Abraham Zaleznik on Leadership

In the late 1970’s and early 80’s a number of writers ganged up on management. They were looking for a scapegoat to blame for the failure of U. S. business to cope with the Japanese commercial invasion. The war cry was to replace managers with leaders. One of the most strident critics of management was the Harvard Business School professor, Abraham Zaleznik. It is time to bring management back from the dead, to take its rightful place alongside leadership as an essential organizational function. To do this we need to expose the writings of management’s detractors to show what nonsense they were writing. Actually, there was nothing wrong with the function of management in the 1970’s, just the way it was practiced. The attack of Zaleznik is especially important to address because the Harvard Business Review is still publishing his original 1977 article (Managers and leaders: Are they different?) in their collection of articles on leadership, thereby creating the impression that his views are still relevant and up to date when they are actually dangerously outdated and harmful.

Zaleznik makes his case against modern management by comparing it with Fredrick Taylor’s scientific management theories. Bearing in mind that Taylor died in 1915, it is astonishing that Zaleznik does not demonstrate why it is legitimate to compare Taylor’s views with the way modern managers operate, so his views are questionable even before we start to examine his arguments.

In a book published in 1989, The Managerial Mystique, Zaleznik says that ”what Taylor proposed through his system of management lies at the core of how modern managers are supposed to think and act. The principle is rationality. The aim is efficiency. ” Most importantly, Zaleznik believed that managers and leaders differ in terms of their personalities. Taking his lead from Taylor, Zaleznik describes managers as being cold efficiency machines who ”adopt impersonal, if not passive, attitudes towards goals. ” Further, ”Managers see themselves as conservators and regulators of an existing order of affairs. ” He tells us that ”managers’ tactics appear flexible: on the one hand they negotiate and bargain; on the other, they use rewards, punishments, and other forms of coercion. ” So, managers are only apparently flexible and they are coercive, even manipulative in Zaleznik’s eyes. In his 1977 article Zaleznik makes exactly the same claim, stating that: ”. . . one often hears subordinates characterize managers as inscrutable, detached and manipulative. ”

Zaleznik would have us believe that, while managers seek activity with people, they ”maintain a low level of emotional involvement in those relationships. ” They also apparently ”lack empathy”. Zaleznik expands on the emotional theme in The Managerial Mystique by telling us that managers ”operate within a narrow range of emotions. This emotional blandness when combined with the preoccupation on process, leads to the impression that managers are inscrutable, detached and even manipulative.

It is not clear what evidence Zaleznik has for these damning charges. He seems to be doing nothing more than extrapolating from Fredrick Taylor’s conception of management without ever asking himself whether management as a function is committed to Taylor’s characterization of it. Starting with Taylor’s worship of machine-like efficiency, Zaleznik has tarred all managers for all time with the same brush.

Zaleznik believes that leaders are creative and interested in substance while managers are only interested in process – how things are done, not what. For Zaleznik, ”leaders, who are more concerned with ideas, relate in more intuitive and empathetic ways. ” No doubt leaders are more interested in ideas than how they get implemented, but there is no basis whatsoever for calling leaders more empathetic than managers.

Fundamentally, there is no real basis for this personality distinction. It is not good enough to say that managers were controlling from the time of Taylor until the Japanese invasion showed them up. Even if this is historically accurate, there is nothing in this alleged fact that commits management to operating today in this manner. The simple way around Zaleznik’s condemnation of management is to define it functionally, in terms of what purpose it serves, not in terms of how it actually achieves its purpose. This leaves the means of managing completely open.

Management versus Leadership

An easy way of defining leadership and management is to say that leaders promote new directions while managers execute existing ones. In addition, it is widely recognized today that leaders can have widely different personalities ranging from quiet, determined and factual to bubbly, erratic but inspiring cheerleader types. The whole movement to differentiate leaders from managers along personality lines has failed miserably and it is time to give it up. The truth is that both leaders and managers can be inspiring, they just have a different focus. An inspiring leader moves us to change direction while an inspiring manager motivates to work harder. Yes, managers promote efficiency, but this doesn’t have to mean Fredrick Taylor’s mechanistic assembly line efficiency. Management is like investment. Effective managers deploy all resources at their disposal where they will get the best return on that investment. In modern organizations, populated by intelligent knowledge workers, this might mean setting up self-managing teams. To get the best return out of such talent, modern managers need to be good coaches, nurturers and developers of people. Of course, they need to measure and monitor performance to know if their deployments of people are paying off, but this does not entail doing so in a cold, mechanical or controlling manner.

In conclusion, management is just as important a function in organizations as leadership and it is time to cast aside the views of writers such as Abraham Zaleznik who argue otherwise. Moreover, the fact that his writing is still endorsed by the Harvard Business School raises questions about their credibility.

See http://www.leadersdirect.com for more information on this and related topics. Mitch McCrimmon has over 30 years experience in executive assessment and coaching. His latest book, Burn! 7 Leadership Myths in Ashes, 2006, challenges conventional thinking on leadership. Warning: you might find it annoying if you are committed to the usual platitudes about leadership.