Leadership vs Management? What is wrong with middle management?

Is ‘middle management’ to blame? About the differences between managers and leaders, two conflicting roles that are both needed in an organization.

What is wrong with middle management?
Listen around, ‘middle management’ gets blamed all around for many things and even more so, for the big disconnect between executives and the staff and managers in the trenches.

A colleague just asked me again today – what is wrong with middle management?
Is there a systematically flaw that affects so many organizations?

Management versus Leadership?
The confusion originates from a lack of clarity over the roles: We need to look first at what the difference is between a manager and a leader: Is there one at all and are these roles exclusive or do they overlap?

Don’t be mistaken, significant differences exist between managers and leaders; yet an organization needs both, managers and leaders. It is necessary to distinguish these roles, since their focus and goals are quite different. Not only can they conflict to some degree, they actually have to for the better of the effective organization overall. ‑ Let’s take a close look at both roles:

Management role
A manager typically supervises a unit that produces an output consistently (such as a product or service). The manager’s job is to improve the input (resources) and output (deliverables) and make tactical adjustments. Most changes are moderate and of an evolutionary character focused on optimization by refinement of the here-and-now.

Given their tasks and responsibility, managers do have a professional tendency and even obligation to resist changes that disrupt their well-oiled and optimized “machine” whose output is also their immediate measure of success in most organizations.

For an effective manager it is all about “doing-things-right”. The ways often get documented in procedures to solidify and guard the established processes to guarantee the reliable delivery of results. Focused on preservation and functional optimization, managers can also easily fall in the trap of judging too soon and then making an adaptive decision too late.

Leadership role
In contrast, a leader takes a step back and looks at the bigger picture that aims strategically at the organization’s future. The effective leader shakes up the established structures and “does-what-is-right” by bringing about change that will position and optimize the organization for future success through transformation. (Read more on Innovation Strategy: Do you innovate or renovate?)

Leaders must stay flexible and willing to deviate from the current path to drive the needed change to successfully shift or even turn the course of the organization. Consequently, the leader must take into account major disruptions of otherwise smooth and sub-optimized operations.  (Read more on How to become the strategic innovation leader)

The farther a leader is removed (usually way up in the hierarchy) from the level where the output is produced, the more abstract the work appears. It becomes easier for leaders to make game-changing decisions flexibly that may turn out unfeasible on the factory floor or other real-life business settings or that confuse the staff.

A good leader follows guiding principles and keeps the staff in the loop to prepare them for upcoming changes. Removing elements of surprise where possible is an effective early step of successful change management when it comes to implementation.

We need both!
The goals of leaders and managers conflict and create a constant tension field. It requires active balancing and healthy negotiation to prepare the organization for the future while not sacrificing the ability to deliver results reliably as the organization moves ahead on the bumpy road of change and uncertainty. (More on Mastering the connected economy – key findings of IBM’s 2012 CEO study)

This makes clear that an organization needs both, effective managers and visionary leaders. It also makes clear though that both roles may not be best united in one person to avoid a conflict of interest that compromises best results for the organization overall.

Where middle management gets stuck
As you move farther down in a hierarchy from the leadership level and closer to operations, the harder it becomes for managers to balance the high-flying leadership vision with the demanded production or service targets on the ground.

So here is where you find the clash and overlap between leadership and management: The middle management gets caught in the middle, literally!

Middle management needs to bridge the gap even for self-preservation by negotiating and brokering between the workers and the leaders. It’s a tough job! Middle managers deserve some sympathy as they get torn by the conflicting needs of the organization every day and often enough not fully included by leaders while yet having to make sense of the dilemma and translating it for their staff.

Can’t do without…
Thus, there is no ‘systematical flaw’ but only the reality of conflicting needs of an organization that requires both, effective managers and visionary leaders. This comes with accepting the entailing tensions and conflicts to deliver results reliably and consistently while readying the organization for meeting the challenges of the future – which puts the middle management in the hottest spot!

Author: Stephan Klaschka

Stephan Klaschka is an awarded innovation executive, C-level consultant, Intrapreneur, and serial entrepreneur with over 25 years of international work experience. He held various senior business operations, strategy, regulatory compliance and innovation roles with Boehringer Ingelheim, leaving as Director of Global Innovation Management and Strategy. In this first-of-its-kind position, Stephan's work was central to the new growth rejuvenation strategy as a catalyst to initiate and drive pivotal innovations, leadership development, and disruptive and digital transformation across the Boehringer Ingelheim group worldwide. He has recently served as CEO interim of the "German Institute for Telemedicine and Health Promotion" (DITG). Stephan holds Masters Degrees in Computer Science, Management, and Business Administration as well as advanced degrees in Strategy, Innovation, and Leadership from leading schools in Europe and the United States. PMP certified. He has published extensively and created award-winning workshops on topics including intrapreneurship, healthcare, pharma, and new technologies. Stephan currently consults independently out of New York.

7 thoughts on “Leadership vs Management? What is wrong with middle management?”

  1. Stephan, excellent post! I agree with your assessment and I am very much in line with the need for both “effective managers, and visionary leaders”. It is essential for operational efficiency & effectiveness, and most important, it leads to well functioning organizations.

  2. Thanks, Chris! Continuing the thought, I am skeptical when companies want ‘everybody to be a leader’. While this makes sense in the context of taking the initiative and innovation, it would prove detrimental if every employee act disruptive in the production process…

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