· 2 min read · Features

In management speak, everyone is a leader now


Leadership is the buzz word of business literature, says Richard Donkin, but what has happened to management?

Have you noticed how the title manager is beginning to be downgraded? Looking at the pile of recent business books at the side of my chair I cant see the word on any of their spines. In fact I cannot see any mention of management whatsoever.

There are plenty of books on leadership. Heres a selection from my bookshelves: 21st Century Leadership, The Business of Leadership, What Leaders Really Do, The Way of the Leader, Maximum Leadership and The Leadership Solution. The latest is one called Leading Quietly. While leadership is in the ascendancy, management is on the wane.

Language is evolving constantly and management language seems to change at an even faster pace than that covering other walks of life. When Mrs Beeton wrote her Book of Household Management in 1859, it had a different meaning to that of directing, conducting and administering the work of others to achieve defined objectives, a definition included in a 1968 Management Glossary edited by Edward Brech. The glossary says also optimistically, even for the time that management is the process of decision making and leadership. It describes the manager, as a person who has the authority and responsibility for translating plans and policies into effective action to achieve specified objectives. For executive it says frequently synonymous with manager. Leadership is not listed in the book.

Would these words have the same definition in a modern glossary? I doubt it. When I hear the word manager these days I think immediately of middle management. If its an executive manager I think of a bigger office and fancier company car just as I would if I met an American executive described as a vice president. Vice-presidents are two a penny in US companies these days and even president is losing its exclusivity.

The true elite today tend to be described as leaders. No leadership tome worth its salt in the past five years, for example, would have been published without a reference to Jack Welsh, the 1990s icon of corporate leadership. Since the direction of human ambition is upwards rather than downwards, leadership has become the buzz word of management literature.

But the most remarkable thing about leadership is that its meaning too has changed. Once it was straightforward. It was about generalship. Leaders historically were military types like Hannibal and Napoleon. The decision by Hitler to describe himself as der Fhrer devalued its currency and scotched any future attempt to apply the title in management. But management thinkers, such as Warren Bennis, have found a way round this.

Bennis, whose early work centred on group dynamics, realised that leadership was a quality that could be found in anyone it was in fact a transferable quality. As the youngest lieutenant in the US army during the second world war, he realised that to stand any chance of survival he needed to listen carefully to his platoon sergeants. They told me what to do, he says.

Leadership was not merely about direction and inspiration, but about shaping a framework, a vision, he called it, for what was going to happen.

So, while words stay the same, their definitions change, partly due to fashion and partly in response to the business cycle or some trend-setting concept. For leadership today read Shackleton (how to look after your people) rather than Sun Tzu (how to outwit the enemy). Even thinkers have joined the club as thought leaders. Were all leaders now.

In a few years time, the title, manager, like supervisor, will be down among the foot soldiers. Its there already. You can be manager of a peanut kiosk on the minimum wage these days. Leadership will still be up there. Expect human resources management to jump on the bandwagon any day now. If Microsoft can have a director of people, profit and loyalty, how long will it be before we see a head of great leaders?


Richard Donkin is employment columnist at the Financial Times