Leadership vs. Managing People

Leadership vs. Managing People

13.1 min read

Bennet Simonton

Managing people would seem to be just another discipline, just another area in which a body of knowledge, including theory, has been accumulated. This knowledge should form the basis for a set of discrete, definable procedures which if followed should yield the desired results. But “should” never occurs on any day of the week. If it had, there would be no need for my book.

If you want to become a mechanical engineer and are willing to invest 4 years and $100,000, there are a host of universities and colleges that will eagerly commit themselves to the task. I would say your chances of emerging with useful knowledge, assuming you graduate, are as high as 80 percent. After graduation, if I line up ten of you and direct you to analyze a machine with a problem, at least 6 or 7 will agree on the problem. If I make you all agree on the problem and ask for the fix, I may even get six of you to agree on the same fix.

The above can be done in many disciplines like accounting and nuclear physics. Don’t try it in management of people. From what I have seen, the chance of getting even two of ten bosses to agree on the problem or on the fix is low.

The reason for this inability to agree is that management styles vary considerably and we are encouraged to pick one that suits ourselves, our personality or whatever. But who would recommend that a boss’s personality or style be taken down to a machine and used to determine what to do with that machine. “Hey stupid, don’t pull that stunt. Just get yourself down there and try like hell to determine the problem using these specific tests and then determine the solutions based on this set of defined knowledge. It has nothing to do with you personally.” But somehow when it comes to dealing with people, we want to superimpose our style and our personality, our likes and dislikes on the process. You dislike Phillips head screwdrivers, but you like flat head screwdrivers. I am certain that those feelings will not help you when you try to turn a Phillips head screw with a flat head screwdriver. The same is true for managing people.

The people management arena is strewn with hundreds of these EXCUSES, such as “I don’t like to —” or “I can’t bear to —“. We have all heard them. The actions evaded range from not being able to get up in front of a group to not wanting to counsel an employee, from not wanting to terminate to not being able to provide succor in a time of need. The Excuses to justify these evasions range from personality to “I don’t want to hurt someone” to “the moon was blue last night”. There are also many people who would like to blame the sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, religious, consultants and others for their own management errors. Excuses will always be available to anyone who is looking for them, especially to those who enjoy the permissiveness of the “doing your own thing” vogue. But recognize that all of these Excuses are INVALID.

As with machines, Excuses will always limit your success with people, if not cause outright failure. Listen to yourself using them (we all do) and get as far away in the other direction as possible.

You must not decide what a person should be given based on what you have to give, only on what that person needs. Throw away your excuses and your management style. Use your common sense and the same logical, methodical approach required to solve technical issues.

The Natural Law

Believe it or not, the SCIENCE OF MANAGING PEOPLE IS THE SCIENCE OF LEADERSHIP, pure and simple, no more, no less. Whether or not the CEO or boss wants to admit it, the SHIP IS ITS CAPTAIN. This is what actually happens and the boss (CEO or lower) has no control over this. He/she can’t stop it, modify it, wish or order it away. It is a natural LAW that operates inexorably and without regard for the human beings involved. The process that results WAITS FOR NO ONE. It just happens day in and day out.

Therefore, no matter what the actions are, the words, facial expressions, body language, verbal or written orders or policies, support for subordinates, habits, personality traits, inactions through silence, or other boss behavior, these are FOLLOWED by most juniors simply because the great majority of them are Followers. The subordinates become what the boss projects. If the boss works hard, they tend to work hard. If the boss has little knowledge of certain things, they have little knowledge of them. If the boss encourages, they will be encouraged. If the boss cannot bring him/herself to do certain things, they will not either. Followers clearly discern the implied Value Standards and set out to use them in their everyday routine. This sequence is a natural LAW, one that makes the boss either the subordinates’ biggest ally or their greatest enemy or something somewhere in between.

