Last time, I concluded with a couple of questions posed by leadership expert John O’Leary:

“Are leadership and management fundamentally different roles in practice? Or do they simply require us to focus on different things?”

O’Leary, drawing on 34 years of experience in multinational organisations, has begun to question whether there really are substantive differences between leadership and management in the 21st century.

In an intriguing recent study, he used semi-structured interviews to gather the thoughts of eight leaders drawn from government, business and top-level sports, probing them separately on leadership and management. Once he had their responses in the bag, he subjected the transcripts to meticulous textual analysis.

From a Gestalt perspective, this is exceptionally interesting. When we talk, we’re often so preoccupied with the broad sweep of what we intend to say that we overlook the precise words we use to convey our thoughts.

By zooming in closely to the minute texture of speech and its materiality (what we actually end up saying as opposed to what we intended to say), new shapes start to emerge. I consider these barely articulated thoughts and perceptions that aren’t consciously acknowledged. The reason they are not fully acknowledged is that they haven’t yet clearly emerged from our background assumptions as new objects or figures of contemplation and fresh thinking.

At the end of the interview, respondents were asked a direct question regarding whether leadership and management were different. Answers varied from “they’re different” to a more vigorous “Absolutely!” But everyone agreed that they were talking about two distinct concepts.

What did the textual analysis reveal? O’Leary found a far more nuanced distinction emerging from the participants’ discourse as they talked about management and leadership. More precisely, while they focused on different behaviours and activities when talking about leaders and managers, closer analysis showed that they were drawing from a pool of foundational elements that were actually common to both.

We’ll talk more about this next time.

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