One of the primary differences between managers and leaders is that managers are asked primarily to maintain the status quo, and leaders are charged with inspiring others to adapt to an ever-changing environment. It is often said that we manage things/processes – but we lead people. I don’t like to debate the difference between management and leadership, as I’ll leave that to the managers of the world. I will say that both roles, and the skills that accompany them, are vitally important. There are aspects of an organization that require the focus of a strong manager, and there are other facets that require near-constant evolution. Personally, I don’t find managing the status quo all that fulfilling, which is the reason I don’t do well in a “do no harm” environment that allows both managers and the status quo to thrive. Instead, I love working in a dynamic environment where things are continually evolving.
As I consider organizations from both public and private sectors, I see what appears to be a fair amount of change for the sake of change. This type of change isn’t particularly useful and it is often a distraction to the real work that needs to be done. This type of change is often internally focused, driven from the top of the hierarchy, and the rationale is difficult to explain. Think about how many times you have witnessed or been a part of a reorganization, or the number of times job titles have changed but roles and responsibilities haven’t. That change generates additional activity, but it does not inspire additional outcomes and it very rarely results in meaningful progress. This is why we get eye rolls from the masses when we talk of change within an organization.
I have noticed that the healthiest teams I have been on and the best companies about which I have read are extremely self-aware of who they are, what they do, and how they fit in after considering the world around them. It is that awareness and external focus that separates them from peer organizations. They deliberately seek to understand the world around them before deciding how best to adapt to the evolution they have been monitoring over time and the future they are forecasting. They don’t seek to change; they deliberately evolve: they adapt slowly into a more advanced state in consideration of the world around them. While some people focus on change in the name of preserving the status quo, true leaders inspire others to evolve in the name of thriving in (if not shaping) the future.
When we are properly informed about the world around us, it’s difficult to ignore the need to evolve. The most profitable businesses today won’t be around tomorrow if they don’t continue to evolve, and, in this day and age, the pace of evolution is faster than ever. Think about Kodak and their unwillingness to evolve. How about Blockbuster’s blindness? There are countless other examples. I don’t personally know anyone who worked at either corporation, but I’d bet their culture was one of managing the status quo. There was a time when they were king in their sector, but the world changed and they didn’t. Now think about Apple, Nokia, Corning, Dupont, Netflix, and 3M. I’ll let you do the research, but you’ll be surprised to know how the core products that started these companies evolved over the years. Again, an assumption, as I only know people at Apple, but the culture of these companies has less to do with today and nothing to do with the status quo. It’s all about evolving as a means to ensure increased relevance tomorrow.
As a leader within the Navy, my responsibility can be binned into two categories. One is to partner with my teammates to ensure we accomplish today’s mission. The other is to lead the team in a way that ensures we are even better postured to accomplish our mission tomorrow. By and large, I think we are good at the former – but so were Kodak and Blockbuster. Our challenge is the latter. We must acknowledge that the world around us is evolving more quickly than we care to admit. As we manage the status quo, we grow less relevant each day. We must lead the evolution!
- How are you preparing yourself and your team for increased relevance tomorrow?
- How many resources do you have dedicated to inspiring future outcomes?
- In all honesty, how much of your time is spent managing the status quo?
Note: The team I am on now was once a division at another command. We have now evolved into a command that is much larger than the one that gave birth to us. In fact, later this month we celebrate our 10th Anniversary as Navy Cyber Defense Operations Command.