February 21, 2018

Being the boss isn’t the same as leading

Three people around a computerJust because you can tell someone what to do doesn’t mean you should, or that it’s the best option.

In most situations, probably, you’ll be right—the one in the know, the one with the insight to see the correct course of action, the one with the relevant experience.

But not always…

Sometimes it’ll be one of the team who has the right idea.

And that’s where we see the difference between a boss and a leader: The “boss” asserts their authority, really in insecurity, and insists on their point of view being adopted; whereas the leader has the strength and self-confidence to accept the alternative idea—to admit they may have been wrong, even.

And that’s empowering. It encourages creativity and innovation and leads to advantage.

Over the long haul, the leader and the team will beat the boss and the subordinates.

Which are you: A boss or a leader?

Can you governance your way to innovation?

GatheringIt’s the modern management obsession: “governance” and, to a degree, quite rightly so. We do need our organisations and our projects to be well-managed.

The trouble is…

Governance on its own isn’t enough to prepare an organisation for the future. We can’t legislate for innovation and adaptation. I don’t think so anyway.

Somewhere, there needs to be enough freedom to try something new, and forgiveness if it doesn’t work out first time.

And yet…

Some organisations and some leaders – or maybe it would be more accurate to say some managers – seem to think that if only they govern rigorously enough, their organisation will be adaptable and agile.

But I believe they stand in the same position as those who attempted to succeed with a Soviet-style planned economy.

A balance is required: a combination of governance and freedom. Sounds like a contradiction? Probably it is, but that’s what’s needed. And the art of a leader – perhaps as opposed to a manager – is to hold the space for that ambiguity to exist in a tolerable and stimulating way.

What do you think?

Can strong governance and adaptation co-exist? Or is governance alone enough if it’s done sufficiently effectively?

So you survived the recession…

Worried manSo you successfully steered your business through the recession—a significant achievement which no doubt took a lot of courage, determination and energy, and probably involved a fair amount of pain.

You learned a great deal. You established a tight grip. You had good governance.

You’re going to keep these disciplines going. (We may not be out of recession yet, so that’s wise.)

And yet…

You might need something different now, or perhaps more accurately, something else as well.

You might need some innovation and change if you’re not going to be left behind by more adaptable organisations. And if you need some innovation, you might need to loosen up. You might need to create some freedom.

You might need to find a way to balance disorder and order.

Do you know how to do that?

Risk-free innovation—is there such a thing?

Group discussionThought-provoking experience recently…

Organisation declines to do something new because success is not guaranteed—yes, guaranteed.

To be fair…

If you set-up a service to deliver or support innovation and growth, then how do you get paid if the innovation isn’t successful? To make an honest business of it, the buyer needs to accept they won’t get a straightforward win every time. Otherwise, it can’t really be innovation that’s being done—not if success is guaranteed. But does the buyer have that poise? Or does every single thing have to be a winner?

The result of this paradox might be very risk-averse innovators, who only propose certainties.

The question is…

Can doing something truly new ever be a sure thing?

What do you think?

Total control—total paralysis?

Female hand signing a formWe’re addicted to control—control of our businesses, our public services, and our non-profits and charities. It seems so logical: The tighter we can nail down what happens in our organisations, the more efficient and reliable and predictable they will be.

That could be true, assuming people can actually work in such a regime. (In fact, they can’t, but that’s another story.)

The other trouble is…

Control everything and it becomes impossible for anybody to innovate. Nobody can take any kind of speculative risk. They can’t act on a hunch. It’s just too difficult.

A remarkable number of people I know holding really quite senior positions have no discretion to spend even a few hundred pounds, in some cases, not even a few pounds (or dollars or euros).

So their bosses must think they have a monopoly on innovative ideas. Well, I’m sorry, but that’s just not credible.


Total control means, if not total, at least partial paralysis.

In a fast-changing world, that’s really not smart.

Paralysis means stagnation, and stagnation means getting out of date.


We need control, yes. We need a little chaos too.


Three people in a meetingFear is an inhibitor, for the most part—an inhibitor of evolution and innovation. Sure, sometimes a bit of a fright helps us get moving, but if we’re too scared to take risks, we can’t develop.


If fear is part of the climate you create, you might get higher productivity but you won’t get innovation. You’ll need to make those calls about direction and strategy yourself—quite a responsibility really.

Might be better to create a climate of trust, and, yes, high expectations, but not pervasive insecurity, not unless you want to shoulder the whole leadership burden yourself.

The more fear you create, the more you’re in sole charge (for a time), and the more you’re alone.

Are you an architect or a gardener?

House and gardenIt is said that “The policy maker should act as a gardener not an architect.” In other words, the policy maker will do better to support good ideas that emerge rather than direct from on high.

I connect that with experience of some organizations that assume new ideas cannot come from external sources and innovation can only be initiated within. But they have no monopoly on knowledge.

On the other hand, sometimes the leader really does know best.

When it comes to change, do you direct as an architect, or nurture new growth as a gardener?

Do you develop a vision and then command its realization, or do you hold space for new things to emerge?

The art, of course, is in holding these opposing dynamics in balance.