Should a Leader Do or Should a Leader Lead?

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The news of HealthCare.gov crashing captured everyone's attention. While the retrospective of this event resulted in various potential causes for the disastrous start, one of the reasons that arguably stands out is unrealistic and irrational expectations.

Many people close to the project believe that achieving the website launch on the set date was an unrealistic goal because of the inherent project complexities. What went on behind the scenes can only be debated, but this case does bring to light the broad type of leadership needed for successful projects. The essential question that pops up is—Should a leader do or should a leader lead?

Common thinking is that a leader should be the best doer or the best doer should always be the first choice leader. But if we look at the dimensions of skills alone, leading and doing require very different skill sets. As the 2010 Dean of the Stanford Graduate School of Business Garth Saloner said:

The harder skills of finance and accounting…have become what you think of as a hygiene factor: everybody ought to know this…But the softer skill sets, the real leadership, the ability to work with others and through others, to execute, that is still in very scarce supply.

Arguably, mastering leadership requires a more complex mix of skills than any specialization. Leaders doing tasks themselves is liked by the team, but such a strategy can backfire if it is not backed by good communication and vision formulation. Moreover, a leader doing tasks by himself will likely make his role less scalable.

At the other extreme are the leaders who tend to lead more than they do tasks themselves. Bob Sutton, Stanford professor and co-author of Scaling Up Excellence, makes a valuable point:

Some leaders now see their job as just coming up with big and vague ideas, and they treat implementing them, or even engaging in conversation and planning about the details of them, as mere “management” work that is beneath their station and stature.

In their quest to see the bigger picture, such leaders often lose track of what actually matters to the people who execute the real work. Though the bigger goal looks compelling enough, the lack of the leader's involvement in execution leads to situations where the projects may stumble.

In his book Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader, Warren Bennis states, “Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing.”

In order for an organization to succeed, it needs a perfect blend of people who can lead while knowing what’s happening on the ground and people who can do the job while knowing what their leaders want. Steve Jobs was known for his acute knowledge of business and his hands-on product design approach—and his team delivered with great precision. Good leaders are often deemed not only as the dreamers and visionaries but also as the people who can inspire action toward success.

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Anuj Magazine

Anuj Magazine is a software testing and general management professional at Citrix Inc. He regularly shares his knowledge and experiences as a conference speaker and writes frequently on diverse topics like software testing, management, sports, and handwriting analysis. Anuj runs ASM, a non-profit organization that contributes to society by counseling and mentoring people using the science of handwriting analysis.