Back to Back Issues Page
Perspectives: Leadership Undermined
April 04, 2017

Leadership Undermined

“What gets measured, gets managed and what gets managed gets done”

I saw this quote on the office wall of a very, very successful businessman and it depressed me greatly. It seems to embody much of what I have observed and heard about from my clients that “leadership” is slowly but inexorably being overwhelmed by “management”, particularly in the world of business.

What is wrong with managing things to get stuff done you might ask? Well nothing really except that it is only half the story.

A Simple Leadership Idea

Many years ago, I came across a leadership model used by the Canadian Armed Forces that has informed how I view the relationship between leadership and management ever since. In essence, the model states that "To Lead" is a function of two components, namely “To Inspire” and “To Manage”. That the process of management is important, is a given. Management systems and processes provide a roadmap for the disciplined, tactical execution of work.

What I have noticed, is because of the efficiency of management systems in executing work, leadership has largely been defined now by management with the longer term, organizational capacity and personal commitment building offered by “inspiration” left to languish.

Think about the last time you felt inspired at work. When was the last time you felt managed? I suspect if you ever had the opportunity to experience the former, the feeling was dramatically different than your experience of the latter.

While there are obviously a number of key influencers in this shift away from inspired purpose towards managed execution, I want to focus on one in particular and suggest a strategy that you can use – irrespective of your position within an organization, to create a more inspired workplace.

Time and Cogs in the Machine

The key influencer I want to talk about is time. Apparently, there isn’t enough of it. When we are challenged to do more with less, we are often triggered to embrace a fear based command and control structure and the efficient execution of work becomes of paramount importance.

This leads to a shift in how organizations are seen and experienced. They quickly become imagined as “machines” with the people that make up those organizations being little more than cogs in the machine. Success is defined as those times when all of the cogs are turning in perfect harmony to maximize output with as little inefficiency as possible. Sounds like an awesome if highly improbable outcome. To know how well these machines are performing and where latent inefficiencies may exist, managers create and measure various metrics and key performance indicators or KPIs.

Since success is defined as a situation where there are “no problems” we celebrate organizational heroes who fix problems quickly with a minimum of downtime…encouraging even more frantic activity. Everything from normal operation to downtime becomes an urgent emergency!

If the cogs in the machine are not up to operating at the required level, they are swapped out for “new and improved” cogs that are often sold as miracles but within 6-12 months seem to have developed their own set of idiosyncrasies and issues. Perhaps “performance management” will address those…but then again, there is no time for that. Better to just swap them out again for a better set.

Meanwhile, production needs to be increased further to meet quarterly targets and to keep investors happy. To make sure every cog is “on the same page” and manipulated, er…I mean incentivized to produce more, the organization introduces bonuses based on production. Each cog is now required to do more, with less but don’t worry, they all get a cut of the action if their heads don’t explode first.

As more and more measures and metrics are put into place and more performance standards and goals created – weird things start to happen in how the work gets done. Usual ethical standards are subtly compromised and then become the “new standard” of acceptable behavior.

We then start to see scandals such as Volkswagen introducing software that fakes their emissions test results. We see Canadian banks bullying their front line employees into selling products and services that clients don’t want or need in pursuit of sales numbers. We see things such as “quality” which is difficult if not impossible to measure, suffer to support cost efficiency and schedule for which well established metrics are readily available. Indeed “What gets measured gets managed and what gets managed gets done” and if the measurements cause people to create loopholes in order to be successful then cogs are switched out and additional measurements introduced to “solve those problems”.

Should organizations truly be satisfied when “everybody just does their job”? Does this not seem like a pretty low standard?


The reality is that management systems tend to create compliance rather than commitment. They tend to favor efficiency over effectiveness. They tend to deliver short term results but not necessarily sustainable success. They drive toward expected outcomes but rarely deliver anything more. However, in leadership,

Inspiration is the equal partner to management and organizations would benefit from seeing it as such.

