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We’re following the manager, the manager, the manager…

October 19, 2013


Back in March 2012 I attended a plenary session by Adrian Underhill at the 2012 IATEFL conference in Glasgow. Sandwiched between the singing of two songs was a very meaty presentation on systemic thinking, much of which referred to concepts I had been unfamiliar with and still find it a bit hard to get my head round. If you’re interested you can read a very good summary of the session by Chia Suan Chong here.

There was one thing that Underhill said that really stuck with me, though it was kind of an aside from the main focus of his talk. On the topic of leadership, he mentioned responsibilities based around controlling or maintaining existing situations, and said something like “That’s not leadership – that’s just management.” I have heard managers being criticized before – I’ve certainly criticized a few myself. But I think this was the first time I had heard the whole notion of management being described so dismissively, and in direct opposition to leadership, which Underhill clearly values a lot more highly. I had never really thought of management and leadership as being particularly different from each other, and maybe this was why this small part of the talk was so memorable for me.

Management and leadership are not synonymous, then. Management is about ensuring things work well within existing frameworks. Leadership, on the other hand, is about shaping those frameworks. Management is concerned with keeping things as they are, while leadership is more concerned with developing strategies for the future. Managers get people to do things, while leaders create a collaborative environment and enable action through empowerment. Management involves administering and coordinating other people’s actions, but leaders use themselves as an example with a view to motivating and inspiring.

I don’t particularly like using terminology to compartmentalise or dichotomise ideas, and I don’t think it’s right to say that people are either leaders or managers. Most positions of responsibility require a bit of both, and people who are good at these kinds of jobs need to be good at both. However, I do get the feeling that, in many contexts, management seems to be regarded as more important than leadership.

When I first started in my current job as a Curriculum Leader, I was surprised by how much seemingly menial work I was required to do. I seemed to spend all my non-teaching time filling in forms (enrolling new students, withdrawing students, transferring students, writing purchase orders and cheque requests), creating lists (updated class lists, inventories of resources) and producing various kinds of evidence to show that things were as they should be. The focus seemed to be all about maintaining the status quo. There was no real expectation that I should do anything innovative or creative. Nor was there time – I was too busy filling in forms. The time-consuming nature of the admin work has reduced a bit over the years as more efficient systems have been put in place, but my role is still primarily concerned with getting my department to function efficiently within the existing constructs of the Scottish FE sector, specifically those of my college. I lead when I can, but if I do it’s almost as if I’m taking on work in addition to my existing role, rather than as part of it. Despite the job title, this seems to be very much a management position rather than one of leadership.

It seems that any actual leadership in our college only ever comes from the very top, and even then a lot of the decisions are in response to strategies and policies laid out by others. Middle and bottom managers are, to a large extent, administrators operating within externally-imposed constructs. A new organisational structure is about to be made public, so things may change. At the moment though, most of what we do involves managing situations that we have little or no control over.

So, here are a couple of questions for those of you who work (or have worked) in some kind of promoted post:

Does your organisation tend to value management over leadership?

Do you see yourself as a leader or a manager, and is this perception based on what you actually do or what you are expected to do?

Of course, it could be argued that at my level a manager is all that is required. The high-level, game-changing, strategy-forming work should be done at the top and it’s not my place to get involved in that sort of stuff. But the fact is that leadership is needed at all levels of an organisation; this was a key part of Underhill’s talk at IATEFL 2012. Everyone needs to be inspired and to feel valued, and it’s easier to do this with people you work with on a daily basis.

You can take the leadership/management distinction and apply it to the classroom with equal validity. So let’s do that. As teachers, should we be more concerned with managing or leading? Do we lead our students or do we manage them? Teacher training courses and teacher development programmes devote a considerable amount of time to “Classroom Management” – getting the students into groups, giving instructions, monitoring activities etc. What about “Classroom Leadership”? This is not a term that is widely used.

Sure, it’s important to know how to manage a class. But is that all there is to it? Is the role of the teacher simply to get the students to do stuff in order to provide evidence that “learning has taken place”? Surely teachers have some kind of leadership role in the classroom as well. Don’t we have to take our students on a journey of some kind, a group journey as well as an individual journey? Isn’t it up to us to help them get to, or at least towards, their destination? Don’t teachers need to motivate and inspire, as well as to instruct and control? In order to get our students to develop their learning, don’t we need to create some kind of bond with them, meaning they will trust us to take them in directions that they may not instinctively want to go? That takes more than “just” management, surely. That requires leadership.

