When Warren Bennis wrote On Becoming a Leader , in 1989, his list of differences between managers and leaders ended on a pithy note: “The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.” A recent Co.Exist blog post, “ Are MBAs the Solution to Africa’s Problems ?” reminded me of that distinction and of the danger of confusing professional management practices for the whole of leadership.
No doubt, professional management skills are essential to the establishment of sustainable organizations and economies. But it would be a mistake to assume that the introduction of management best practices would constitute a complete solution to the complex challenges facing third world enterprises. At the same time, it’s a caution that’s equally relevant to those of us trying to develop leadership depth in the social entrepreneur and nonprofit sectors of highly developed countries.
Rather than asking whether it makes sense to build management capacity in these situations, let’s stipulate that it does make sense. Then, let’s ask a set of questions that help us build capacity in a way that respects the particular demands of the social, environmental, and cultural contexts in which the enterprise operates:
Should we import managerial expertise or grow our own? While we might accelerate results by bringing in professional managers to run the show, that’s a move guaranteed to damage our long-term prospects for success by disempowering and disengaging our local talent. Better to use external talent as mentors and teachers who can transfer skills to those more invested in the community and its wellbeing.
Are all MBAs created equal? Organizations trying to get started in conditions of extreme complexity might choose to source their professional management mentors from programs that emphasize a systemic perspective. The Aspen Institute’s BeyondGreyPinstripes.org is a great resource for finding MBA programs ranked according to their focus on social and environmental impact. We might also consult The Oath Project , an initiative of the Thunderbird School of Global Management that allows young business graduates to declare their commitment to ethical and sustainable practices.
Are we setting the enterprise up to succeed? Businesses need stable environments and institutions to survive and thrive. Business development activities that are not supported by a simultaneous and equally vigorous focus on developing effective government leaders are doomed to fail. How can we make sure that we are also attracting and developing world class MPAs and MPPs to balance and complement our business professionals?
When the goal is to cultivate leaders inclined to “do the right thing,” an MBA might be a good place to start but I think we have to remember that it’s just one piece of the puzzle.
Vicky Schubert is an associate of Systems Perspectives, LLC, a coaching and consulting practice that helps leaders achieve new behaviors and better results through greater understanding of the relationships and interdependencies that drive their success. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org