisation. It also is apparent in the expectation that when people go on a management course they will come back transformed and everything will be better. Lean and six sigma would be ultimate examples of managerialism.

Hero leadership by contrast is the seeking of and investment of magic into a hero leader who will deliver the organisation from the problems it is facing. In the leadership literature, leadership is exalted / idealised – we are seen as needing good leadership for success in the future, while management is denigrated by comparison.

The reality is that you need both ends and means – both management and leadership are needed and it does not make much sense to separate them out and exalt one over the other. Krantz and Gilmore suggest that this is done as a defence against painful awareness of its challenges and responsibilities. 

There is a big difference, for example, between extolling the virtues of a technique like management by walking around as part of a recipe for success and its origins at Hewlett Packard as part of real relationships between managers and scientists.

What is being defended against? ask Krantz and Gilmore. Anxiety of an unknown and uncertain future, disruption to existing social defence mechanisms, painful feelings which arise from being in difficult situations. For example, it’s easier to champion customer service from high up in the organisation than it is in an interaction with a difficult aggressive customer.

Focusing on leadership vs management is a way of abstracting from the painful conflicts that face us in our everyday work in organisations. I would prefer to advocate that we look at and notice what is going on around us. Focus the discussion on what is going on, not on abstractions like what ought to be going on in leadership or management.



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