Much has been written about what differentiates leaders from managers. Almost all of the articles and books focus on the “How.” Specifically, “How” leaders approach, communicate, and engage people. The how is critical, but I’ve found the “What” is the first and main thing that separates leaders from managers. The “What” is the type of situations they have to address. To cut to the chase, managers deal with problems; whereas, leaders deal with dilemmas. The difference between the two is problems have clear-cut answers that everyone agrees to. Conversely, dilemmas are ambiguous, wherein good people have totally different views on what needs to be done, when and how. Another way of saying it is with problems managers get people to agree. With dilemmas, leaders get people to align. Needless to say, alignment is very different and much more difficult to achieve than getting people to agree.
To achieve alignment, leaders have to take the time to understand the different views and look for common ground. Note how I said “Common” and not “Middle” ground. Middle ground means that people have to give up something. Common ground means they have a mutual starting point. Next, leaders have to understand what the major differences are. Finally, leaders have to make a decision on how to move forward, knowing that some people will be disappointed because you won’t be able to please everyone. I found that if people felt you sincerely listened to them and seriously considered their position, many will follow you even if they don’t agree with you because they knew it was a dilemma. However, there will always be some that will very vocally disagree with you, calling you everything but your name. That’s why I say that leaders will be criticized before congratulated.
What gets leaders into trouble is when they treat dilemmas like they were problems, provide quick answers, don’t take the time to understand what the various positions are, and if there is any common ground to get everyone to begin standing on. As a result, the leaders don’t have as many people following them as they would have if they had taken the time.
The biggest dilemma leaders always face is how much change the organization can handle at one time. Too much, the organization implodes. Too little, the organization gets left behind. To determine the right balance, leaders have to have their finger on the pulse of the organization and on the pulse of the external environment. (E.g., customers, traditional competitors and new ones.) That understanding then allows leaders to set the right priorities, pace, and make the right resource (dollars, people, etc.) allocation decisions.
In closing, problems versus dilemmas are what separate leaders from managers. Dilemmas always happen in times of change, challenge and controversy. They are not problems because there are no easy answers. The ability to get an alignment, move forward, and successfully execute while dealing with the ad hominem attacks is the “How” that then further separates leaders from managers.