Global financial crises, flu pandemics, unwinable wars, corrupt and failing mega-corporations – we’ve all seen these seemingly intractable problems laid at the doorstep of poor leadership.

But business and management guru Henry Mintzberg, the Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University, has a different take on the issue. During a recent interview, he made the argument that we are asking for trouble because of our penchant for separating “leaders” from “managers” and placing leadership in a superior role over management.

I agree. We are suffering, I believe, not from a lack of leadership, but from the absence of good management.

Professor Mintzberg believes that while leaders are born rather than developed, management can be taught. The ideal, he adds, is to return to the concept of the engaged, or managing, leader (and, he stresses, without the huge bonuses) who, for example, made United States industry so admired around the globe.

Why management gets a bad rap
Leadership devoid of responsibility is sexy. Management, which is nothing if not responsibility, isn’t. Management is shepherding the administrative, routine tasks outlined by leadership. It has the reputation of being rule-creating, creativity-stifling and risk-avoiding. You rarely hear people say “I aspire to be a great manager.” 

At the risk of oversimplification, leadership kicks in when we encourage and support our children to dream about their goals. Management is what ensures they eat properly, go to school and brush their teeth. Management is the infrastructure that allows a vision to become a sustainable reality. It’s doing the hard work without getting the spotlight.

Three elements of good management
At the risk of oversimplification, here are what I consider to be three key aspects of good management:

1) Good managers plan. To accomplish anything requires a plan. Leadership may provide the inspiration and the goal, but management is responsible for coming up with the “how to.” Leaders can get caught up in the sizzle of the goal without duly considering the process needed to achieve it. A good plan sets reasonable objectives, defines key actions and takes reality into consideration. How will we make sure everyone receives the flu vaccine in an orderly and efficient way? How will we make sure everyone has the opportunity to own a home without bankrupting the nation? The nitty-gritty may not be sexy, but it is vital for success in any domain.

2) Good managers follow through. You may be familiar with the lofty, strategic plan that floats to your desk from the leader on high only to languish and possibly be resuscitated some time later with little evidence of progress in between. To accomplish anything requires actually executing the plan. This requires a Herculean level of discipline and effort and someone to ruthlessly monitor it, measure it and hold people accountable to it. It is, by far, one of the most difficult tasks demanded of a human being, and it does not come to most of us naturally. This may be why good managers are in such short supply.

3) Good managers ensure we all do our part. While a successful leader must inspire and animate, a good manager does not have to be everyone’s best friend. The best managers may not be the most popular people at the party, often because their casual conversation is peppered with reminders about that dreaded “plan.” They keep us all on track, pressing forward toward the goal. Good managers operate with unrelenting respect for others. They don’t have all the answers: They know that the best ideas will come from someone else and they encourage and incorporate those at every opportunity. They do not need to be heroes; they recognize and leverage the strengths of others and find them opportunities to shine. They hold others accountable to their commitments. They give others the right amount of independence (and this is different for everyone they manage, and they know it). They measure and celebrate progress. They recognize and share the glory as the team delivers on key milestones. When one objective is completed, they move on, with little fanfare, to the next.

People today often speak of experiencing a “leadership gap.” But I think that what they are actually experiencing is a management gap – something is “missing” between the promises and words of inspiration and the reality in which we find ourselves. The world does not need more people who aspire to greatness through leadership. What it needs are a whole lot more people who aspire to be great managers.