According to Warren Bennis, a US academic who has spent much time studying leadership, the problem comes down to the difference between a leader and a manager resting on the status quo. "Managers are willing to live with it, and leaders are not," he writes in Managing People is like Herding Cats.
Leaders "are the ones with vision, who inspire others and cause them to galvanise their efforts and achieve change", while managers "will follow standard operating procedure to their graves because they don't possess the ability to change course".
He claims that "America and its business community" - but he might as well say anywhere - "have been managed to the edge of ruin, and now we're in desperate need of leaders. Unfortunately, it is difficult to find men and women of vision who are willing to stand on principle and make their voices heard. Where have all the leaders gone?"
Indeed. But on the other hand, it appears there are all too many business leaders around. As Bennis says, in the US especially, captains of industry enjoy celebrity status. His point, though, is that being the visible head of something is not the same as being its leader. As befits the author of a book on managing creative groups, Bennis is a great believer in executives sharing responsibility. So complex are the challenges confronting us today that no single person can be expected to have all the answers.
Moreover, since leadership is about inspiring people, those that aspire to such positions have to abandon traditional methods. He is thinking of the inapplicability of "command and control" to a new order in which knowledge that was once held by only a small group of people is now much more widely available.
But he is also questioning the wisdom of seeing people "in terms of gangs and groups, databases and demographics, masses and markets, cultures and castes". Leaders must respect individual rights, tastes, opinions, and idiosyncrasies. And that means that managing any group of people is "like herding cats". He explains: "Cats, of course, won't allow themselves to be herded. They may, however, be coaxed, cajoled, persuaded, adored, and gently led."
Rather stretching the analogy, he adds: "With cats, keep in mind, the dictum is milk before meat. Any leader who dares to think of himself or herself as the 'cat's meow' will likely be hissed or clawed. The recipe calls for more catnip, less catnap."
Among the attributes his years of observation identify as vital are being alert, curious, impatient, brave, steadfast and in focus; developing the vision and authority to call the shots; doing more than tinkering with the machinery and flexing muscles; being educators and social architects shaping the culture of work; knowing and listening to yourself; and expressing the unspoken dreams of people.
And, for all the references to TS Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, there is a serious point amid all the cat talk: to be a successful leader of people requires humility. "Start building trust and mutual respect. Your cats will respond. They will sense your purpose, keep your business purring and even kill your rats."Reuse content