The boss by virtue of appointment becomes the LEADER, whether great and fearless or tyrannical and unsupportive or whatever. It is the boss who decides how subordinates will act by Choosing his/her own actions. The boss can, of course, decide NOT TO DECIDE, the “what they see is what they get” or the “I was the one promoted so I must be OK the way I am” approach. The first quote represents a “to heck with the subordinates” approach, while the second is the height of arrogance. I don’t mean to seem judgmental about this, but my true desire is to make crystal clear that each boss chooses what their subordinates will be led to do, consciously or unconsciously. That they will Follow the boss’ lead has been preordained!!!

So! Do we really have a Choice on how we manage people? Do we get to choose a management style of our own? The answer is, the LAW dictates that we have no Choice. We can only choose how we make use of the LAW and this is a Choice of the Value Standards toward which we lead.


If we walk into a race track and the horses are in the middle of the race, I am certain we will all be able to agree on which horse is in the lead. It will always be the horse “in front” of the other horses, the “leader”. The other horses are “following” the “leader”. So leading implies being in a position Followers will try to attain. Two questions emerge.

  1. In what does the boss (CEO or supervisor) lead?
  2. What do subordinates look to Follow in a workplace?

Fortunately for us, these two questions are merely different sides of the same coin. The name of the coin is “Values”. From the boss’ view it is his/her leadership, while from the subordinates view it is what they Follow. It makes no difference which we analyze.

Following or Leading

To start the discussion, recall that ninety percent or more of all subordinates are Followers, people looking to produce their behavior through copying that of others. This copying process is applied to Values as well as to actions. In the workplace, people want to find out as quickly as possible what is expected of them so they can meet those Standards and thus keep down the hassle, avert possible censure and keep the paychecks coming to feed themselves and their families. Conforming to peer pressure is also a part of this process. None of these are surprising revelations.

Remaining with the subordinates, how do they find out what’s expected of them, what the Standards are for the different Values? The process is the same one used during childhood, the one which absorbs everything around them. After soaking up everything which is available, the brain’s computer is used to sort out the “Do as I Say Not as I Do” events, consequences presented by management or peers, and other nuances.

Through this process, new employees can very quickly get to act like all the other employees. They check what is happening to others and what is happening on-the-job in terms of normal Values: attitude, cleanliness, industriousness, honesty, integrity, admission of error, knowledge, perseverance, fairness and all of the other ones. Their brain automatically performs computations and suddenly they know what the Standards are for each. They have, in effect, translated actual conditions into Value Standards.

So equipped, they begin to use these Standards to perform their work, STANDARDS for precisely the same VALUES all of us have. This is the Natural LAW. Followers do not use their own Value Standards to produce behavior in the workplace. Only non-followers do that and our goal is to make everyone into non-followers!!!

So, employees detect the workplace Value Standards and use them to decide how to carry out their work. If these Standards are high, we fly with the eagles, beat the competition most of the time and love our workplace. If these Standards are low or toward Bad Values, we walk with the turkeys, lose to the competition and generally dislike coming to work. Can the boss afford to leave this situation to the whims of chance? Can the boss take a chance on which Good or Bad Values and their Standards are utilized in the conduct of work?

The leader’s only recourse is to commit to frequently and clearly communicating only very high Value Standards through the normal management actions of supporting, directing and developing. Actions speak far louder than words and the real truth is no one listens to words!! As children we didn’t understand the language of words and could only learn through the language of action, through what people do and their tone of voice and body language. This develops into a habit and is carried into adult life. Communicating Values is thus an action oriented process in which each boss must be proficient.

The boss’ actions range from one-on-one discussions to group meetings, from providing tools to training and benefits, from discipline to promotions and rewards, and from action or inaction when it’s the employee’s day in the barrel to termination for cause. Both actions and inactions transmit Value Standards, the latter often being the loudest. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being best, these actions and inactions must repeatedly reflect 8-10 Standards for all Good Values if we expect to have EXCELLENCE in the workplace.

