I had a scintillating conversation with a colleague a couple of weeks ago. We were at a restaurant sharing a meal with another professional coach. The conversation turned on a comment by my colleague (I’ll call him Paul) that he was “disappointed” in a highly regarded book we had read on leadership. Disappointed because the author spent no time defining goals for the organization around which the story was built. His belief is that a book on leadership is incomplete without a discussion of goals, how they are set and in this case, what they actually were. I took an opposing view – leaders don’t set specific goals, they set the vision and mission and provide the resources – the team sets the necessary goals to achieve the vision. Therefore, a book on leadership need not get into the tactics of setting goals. The resulting conversation around these two views was awesome – we almost closed the restaurant!
Paul took the position that leaders must set goals and make sure that they are met. And of course, in practice, we do want to make sure vision achieving goals are set and that we accomplish them. My view is that leaders make sure we are doing the right thing and managers make sure we do them right. The difficulty is, of course, that we usually do both things in our professional lives – lead and manage. Especially in small businesses, we cannot get away from wearing both hats and we can easily confuse the two disciplines.
“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space.”
-President John F. Kennedy, Address to Congress on Urgent National Needs, May 25, 1961
If we are building an organization that is scalable, high performing, responsive and agile, then we are likely to be building a Leader-Leader organization rather than a Leader-Follower (command and control) organization. What does this say about the “goals” of the organization? In my view, it simply says that the goals are in place to drive us to the vision. The quote above, from President Kennedy, is inspirational and it certainly drove the nation to accomplish a worthy goal. I doubt that the President micromanaged this project and set specific goals. I doubt he lectured NASA or Congress on how to set goals. Instead, he likely made sure that the vision and mission were clear and the broad goal of accomplishing a moon landing within the decade was set. I also assume he was instrumental in removing obstacles to success of the project.
My experience tells me that the big vision is the domain of the leader. The inspiration for the team members to be motivated and engaged comes from the leader and is embodied in the vision. Achieving that vision requires that intermediate goals be set for specific periods of time and then we manage the activities to make sure we are doing all that we need to be doing to a attain the goals. That there are goals is inherent in the vision set out by the leader(s) of the organization. The specific goals set and the successful execution of the goals are the domain of the manager(s) of the organization – or perhaps more correctly, the management function.
Is this distinction necessary? I believe it is a vital distinction because to believe otherwise causes us to fall back into the Leader-Follower model and is uninspiring for the team. Of course there will be tactical goals. They should be “owned” by the team, not set by the leader. President Kennedy had it right. He gave a clear vision of what would be a worthy undertaking and set a fairly broad time frame in which to achieve the vision. He left goal setting and the details of execution to the team. The team was inspired and highly motivated. They had Technical Competency, Autonomy, Mastery and Clarity of Vision, Values, Purpose. The results? They “crushed it!”