No Future for Leadership?

A number of interesting studies and articles – from sources as diverse as Harvard Business Review to Wired magazine to The Economist to Rolling Stone – focus on a growing short-sightedness and reactionary quality to organizational leadership.  Many companies (…The United Methodist Church aptly fits the category) are focusing the vast majority of their three-functions-of-leadership2attention and resources on management functions, leaving the visionary and futuring work grossly under developed.  The short-term impact is a flurry of activity to rearrange assets, staff, programs and structures that yields very little positive long-term impact.  Analysis of this trend reveals three simple explanations.  First, managing functions are simpler and easier than visioning and futuring functions.  Second, a growing number of people in leadership positions arrived there because of their management skills.  And third, the booming consultation field has erroneously led many organizations to “hire” visioning and futuring “experts” to do the work for them.  The combination of these three factors is producing disastrous results.

For the better part of the past fifty years, a false dichotomous relationship between “leadership” and “management” has developed in journals, magazines, books, and seminars.  Thousands of book titles herald the strengths and weaknesses of each.  Leadership has been defined as the purview of those at the top (or the front) and exhaustive lists of personal and individual qualities of effective leadership have resulted.  Management experts push back, saying that organizational success depends not merely upon the decision-making potency and personal charisma of the individuals at the top, but that skilled expertise throughout the middle ranks is the actual key to world-class performance.  As with any systemic disagreement, both sides contain significant truth, undermined by some flawed logic.  The “either/or” nature of the discussion was strongly tested in the 1990s and early 21st century by proponents of systems-thinking and integral-dynamics, stating instead that good leadership is a complex and sophisticated “dance” of a wide variety of skills, gifts, knowledge-sets, abilities, passions, and experiences.  Leadership is not something that individuals (leaders) excel at – it is the result of diverse and complementary groupings of people with different functions, abilities, and performance objectives.

A simple model of this is the redefinition of “leadership” as “the interplay of the visioning, futuring, and managing functions of the organization.” (Don’t try to find the source.  This is my own personal definition.)  The three discreet “spheres” of leadership can be understood as:

  1. Visioning – the foundational work of assessing and analyzing the opportunities, challenges, and demands facing the organization, and engaging in strategic and critical thinking to establish objectives and goals, set priorities, and qualitatively evaluate the ongoing effectiveness of the organization as it moves into the future.  Since the organization is always moving forward, the opportunities, challenges, and demands constantly evolve and shift – this means that the futuring work is not a project or task to hand off to a “vision team” (or that can be done once every decade to come up with a 3-, 5-, 7-year plan), but is at the heart of the work of the visioning leaders.  Another key role of the visioning leader is to persistently and tirelessly promote (cast) the vision and help others throughout the system understand and embrace it.
  2. Futuring – the critical strategic and tactical planning work to design structures, processes, policies and procedures, identify skill-sets and resource needs, and establish time-lines and evaluative metrics to achieve the objectives, goals, and priorities of the organization.  The futuring work is the “architect/engineer/designer/developer” function of the organization.  Futuring is not figuring out what to do (visioning), but how to do it.  It is not implementation (managing), but creating the frame upon which the organization builds its future.  The most common mistake that organizations make is to try to “hire” someone to do this work for them.  The key learning of the past two decades is that those who will work the system need to be the people who design the system, otherwise they will become wholly dependent on outsiders to keep the system working.
  3. Managing – the fundamental day-to-day decision-making, resource allocation, performance, promotion, and adjustment of the ongoing functions that move the organization to its objectives and goals, in service to its mission, vision and priorities.  This is the work “on the ground,” where customers are served, products and resources are produced and delivered, relationships are built, phones and e-mails are answered, etc.  Managing functions monitor the organizational system to make sure it is working effectively, and it provides the critical feedback to the visioning and futuring leadership levels that enable them to make course corrections and systemic adjustments.  In the current organizational culture in the United States, people with good-to-excellent managing skills dominate the entire scope of leadership.

And herein we find the problem.  While there is certainly some overlap of functions and demands, each “sphere” of effective leadership is distinct and requires a unique skill-set.  Each function – in a healthy organization – is a full-time job.  The same people cannot effectively serve all three functions.  And the managing functions are voracious little beasts – clamoring and competing for attention.  If a person has responsibility for all three spheres, the contrary all-consuming demands of managing will supersede the critical needs of visioning and functioning.  (One example I use is to think of three children – a rather dreamy, well-behaved four-year old (visioning), a curious, energetic three-year old (futuring), and a cranky, colicky 18-month old (managing).  If you’re baby-sitting, who gets most of your time, energy, and attention?)

