May 20, 2013
Column | basic training

When managers think they are leaders

Life's too short to waste on "leaders" who can't lead and managers who can't manage. Here are some telltale signs you're dealing with one of these.

By Art van Bodegraven and Kenneth B. Ackerman

We've written often about the differences between managers and leaders, between bosses and visionaries. But those most lacking in a higher order of attributes seem to be the last to sense their absence. Nothing, it seems, makes a boss feel more powerful than the conceit that he or she is actually a leader.

The folks who organize pay-to-play "conferences," "forums," and "summits" get this and play to audiences that tend to be overloaded with pretenders to the crown. Advertising to bosses who aspire to recognition as leaders is like hanging out a Free Catnip sign at a cat convention.

Without revisiting the tit-for-tat comparisons of managers and leaders, there are some telltale signs that a cloud of self-delusion is settling in. We've seen this recently, in a setting in which a mob of bosses declared themselves to be leaders and positioned their deepest thoughts about supply chain management as the insights of leaders. The net effect registered alarmingly high on the barf-o-meter.

Reality is that supply chain management, done right, can have a profound effect on overall corporate financial accomplishment. What we, in the aggregate, do ultimately elevates such measures as return on assets. We can help drive sales volume, profit margins, and market position. And, by the way, we can manage costs for optimized investment.

But while leaders get the picture, bosses and managers fall into the trap of thinking that supply chain management's job is to slash inventories, squeeze suppliers on price, and reduce transport expenditures. In short, their supply chains are supposed to drive cost performance—nothing more, nothing less.

The manager typically has a cost mentality. The only thing that matters is cost reduction, and what's important about customer service is the transient cost of a single transaction, not the down-the-road and sustainable consequence of loyalty and increased sales.

The leader has a value mentality and sees dollars as investments with recurring payback, not as margin erosion. The leader wants suppliers and service providers to be profitable, to be able to invest in continuous improvement, and to share in win-win solutions that benefit all partners in the end-to-end supply chain.

The manager might not even see that there is an end-to-end integrated chain that creates success and value up and down the chain, but often confuses the robust supply chain with functional execution of logistics tasks, a deadly perspective and a limiting factor in long-term performance improvement.

Admittedly, pressures for immediate financial performance can drive bosses and managers to a short-term perspective in supply chain management decisions. But, frankly, they also tend to be comfortable with the immediate gratification of monthly and quarterly earnings.

Leaders, by contrast, tend to naturally look toward the long term in assessing what investments make sense, when positive outcomes should be expected, and how sustainable improvements ought to be.

The bosses, flinty-eyed managers, and pretenders to leadership sometimes talk the talk about doing right by people. But more often than not, there's not room enough under the bus in which to throw the human resources that elevate enterprise performance.

In the wake of 9/11, fake leaders discovered that it was not an immediate life-and-death decision to curtail the travel involved in training and education activities. The Great Recession provided evidence that if less training was all right, even less was surely better. Economic decline pushed some wavering managers over the edge and encouraged cutting employee development in the guise of making the tough calls that would allow the business to survive hard times.

The visionary leaders understood that slow times were an ideal period in which to invest in people development, hone skills, build loyalty, and create a stronger infrastructure with which to prosper in a business recovery.

Some companies had no intention of continuing development. The thesis was and is that "we pay good money for people who already know what they're doing, so they'd better deliver." This works only until the world changes and yesterday's truths become tomorrow's traps. The same companies inherently believe that the workforce marketplace is loaded with interchangeable parts, that any associate can be replaced by any of a number of available candidates.

So, the embedded culture becomes one of "use 'em up and throw 'em away." Bad news: There is not an inexhaustible supply of supply superstars. Worse news: These companies and managers don't care. In the short term, these can be exciting places to work. In the long term, clinical depression is a risk for the associates, and disappointing performance becomes the enterprise norm—and the bosses are the next layer to be scraped into the dustbin.

In the end, it comes down to this. If the boss feels compelled to anoint him (or her) self as a leader, run like the wind. If the manager has to announce "You know, I am a people person," keep your eyes peeled for an emergency exit.

If the hierarchy doesn't get the big picture in supply chain management, be wary. If associates aren't worth the investment of educating for continuous improvement, make sure your network is active and up to date.

If the boss's long-term vision extends only six months out, don't let your commitment get too far beyond that. And if there is a magnifying glass on cost rather than a telescope on value far into the future, remember what happens to a fly under a magnifying glass.

Better yet, remember the old song about The Great Pretender and try to stay out of the frying pan in the first place. Life's too short to waste on "leaders" who can't lead and managers who can't manage. And you are too good to sell your soul to make the great pretenders look like geniuses.

About the Authors

Art van Bodegraven
Art van Bodegraven was, among other roles, chief design officer for the DES Leadership Academy. He passed away on June 18, 2017. He will be greatly missed.

More articles by Art van Bodegraven
Kenneth B. Ackerman
Kenneth B. Ackerman, president of The Ackerman Company, can be reached at (614) 488-3165.

More articles by Kenneth B. Ackerman

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