So I’ll finish with a couple of questions for teachers and teacher trainers:

Do you see yourself as a manager of learning, or do you also have a leadership role in the classroom?

Is “Classroom Leadership” something we should be focusing on more explicitly in teacher training courses?

All comments welcome, as always.

For more on Leadership vs. Management, try these links (accessed 20/10/13): 

  1. Thanks Steve I enjoyed this post and I agree with the substance of what you say. I think your questions are useful.

    In my view we experience, talk about, and are taught more about management than about leadership. And in general our lives and workplaces are over managed and under led. Thus management is a good deal more visible in our lives than leadership, so it can be easy to
    equate management with leadership and to fail to see what’s missing.

    I think is a useful exercise to oppose management and leadership in order to understand each better. And as you say we should be wary of compartmentalising either, though most of the literature does focus on the qualities you refer to. Thus according to the stereotypes leading is about what and why, about trust and energising people, about effectiveness, about designing rules that enable people to flourish, about getting good work done through people, about transformation so the outcome is different from before. And managing is about how, about controls, procedures, policies. About efficiency and transaction, and adopting and implementing rules rather than questioning them, about performing well and reaching targets, about carrying out job descriptions and working within the rules.

    Apart from anything else all this helps us to see that, as you say, in reality a good manager should be capable of doing quite a bit of leading and a good leader should be a competent manager.

    Your description of your Curriculum Leader post may be a typical example of a complex job, well addressed and intelligently carried out under great pressure and with great absorption, where the outcome is to carry out the decree rather than question or innovate. And if you do try to lead in the form of inviting greater reflective dialogue about the overall purpose and impact of what you are doing, you may find that the hierarchy above you is in turn too absorbed in its own management pressure to take such dialogue constructively. Traditional leadership coverts its power and encourages others to manage it, while post heroic leadership uses its power to draw out leadership from all parts of the system, which is seen as risky from the traditional perspective.

    If leadership only comes from the very top you end up with a clumsy, unresponsive and not very intelligent system, where the leaders’ decrees get diluted at every stage and where feedback, so much a part of any intelligent system, fails to reach the parts, and most importantly fails to reach the leaders. While this may arguably have worked well enough in the past, it simply cannot deliver in the complexity of today, where you need leadership dispersed to all parts of the system, intelligence infused throughout the system.

    I entirely agree that we should be exploring classroom leadership alongside classroom management, and have myself started using this term to define a number of what I would call ‘higher teaching skills’. So, to your last question, I’d say “Yes!” Adrian

    • Hi Adrian,
      Thanks so much for commenting on this post. Your points about the need for leadership to exist at all levels resonate very clearly with me. In any top-down organisation, the people at the bottom feel so removed from the decision-making process that it inevitably leads to disillusionment and frustration. In my own context, a new organisational structure will soon be put into place so hopefully it will follow a forward-thinking approach that allows staff at all levels to feel equally valued.
      Similarly, a classroom that doesn’t allow the students to have input is unlikely to be very inspiring. I’d be interested to hear more about what you would define as “higher teaching skills” – are you talking about specific techniques or more about thought processes?
      Thanks again for contributing.

  2. Leadership or management? Hmm. I think that I’m a manager who aspires to leadership. A manager is more of a bureaucrat who makes sure that things get done. It could be argued that in the modern world of tick box quantifiable accountability, there is very little time to do anything else other than manage. I certainly think that management is perhaps the easier job. After all, if the systems grind on, then you’ve earned your keep. Leadership hints at innovation and of carrying the team along with you. It’s the creative side of management and this is why I aspire to be a leader. On reflection, you can describe yourself as a manager, but it seems as if it is really up to others to describe you as a leader.

    Where I *manage*, I have spent some years in trying to achieve various innovations: I want to help the teachers incorporate a number of things into their practice. Specifically, I want

    a) teachers to understand their commitment to the team rather than just to their class;
    b) the syllabus to be the central point of reference for all teaching;
    c) teachers to accept, then maintain, then enhance professional standards;
    d) high expectations to become a genuine force for change;
    e) critical (self-) observation to be a driving force for development.

    If I can achieve any of these things, then I think that I will have every right to think of myself as a leader.

    • Hello TSD,
      Yes, I agree that the aims you have set yourself and your staff entail a strong level of leadership from you if you want them to work – they entail autonomous action from the teachers so they need to have faith in you and be sufficiently inspired before they can start to do these things. You strike me as the sort of person who can inspire though, so I’m sure you do very well as a leader.

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