However, the functional needs of management are the simplest and easiest to “manage.”  They tend to be clearly defined, concrete, causal (do this to make that happen), fairly simple to master, and they have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Managing deals very little with innovation, abstract concepts, new information, or the unknown.  What we do regularly becomes familiar territory, and we tend to want to do what we already understand and can do well.  That’s fine if you don’t need to grow, evolve, compete, or lead – effective management will keep us firmly grounded in the status quo. This is why reducing leadership to management is so attractive – it’s comfortable.  Of course, we’ll never become world class by staying comfortable.

But in our current circumstances, the skill-set of the majority of those in key leadership positions align best with managing, rather than visioning or futuring, while the most critical needs require visioning and futuring. While we’re busy managing, a growing number of innovations and developments occur outside our organizations (or even the industry), leaving most of us to play catch-up by copying what others are doing.  Our most short-sighted and poorly led companies (including the church) are abandoning research and development, due mainly to a lack of vision and a complete ignorance of the importance of futuring.  “Do what you know,” is the unspoken mantra of “management-disguised-as-leadership” organizations.  Don’t concern yourself with things you don’t understand…

Many leaders possessing only managing skills do know they are inadequate to the total task of real leadership, so they turn to outside “experts” for help.  Consultation has been a boom industry for over a decade now.  The upside is that most consultants bring a wealth of ideas, experience, and possibility into an organization.  The downside is that most consultants can’t work miracles.  When a healthy organization hires consultants, healthy results occur.  However, when an unhealthy organization hires consultants, they may see some good results, but they’re still unhealthy.  (When I was in college, a friend of mine found out he had an inoperable brain cancer.  One thing he wanted to do before he died was run in a mini-marathon (13 1/4 miles).  He and I trained, worked out, and ran together, and he got his wish.  When we sat down after the race, he thanked me for helping him and said, “That was great – I can’t believe I did it… too bad I still have cancer!”  This story always comes to mind when I meet with church leaders who have spent loads of money on consultants, see real improvement, and then realize they’re still stuck with the same lack of visioning and futuring capabilities as before.)

There is one more troubling aspect to the dearth of effectively integrated leadership in organizations, and especially The United Methodist Church.  While we experience a management glut (and micro-management – which happens when people without visioning and futuring skills find themselves required to fill these roles anyway), we continue to promote vision and talk about setting goals and objectives for the future.  What we lack are the architects and designers that have the knowledge, gifts, and abilities to move us from where we are to where we’d like to be.  Perhaps 80% of our leaders are adept at management, and another 15% are visionary – but we are then left with too few leaders who can develop the structures, systems and processes to move us.

The key (unfortunately, it is a long-range solution – there is no quick-fix) is to stop giving away our power to outsiders and to become, in a very real and fundamental sense, a learning organization.  We need our churches to continue to do what they do well, but also we need to cultivate cadres of critical thinkers, strategists, innovators, and rebels.  We need to protect visionary leaders from minutiae and distraction (think: Jethro’s advice to Moses in Exodus.  Someone needs to stay focused on the Promised Land!), and we need to grant both responsibility and authority to those best able to design and create new, effective, and revolutionary systems and structures.  We need to become active rather than reactive, cultivating those who keep their finger on the pulse of the culture and world, who are looking to the horizon, listening to the winds of change, and who will constantly challenge the status quo.  We need to clearly differentiate the three functions of leadership – allowing those most gifted in visioning, futuring, and managing to focus their attention where it will do the most good.

Unless we find creative ways to integrate visioning, futuring, and managing, we will continue to struggle to be effective.  As it stands, there is no really promising future for leadership, only a frustrating and futile future for management – for those content to stay captive in Egypt, working harder, but not smarter, sacrificing true vision for a vague and dreamy wish for something better.

10 replies

  1. This is a much more balanced and sensible approach to leadership than we generally get in our society. This is extremely well developed and simple. I am going to use this with my students. This is great!