Inspiration takes the long view. Inspiration is intangible. Inspiration is based on belief and faith. Inspiration requires cultivation rather than implementation. Inspiration is inherently personal and relies on the character and characteristics of inspiring leaders. Is it any wonder it is given second tier status when compared with the Plan-Do-Measure-Review-Revise process steps of the management process?

However, the upside of inspired leadership can be significant if not transformative. If one believes that the only sustainable advantage any organization has is the quality of its people and how well they work together, then inspired leadership is both the catalyst and container that allows these two elements to flourish and realize the potential inherent in an organization.

Inspired commitment is the well from which people draw their creativity and creativity is the source for ideas, innovation, continuous improvement and organizational transformation. If good management focuses on achieving a performance level of “5”, then inspired commitment enables performance beyond that expectation – at the “7” or even “17” level. Management structures are designed to achieve a specific outcome. Inspired commitment can create outcomes that go way beyond what was anticipated. I am reminded of Colin Powel’s definition of leadership:

“Leadership is the art of achieving more than the science of management says is possible”.

Inspired commitment also requires conviction. A conviction that things that can’t be measured are equally as important as metrics in ensuring sustained organizational success. Things such as commitment, loyalty, trust, compassion, empathy, care, quality, connection, confidence and so on.

This intangibility and ambiguity reinforces our understanding that people are not cogs in a machine, but rather are organisms within a body. A body we refer to as an organization or company. Seen from this perspective, what can we do to ensure each organism is healthy, committed, supported and engaged in enabling the body to perform its best and be sustained in the long term?

A Strategy for Change

Earlier, I promised to provide you with a strategy to help you, irrespective of position, to create a more inspired workplace. And that strategy is to fundamentally change your conversations.

Simply, it is about changing the conversation you have with your superiors, your peers and your subordinates. It is about being fundamentally curious about them as people, as leaders and as individuals that are at some level, seeking exactly what you are seeking – namely: purpose, belonging, connection and growth.

So – instead of limiting conversations as to “Why this was late or that was too expensive”, or lamenting that “Bob in Purchasing can’t seem to get it done”, make an intention to change the conversation by being genuinely curious about others by asking questions such as:

  • What do you love the most about your job?
  • What does success look like for you and what is important about that for you?
  • What inspires you to do what you do every day?
  • How are you growing?
  • What do you understand our organization’s fundamental purpose to be? What about that is important to you? What might make it important for you?
  • How can my passion for XXX or my strengths in YYY support you?
  • How does the work I do every day, support the organization’s purpose?
  • What might I do to help grow trust within our team and beyond?
  • What are some opportunities I have to grow my capability and that of the organization?
  • What are some areas where I might take on more responsibility and have more autonomy?
You will note that these are all “What” and “How” questions. “Why” questions often trigger defensiveness or suspicion and should be avoided. You will also note that these questions are not about handing over the keys to your satisfaction to someone else, but rather they are about empowering you to make the difference you want to make and create the organization you wish to be a part of.

Gratitude and Appreciation

A second conversation changer is to be appreciative and show gratitude. There is probably nothing quite as powerful as showing appreciation for the work, attention or support of another person. It doesn’t need to be complicated. It should never be systemic. It should always be authentic.

For example: “Say Sally, I really appreciate you getting that file to me as you did. Thanks.” “Hey Bob, thanks for volunteering to run the United Way dart game this year. I appreciate your commitment to the cause”.

My challenge to you is to try these conversation changers and watch what happens. How do people respond and even more importantly, how do you feel in interacting this way?

Management processes are not a bad thing – they just aren’t the only thing. Let’s work together to bring inspiration and life back to your organizations!


Thanks for reading this issue of Leadership Perspectives and please feel free to forward it to anyone you feel might be interested. Should they wish their own copy, they can sign up at:

As usual, please don't hesitate to e-mail me with your comments at: Cheers, Gord Aker, PCC
Back to Back Issues Page