January 24, 2022

What Leaders Really Do by Jeannette Paladino

Jeannette Paladino is a Business Communications Expert and the Author of http://WriteSpeallSell.com.

I want to thank guest blogger, Jeannette Paladino, for her thought provoking post about What Leaders Really Do. She hit the nail on the head!

I have my ideas about leadership, having worked for good and bad leaders. I’ll open with what I consider a leader’s primary duty – to communicate his or her vision for the company. Some experts would say this is the second step in being a leader; first comes the vision. But without communications across, up and down organizations, the leader’s vision will never be realized.

John Kotter is perhaps the most articulate and brilliant theorist on what makes for leadership in an organization.  He says it better than I can, so I’m going to reference his words of wisdom here.  Then, we’ll see how his theories apply to three leaders, or visionaries, of today — Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder of Facebook, Steve Jobs, founder of Apple, and Reed Hastings, the chief executive and co-founder of Netflix.

Kotter, a retired professor of organizational behavior at Harvard, has written countless books and articles.  I still have an article that he wrote in the May/June 1990 issue of the Harvard Business Review entitled “What Leaders Really Do.”  I hadn’t read it in a while, but just did, and was blown away by how his vision of a leader could have been written yesterday, even though in 1990 most companies were just dipping their toes into email (my own agency had one computer that could send and receive emails and it usually didn’t work).

No Internet, no Twitter, no Facebook, no internal networks, hardly any electronic connectivity, in other words.  Yet leaders today face the same challenges as those back in ancient times (ca. 1990).

The Difference Between Management and Leadership

Kotter clearly delineated the difference between management and leadership, which are both crucial roles in the success of a company.  Let me cut to the chase with his definitions:

Leadership is about coping with change

Management is about coping with complexity

To quote from that article, “These different functions – coping with complexity and coping with change – shape the characteristic activities of management and leadership.  Each system of action involves deciding what needs to be done, creating networks of people and relationships that can accomplish an agenda, (my bold face) and then trying to ensure those people actually do the job.”  Isn’t that what social networking is all about today?  Forming networks and communities that share common interests and goals?

Kotter says that leaders seek relationships and linkages that help explain things.  Leaders need to be visionaries. Most discussions of vision have a tendency to generate into the mystical, “but people who articulate such visions aren’t magicians but broad-based strategic thinkers who are willing to take risks,” he says.

Visions With Mundane Qualities

Kotter makes the point that many visions and strategies are not brilliantly innovative.  Many are mundane, but “what’s crucial about a vision is not its originality but how well it serves the interests of important constituencies – customers, stockholders, employees – and how easily it can be translated into a realistic competitive strategy.”

So that explains why so many people think that Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are geniuses.  They were visionaries who changed the world, when you think about it.  Zuckerberg took a simple idea:  college students wanting to bond with each other.  Getting together in the local hangout wasn’t enough.  They wanted a common meeting ground where they could interact 24/7.  Zuckerberg saw the possibilities and took the college circuit by storm.  He understood how to make the linkages to help people create networks of friends.  So in 2004, as a Harvard undergraduate, he launched Facebook in what amounted to a revolution in communication – it all comes back to communication – and his followers grew to be 500 million strong.

Steve Jobs capitalized on a simple idea.  Bring the Internet to your cell phone.  Not very imaginary.  The technology was already there but he had the vision to harness the pieces and figure out how to make it work.  He encouraged thousands of people to create iPhone apps that users can download that meet their particular needs. Now his competitors are rushing to catch up with smart phones of their own.

Transforming a Business With Snail Mail

Reed Hastings, the chief executive and co-founder of Netflix had a simple idea to offer a subscription service for customers to rent movies by mail.  Hardly an earth-shattering idea, but nobody else was doing it. As my former agency’s creative director used to say, “there are no big ideas, or small ideas, only powerful ideas.”  The service took off – remember Kotter saying not originality but serving consumer interests was key — and now Netflix has moved beyond snail mail to become the biggest source of streaming web traffic in North America during peak evening hours, according to an article in the New York Times “Netflix’s Move into the Web Stirs Rivalries.”

Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor, was quoted in the article, “Netflix used an open-source network, the U.S. Postal Service, to launch an alternate distribution business without asking anyone for permission…now they are using another open-source network, the Internet, to transform the business.”

Here’s the thing – nothing has really changed in the definition of leadership in the past 20, or 30 or more years.  Ideas about how to make something bigger, stronger, better, faster so it serves your community is still the currency of leadership.

So, are you a leader or a manager?  Most people think it’s cooler to be known as a leader, but it’s the managers who turn the leader’s vision into a profitable product or service.

For an excerpt of the HBR article by John Kotter go this link What Leaders Really Do.

Author:   Jeannette Paladino

Jeannette Paladino is a business writer helping companies to be more profitable using social media as a strategic communications tool to engage with employees and customers, to educate, and sell their products and services.  Her blog Write Speak Sell offers her points of view on social media, employee engagement and branding.  She has held senior marketing and communications posts with major companies and public relations agencies.