  2. I want you to know that I teach management classes, and this is one of the best models I have ever seen. I have always felt that the dichotomy between leadership and management was false, but never found such a superb alternative as you have shared in this post. MAnagement is not in competition with leadership, and leadership is not superior to management but they are in a dynamic relationship. I also appreciate your translation of futuring from family systems theory to the church leadership frame. This is quite frankly brilliant. I hape and pray that you are teaching this to all your denominational and church leaders. It is so much smarter and helpful than the leadership or management approach most people employ. May I have your permission to copy this and share it in my classes? May I use your illustraton in a Power Point?

    • By all means Dr. Kramer, use what is helpful (with appropriate credit and citation of course!). This is not a widely accepted model — others might not agree with its brilliance. I have been to many workshops lately led for our denominational, conference, and congregational leaders marching out the less-helpful, tired old saw contrasting leadership and management. I fear it is here to stay — it has become othrodoxy for many non-critical thinkers, and it doesn’t seem to warrant a closer look. But thank you for your kind words, and I hope it helps you “preach a new gospel” in business school.

  3. Thank you for this unique model of leadership. I’ve always known I was a lousy manager and lacking as a visionary and yet I naturally end up in leadership roles, pairing with visionaries, and feeling as though I’m somehow lacking by not fitting the more familiar definitions.

    Through your definition of “futuring” you’ve provided a name to what I do naturally and with great enthusiasm, along with a sense of relief that I don’t have to struggle to be the manager and visionary as well.

    • Glad to be of service, and also glad to help you find a model that helps identify your rare and valuable leadership gift. Futuring is the talent most needed, most neglected, and most vital to help us create a relevant place in a changing world. God bless you!

  4. Am I beginning to see why the GBOD did not invite you to stay on the team?

    More seriously, is this a fractal thing? In other words, does leadership at all levels entail these three functions? For instance, I pastor a small church. I am the leadership team – for now. Should I be worried about developing “visioning” and “futuring” and “managing” skills – or am I too far down the leadership food chain to have much use of such things?

    What about my Sunday School superintendent?

    • It’s really a matter of percentages — what is an appropriate percentage of time for leaders to spend in each sphere. The real challenge faces small membership church leaders — where the responsibility for everything falls to an individual or a very small group. Managing leadership responsibilities are voracious — they will consume as much time and energy as we give to them. This holds many churches (organizations) frozen in place. Who has time to devote to vision? And if there is a vision, who has capacity to create and construct new alternative systems and structures for ministry. It is a “simple” model, but definitely NOT an “easy” model. The key leadership of a church ‘needs’ (sorry for declarative language, but I believe it is true) to find some way to carve significant visioning/dreaming/brainstorming/what-iffing time. Elected team/committee/council/work group leaders ‘need’ to carve significant futuring/planning/strategizing time. And those on the front lines need to be ‘freed” to do the work and get the jobs done. It is all process, and one that organizations who do it well confess takes some time. It is offered not to judge, but hopefully to give congregational leaders another, more workable model for leadership.

  5. Thanks for this, Dan. I appreciate the distinctions and the scope of these. Most of us, as you say, could spend our whole time in one area. I have been trying to practice more appreciative inquiry along the way so that (1) my eyes see what is working and can affirm, but also (2) enter what is working and ask the questions that help people see how to practice learning–as we do in learning organizations.

    What did great mentors reach in you? If it works, how could it grow? Who are you building along the way? How are you being built up in your work? Anyway, thanks for thinking on the practice…

    • Dan, I cannot express to you how important the power of questions can be — and you seem to already know it. I have become a staunch supporter of the idea that most people most of the time already possess the answers they seek. Individually, we know a lot of things we don’t realize we know — things like, ‘what is a good leader?’ ‘what are the qualities and characteristics we most admire in good leaders?’ ‘Who are the examples of great leadership from your own experience that you would like to emulate?’ ‘What are the gifts, skills, knowledge, experience, and deep passion that you bring with you to any relationship?’ Questions like these unleash enormous potential — because they connect people with what they already possess and value. For groups, there is always the possibility of synergy — the sum being greater than the parts. I believe the witness of scripture is that, what is impossible to any one of us is readily possible to us in relationship with one another. This is the heart of the metaphor of the body of Christ — knit together we can even accomplish that which Christ did. When we empower and enable people to, first know who they are and what they have to offer, and second learn practical ways to develop their strengths, and third discover meaningful ways to live their strengths both through and beyond the local church, we are offering one of the most valuable services we can render. This includes helping people understand and feel good about their potential leadership — whether it be predominantly visionary, futuring, or managerial.

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