Carefully note the wide range of actions from which Followers extract Value Standards to use in performing their work. For high level bosses, what they personally say and do may constitute a very small part of a subordinate’s sources. The leadership Value messages received by a person consists not only of the personal actions of their immediate boss, but also of what other people do to this person. “Others” includes staff, other bosses, peers and the rumor mill. Over the past few days, an employee may have received 200 messages on fairness, 100 on quality, 50 on industriousness and only 2 on humility, very few of which came directly from an immediate or more senior boss. The employee computes a new Standard for fairness using past data combined with the latest 200 messages and repeats this for each Value. If these Standards are low or reflect Bad Values, the bosses are in real trouble.

The Boss’ Only Choices

So the boss is the leader and leads in Value Standards, whether he/she wants to or not. Once appointed boss, he/she is the leader who will be followed and that’s the Law. The boss’ Choices are extremely limited. He/she can Choose the direction in which to lead, whether toward the Good or the Bad Value, for example whether toward humility or arrogance. The boss can also Choose the Standard for that Good or Bad Value from 1 to 10. Making the wrong Choice or Choosing not to make a conscious Choice is to Choose mediocrity or even anarchy with all of its attendant problems.

Leadership is simple. Unfortunately, it has been revered and placed on a high pedestal, out of reach to most of us common folk. If it was ever knowable, it has become less so over the years. There is some belief that it belongs to a previous heroic age and is incompatible with participative management. Some people also question whether concepts such as democracy and equality are compatible with leadership. Although I did for years share these concerns, they all disappeared as I developed and practiced the Whats, Whys and Hows of my book.

Changing Workplace Performance

Unfortunately, bosses tend to believe their job is mainly one of giving orders. This consists of Choosing the goals and the visions, directing actions by their employees to get there and then checking for the results. Bad results simply call for some form of re-direction.

But from the boss’s “leadership”, their employees have already computed a set of Value Standards which they are using every day in the execution of their tasks. Let’s call these the “HOW TO’S” of doing the job and admit that they will determine the success or failure of the employee’s endeavors and that they emanate from the boss, not from the subordinate. “HOW TO’S” are how industriously, compliantly to rules, cooperatively, neatly, cleanly, creatively, safely, independently, resourcefully, confidently, qualitatively, compassionately, enthusiastically and similar standards.

So if the boss is unhappy with the results which subordinates are achieving, he/she must change the support and direct management functions so as to communicate higher Good Value Standards. Only after these changes lead subordinates to use higher Standards can the boss expect performance improvement. In effect, subordinates are always waiting for the boss to change before they themselves can change. An example may shed some light.

Transmitting Values

Bill joins the work force and soon is told by a foreman that the work cannot proceed because he must wait for a part. So Bill puts his hands in his pockets or sits down to WAIT. The foreman says nothing more. The next day it’s waiting for a welder and so on. Soon, Bill gets the message that doing nothing is OK as long as there is a good Excuse. No matter that he could do something else or could figure out what’s missing before starting a job and thus go to one that requires no waiting.

Bill probably didn’t believe he would be paid to stand around doing nothing. Likewise, Bill would not pay a plumber to fix his own sink if that plumber Chose to stand around doing nothing in Bill’s house. But Bill as a Follower easily falls into becoming unproductive. What if Bill was a non-follower and used his own Value Standards to decide his actions? Would be doing a better job?

There may be a multitude of similar bad influences or low Value Standards being transmitted in the workplace. Bosses must be able to detect these problems and provide workable solutions to use in changing each and thereby improve the Standard being transmitted for each Value.

About the author:

This article is based on the book “Leadership Skills – How to Unleash the Power of People” by Bennet Simonton. Ben managed people for over 30 years, his last position being the executive in charge of 1000+ unionized employees responsible for overhauling the boilers, turbines and auxiliaries of fossil and nuclear electric generating stations for a large electric utility company. Ben now provides leadership coaching and training for executives, managers and supervisors. His book is available at https://www.bensimonton.com/

  • Quote of the Day

    “The key to successful leadership today is influence, not authority.”

    — Kenneth Blanchard