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The Difference Between Leaders and Managers

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Message Steve Denning
Book Review: Resonant Leadership by Boyatzis and McKee

Resonant Leadership by Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee (Boston: 2005) Harvard Business School Press) is an illuminating book, though perhaps not in the sense that its authors intended. It illuminates the nature of current conventional thinking about leadership and emotional intelligence, revealing both its contributions and its confusions.

Following on their previous book, Primal Leadership, coauthored with Daniel Goleman, Boyatzis and McKee focus on the role of emotional intelligence in leadership. Their approach is illustrated with the initial examples of two "emotionally unintelligent" leaders. The first is given the pseudonym of "Eduardo".

Eduardo was promoted to lead a very visible division of a well-known international NGO. An economist, Eduardo was assigned to a country with a fragile, newly democratic government-formed from opposite sides of a decade-long war that had just ended. His organization was meant to "help the new government ministries coordinate their strategies as their built their democracy in this war-torn poverty stricken part of the world." He had a staff of 50 local, well-respected individuals. In the previous six years, Eduardo had held three managerial jobs on two continents and had got results fast.

On taking up this new position, after initial meetings with ministers and community leaders, he crafted a research project to investigate and then integrate community objectives and concerns. He set a demanding timetable. He put in long hours, stayed focused on outcomes and demanded the same of others. People worked at breakneck speed, day and night.

Soon, however, concerns began to emerge from ministries and community leaders that their real needs were not being addressed by Eduardo's research project. As concerns turned into resistance, Eduardo pressed ahead, but within a year, his organization had been sidelined and those who had followed his lead had been discredited.

Then there is the example of the person who is given the pseudonym of "Karl".

For many years, Karl was a managing partner in the regional office of a well-known professional services firm. He brought in clients and kept them happy. He was a stellar role model, managing himself and his relationships insightfully. Managing client projects came easily to him. He held people accountable, while ensuring that they got what they needed and developing their skills along the way.

All that began to change when Karl was assigned to headquarters to help the senior management deal with a set of corporate scandals that threatened to undermine the industry. In his new role, he found the rules of engagement completely alien. He worked harder than ever, but he couldn't understand the dynamics of the new situation. When he got involved in a conflict among staffers, he treated their game-playing as beneath him. He was uninterested in intervening in the politics of the situation, and even wrote a scathing letter fo the board of directors, criticizing the political environment at headquarters.

As Karl's own behavior at work and outside became increasingly angry, hostile and resentful, he himself became a cause of anxiety, tension and embarrassment, and he was "sent to Siberia", i.e. relegated to a low-visibility, low-impact position in a regional office.

What went wrong for Eduardo and Karl? According to Boyatzis and McKee, they are quintessential examples of leaders lacking in emotional intelligence, who entered into "the Sacrifice Syndrome" of working harder and harder as leaders and achieving less and less, until they burned out.

Eduardo "totally missed the emotional reality of the community and the country". He "did not see that relationships were the currency and the vehicle for change in the setting". He "totally missed the fact that relationships needed to be healed and rebuilt-before any formal plan could be conceived." "His intense focus on outcomes as opposed to relationships became more and more ineffective. Without even realizing it, then, Eduardo had slipped quickly into dissonance."

Eduardo was "caught in the Sacrifice Syndrome". His "emotional and physical resources were depleted, yet he drove himself relentlessly for weeks on end." "His emotional intelligence diminished, he lost sight of the reality of the situation and his part in it. He lost his way."

Similarly Karl was "baffled". He had "slipped into a vicious cycle of power stress, sacrifice, dissonance and more stress-and he was at that point in the Sacrifice Syndrome where he was not able to see for himself what was happening." He worked longer hours with greater intensity, yet with increasing ineffectiveness. He had "lost touch with what he was feeling. He was clueless about his own (now usually negative) emotions." He had "warped judgments and self-serving interpretations of events. He had chipped at people's trust to get the results he wanted, damaging relationship after relationship."

In a limited sense, Boyatzis and McKee are correct: Eduardo and Karl didn't seem to understand the reality of the ambiguous leadership challenges they were facing. But there is an even more basic explanation for the sequence of events that unfolded in each case:

Both Eduardo and Karl had been successful managers. They had both held positions in which the trappings of hierarchical power had supported their hard-driving ways of getting results. They were pursuing the familiar management processes of planning, organizing, staffing, directing and controlling, as taught in business schools around the world. They embodied a strong energetic work ethic and were able to hold people accountable for results. As managers, in structured roles with the support of hierarchical power, they were successful.

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Stephen Denning is the author of several books on leadership and narrative, including The Secret Language of Leadership: How Leaders Inspire Action Through Narrative (Jossey-Bass, 2007), which was selected by the Financial Times as one of the best (more...)
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