Tain’t What You Do

In 1939, big band leader Jimmie Lunceford was right on target with his hit “Tain’t What You Do (It’s the Way That You Do It),” with lyrics that continued, “and that’s what gets results.” With the election season in full swing, we again are seeing a polarization of leadership and management. So this month I want to revisit the important idea that leadership is about both task and relationship.

All the leading candidates position themselves as leaders. They have all trumpeted their leadership and actively shunned the idea of managing – as if to do so would make them Neanderthals. I become very concerned about leadership and management being polarized this way. The popular press has put the two in nice neat categories for us.

Leadership, in the lexicon of members of the media, is about relationship, the ability to inspire others to follow a vision with passion. Management gets relegated to telling people what to do and checking up on them to see if they did it. We seem to like this simple idea that leadership is somehow a noble enterprise, leaving the scutwork of actually getting things done to those control-freak managers.

What if we adopted a definition of leadership that is not solely a domain of inspiration and relationship any more than management is purely about wielding power? Inspirational vision without the ability to execute is expensive pie-in-the-sky dreaming. Similarly, Herculean skill at keeping processes on track is unsustainable in the absence of vision. A definition of leadership that puts task and relationship on equal footing also changes the focus from what a leader does to how he or she does it.

On the task side, a leader must move away from the realm of command and control to design and monitor sustainable processes for getting work done. There are times when assigning tasks and checking up are needed. Not all employees are self-motivating, and when an emergency requires a war-room mentality, this kind of hands-on managerial control is invaluable.

But neither of these tactics is sustainable. A leader looks for ways to delegate and create processes that do not require constant intervention or monitoring to remain on track. That means moving from a default control model to a more systematic process for getting work done.

And when we consider the relationship side of the ledger, we have to look at the kind of emotional courage and maturity I have written about here before. Leadership means being able to handle ambiguity, embrace conflict for the sake of full disclosure and understand the impact of emotion in the workplace.

We are educated and trained from our earliest age in the task domain. Primary schools focus a child’s mind on learning to do important tasks like reading and counting. But when it comes to relationship, we just say, “Go work it out and make a friend.”

The same is true at work. When we are new in the workplace, our focus is on task because that is what we are capable of doing as new workers. Our early promotions all depend on doing a task well.

Later in our career, we need to accomplish goals though team participation and relationship skills. Those who cannot make the transition remain in task management mode, although many rise very high in a corporate culture that values their skills. The addition of mature relationship capacity to inspire and relate is what increases the scale of projects or organizations a leader can handle. But acquiring those capacities does not mean leaving behind a task orientation and entering a fictional pure ether of ideas and vision.

Recent research on the performance of businesses led by executives who have been assessed for leadership capacity makes it very clear: A high correlation exists between leaders who show a balance of well-developed task and relationship skills and excellent performance in the organizations they lead.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, March 24, 2008.