Leaders Innovate While Managers Imitate: A Not-So-Subtle Difference

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Anyone who has paid attention to business management over the past several decades has got to be fascinated by the sheer number of trends that have been touted as being the wave of the future. A look back however, shows that the past is littered with the remains of such trends, along with their jargon, implementation manuals, and training rituals. In the meantime, sound leadership retains its value as the most viable business resource. 

It’s now been 100 years since Frederick Taylor published his landmark work, Principles of Scientific Management in 1911. His book became something of a Bible for the manufacturing sector, influencing industry in this country for decades. Taylor’s emphasis on measurement, statistics, and clearly delineated procedures was actually driven by the simplest of motivational psychologies. In his words, “All the worker wants is money.” 

Although exceedingly popular for decades, “Taylorism,” as it came to be called, eventually came under severe criticism, especially from opponents who favored more humane approaches to managing workplaces. Over the course of the century following Taylor’s initial publication, an incredible array of fads in management came and went, each bearing its own motivational psychology and unique terminology.  

Particularly of note are those management schemes that have appeared in response to problems in the American manufacturing sector over the last several decades. Wave after wave of quick fixes emerged during this period, only to die out and be replaced by the next “magic bullet.” Although showing minor gains over the course of the last several months, manufacturing in America is still at dangerously low levels, making it difficult for other industries such as banking and housing to recover.

Why haven’t we done better?

Why hasn’t “management science,” which has spawned so many interventions over so many decades, served the American manufacturing sector better? Loaded question, I admit, but it is a valid and important one. In my own lifetime I have been subjected to Sensitivity Training, WOFAC (Work Factors),  MIPs (Methods Improvement Programs), MBO (Management by Objectives), and TQM (Total Quality Management), only to see these succeeded by systems such as Kaizen, 6 Sigma, and 360 Evaluation. The turnover has been an amazing phenomenon to behold. 

The problem with bandwagon effects

Each new wave promised to cut costs, motivate workers, elevate quality, and increase customer loyalty. By the time we got to TQM however, it became evident what was happening. Businesses were struggling with the same kinds of problems that they’d always had, which were inadequate leadership, poor planning, lack of shared purpose, and lack of trust.  In desperation, companies would look to the latest management trend for the answer. They would invest in the observable elements of each fad (the jargon, manuals and training sessions), but the issues of trust, shared purpose, and planning would often be left unaddressed in the process.

W. Edwards Deming himself, often identified as the founder of the “quality movement,” declared that what most of what was being called TQM had little to do what he was advocating and distanced himself. Ill conceived and poorly implemented TQM programs appeared everywhere, failed to live up to their promises, and then were dropped in lieu of the next popular trend. Meanwhile, America’s manufacturing sector continued to decline.

What’s behind this cycle?

The truth is, once an intervention demonstrates some success and acquires a trick name, it becomes a marketable product and the copycat process begins. Desperate managers often buy the program from consultants whose knowledge of sales is superior to their understanding of the needs of the businesses they service, and a new fad is off and running.

I’ve seen this cycle repeat itself frequently, and we’ll doubtless be seeing it again in the future.

What makes it so robust? Lots of aspects of human nature are responsible, but one giveaway lies in the language that often used to describe the change. Almost invariably, the new program is described as something being implemented by “management.” This goes back to a common tendency to equate management with leadership, which experts in business have been warning us about for decades. 

Leaders innovate, managers imitate

Leadership is a priceless commodity in organizations, and priceless always means rare.  Effective leaders inspire and unleash the creativity and enthusiasm of their subordinates, meaning that they also actively cultivate it in themselves. Rarely is management referred to in these terms. 

Case in point:  Steve Jobs of Apple, Inc. is frequently cited as an example of magnificent leadership. Some time back, when Mr. Jobs was reported to have serious health problems, a hushed anticipation characterized the reactions of Apple’s employees as well as its stockholders. Analysts questioned the company’s future. 

No one said, “Apple will be okay, they’re employing Kaizen, or 6 Sigma” (or whatever).  Such remarks would have been regarded as preposterous. The question was, “Who is going to be leading this company?” While Apple does have various mechanisms for process improvement in place, its fate as an industry leader was seen as dependent on the personality of its leadership, not its quality assurance programs.

Avoiding imitation as a business strategy

In some cases, bringing in elements of an established intervention may be advisable, but if you’re considering doing so, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Every organization is different, even those in the same industry. Interventions need to be well considered and tailored to the culture in which they’ll be implemented. Many interventions wash out or produce unintended effects because they are imitated rather than adapted.

Interventions should be woven into a more general strategic planning process rather than being brought in as “add-ons.” A periodic review and reworking your strategic plan is sound business strategy anyway, helping to assure that strategy and daily activities are in alignment.

As always, the best rule to follow is “get the right tool for the right job.” Process improvement can be implemented independently of complete packages bearing trick names, fancy jargon, and high price tags.

Systems are no substitute for leadership

Max De Pree, former CEO of Herman Miller, Inc. successfully led a company that specialized in innovative approaches to the design and production of office furnishings for several decades. His success was attributable not to importing the latest management fad, but to valuing and empowering his people to contribute their best, regardless of their position or role in the company.

As a CEO, Mr. De Pree had a profound suspicion of manual-driven management schemes and prepackaged business “solutions.” Although he was clearly concerned with accountability on the part of employees, he felt that an informal “participative” management structure was much more productive than bureaucratic systems involving what he referred to as “meaningless quantification.” He was especially suspicious of “manuals” as substitutes for trust, respect, and good human relations.

Relationships trump systems, schemes, and fads

The performance of Herman Miller under Max De Pree’s stewardship clearly speaks for itself. The company was frequently cited by Fortune magazine as one of its top twenty-five most admired companies, and Fortune ultimately elected him to the National Business Hall of Fame. Rather than simply following popular trends, Mr. De Pree established a culture that served his employees, thus enabling them to serve customers to the fullest extent possible. His own words best summarize the quality orientation at Herman Miller:

“When we talk about quality, we are talking about quality of product or service. But we are also talking about the quality of our relationships and the quality of our communications and the quality of our promises to each other. And so, it is reasonable to talk about quality in terms of truth and integrity.”

What he succeeded in doing was building trust and team spirit through leading by example, an inexpensive but oft neglected modus operandi.

Fads in management can never substitute for leadership

Fads come and go, but the value of truly innovative thinking and inspiration is timeless.  Those who devote themselves to it and combine it with gritty determination will continue to be rewarded for their efforts, leaving a trail of disenfranchised imitators in their wake. Such is the nature of the free market. Businesses that flourish will be those with leaders that invest in the personal growth and development of their people, including themselves. Continuous improvement must be a personal, as well as a corporate activity.

Are we doomed to a future of endless new trends in management that flare up, run their courses, then fizzle and give way to the next wave? There will always be a certain amount of such activity, but having sound leadership is the best means to avoid replicating that cycle. But it is difficult to imagine what could put an end to what we’ve been seeing decade in and decade out since Principles of Scientific Management appeared in 1911. After all, if “thinking out of the box” can itself become just another trite catchphrase, what should we expect?