Stop managing and start leading!

No one likes to be managed. It is intrinsically diminishing and a poor substitute for leadership. Managing also doesn’t work as a long-term strategy for enrolling people in a shared effort, whether in business, families, or communities. So, how did we come to elevate managing and management as the epitome of leadership, and why do we attempt to run our businesses and lives by managing people?

Underneath all the stories we tell ourselves, we manage people because we basically do not trust our capacity to be honest, direct, and transparent without catastrophic results. If we trusted ourselves, we would lead and not manage.

When we resort to managing we say we do not have the time to do things differently. We go “one-up” (we think we are superior) and then blame our need to manage on our perceptions about the limitations of the other. We tell ourselves that the truth would be upsetting, or that those we “manage” cannot handle the responsibility that comes with information, or that “they” will be unable to “manage” themselves. Or even saddest, we manage people because we are afraid they will reject us if they know the truth about who we are. As managers, we believe it’s our job to control information, time, and boundaries.

Fundamentally, we have difficulty tolerating the vulnerability that inevitably arises when we lead or surrender to the uncertainty of co-creation. If I tell you the truth, or give you information, we don’t know what will happen next – life is a dance, not a chain gang. When we manage, we don’t see our “work” as an expression of shared commitment and connection, but of coordinated and delegated effectiveness and efficiency. When we manage we are missing both the moment and the music.

Is that a bit in your mouth? Or, why aren’t you happy to see me?

It turns out that the etymology or history of the word manage probably comes from the Italian maneggiare, which means, “to handle”. In the 1560s, this meant handling a horse. No surprise then is its similarity to the French word manège, which means horsemanship. So, long before Fredrick Taylor, “management theory” had its etymological roots in 16th century horse handling. Which, perfectly explains why us ponies don’t like the bit in our mouths or “managers” on our backs. If we want to stop managing and being managed, then we must be willing to do the hard work of learning how to harness the power of ourselves before we harness others, and not through bits and saddles, but through reassurance and rapport. We must becomework-whisperers or natural leaders.

Most of us prefer sensing and reciprocal relationship where individual autonomy and consent are respected. But this requires a leap of faith; somewhere in the back of our minds there is always that fear, what if they don’t follow, or what if they don’t pull their weight, or they don’t lead when we need them to? So, techniques to insure dominance and control seem temporarily surer than those that depend on cooperation and co-creation. I wonder though, if at the root of our fear about releasing the reins, is a vestige of infantile anxiety that the other will overwhelm us? That our energy and our connection to our own pure nature is not strong enough to stand in the ring of life and lead without dominating – without making our experience more primary than the other’s experience, or their experience of us.

Honesty is messy, but the truth will set you free

And, this brings me to honesty, which I think underlies why we cling to managing. While most of us believe that honesty may be the best “policy”, it can be messy; world’s can collide, pedestals can be knocked over, and sacred cows can be let out to pasture. Unexpected things can happen that perhaps we feel are inconvenient to our plans. But as adults, truth is the only thing that allows us to grow in maturity and wisdom. Truth sets us free to be completely in the present as it really is, not as we would have it be. Truth is essential, like water and sun, to the flourishing of our character. It also is the bedrock of relationship, because honesty is how we build a shared reality, with shared goals, and shared commitments.

Probably most of us are not out and out liars, but I bet many of us lie through omission or stretching and bending the truth; we call it diplomacy or managing the “situation”. We call them, little “white lies” (be honest now!). Ergo, absence of truth or honesty and “managing” go hand in hand. When we don’t tell people what is really going on, we are managing them, we are putting blinders on someone so that they won’t see us, or reality, or both.

At its essence, truth is neutral, but we fear it, because we tell ourselves truth can be brutal. Usually truth is brutal for three reasons. The first is that we wield it like a sword that is meant to hurt or destroy – our bad. The second is that the truth can reveal the days and weeks and months and years we have been living non-truth, and that is often an inconceivable loss and betrayal– our bad. The third is timing and place. Rather than creating the conditions for truth to be liberating we release it into rush-hour traffic, where we collide and crash, causing suffering and forgoing growing and learning – again, our bad.

There are two other important pieces about truth. When we are not honest, we are first not honest with ourselves. We do not want to live with the consequences of our truths. It takes compassion and commitment to be in relationship to one’s truth. The other thing is that truth is relative. In any given moment it is possible that what we believe to be true may only be smoke and mirrors obscuring an even deeper reflection. So, it takes time to allow truth to emerge; we often need to walk around and around and around it until we begin to see the reality of a situation. We need to hold our truth lightly and with humility.

We are surrendering when we lead, not asking others to surrender to us

We tell ourselves a lot of stories about why managing (and its stepsisters domination and power) is justified or right. We have belief systems, like management theory, that enshrines control as a means to predictability and productivity and profit. We normalize managing employees, managing children, managing husbands, managing wives, managing parents, managing friends, and managing peoples’ perceptions of us, and all too often, managing ourselves, with bits and saddles. The problem is, managing is a meager approximation of leadership. It’s what we do when we are afraid and weak, not when we are strong or free. And, it’s this dishonesty about our fear, about being in relationship to others, that distorts reality and keeps us from seeing the degree to which we are actually surrendering when we lead, not asking others to surrender to us.

Horse-whisperers, or those who practice natural horsemanship, acknowledge the power of the horse. At an average height of about 6 feet (183 cm) and 2,000lbs (1000 kilos), horses are commanding animals. When terrified or angry they can hurt or kill us quite easily. Yet, because a horse is useful to us (helps us get places faster, can pull plows and wagons), we harness them to do our bidding. When the horse is met with respect and reassurance they happily give us the reins. It is their gift. Similar conditions exist in the relationship between leader and lead. Thousands of people who are afraid and angry can certainly overwhelm a few “managers”. Yet, most of us willingly take the harness in exchange for reassurance and respect and the promise of recognized contribution. Perhaps the most honest thing any leader can do is fall to our knees, bend our heads, and say, “Join me, perhaps together we can reach the places we aspire to”.

Let us abandon managing and begin leading.

Read other posts by Shuli Rose Goodman, Ph.D.

Keep up with our community: Facebook | Twitter | Saybrook’s Organizational Systems Program