Carpenter or Cabinet Maker

By Guy Higgins

I often have discussions about leadership versus management. Those discussions usually start because I complain that people use management (or manager) when I think that they should be using leadership (or leader). The pushback I get is that companies use “manager” to encompass the responsibilities of organizing a group of people to achieve the goals of the company. I agree – companies do use “manager” that way. That doesn’t make it correct any more than using the term carpenter when you’re referring to a person skilled in flawless joinery to produce an exquisite piece of furniture. I am not belittling carpenters – carpentry is an important skill and involves no small degree of structural engineering knowledge (albeit mostly informal). Cabinetmakers and carpenters use many of the same techniques – measuring, cutting, joining. That doesn’t mean that any carpenter can make exquisite furniture or that any cabinetmaker will appreciate the easy way to make all the decking pieces line up perfectly at the edge of the deck.

The same perspective applies to leaders and managers. They both use much of the same knowledge. The difference is that you “manage” things like resources and time (just try inspiring time to run more slowly and see what that gets you) while you “lead” people (see how well your team or workforce responds if you move them around like bricks or treat them like the proverbial mushrooms).

As more and more physical labor is replaced by machinery (and a great deal of the repetitive knowledge-based work is similarly taken over by computers), people become more critical to organizational success because of their unique knowledge, skills, creativity, and flexibility. People on Henry Ford’s production line may have been interchangeable pieces in that production line, but the men and women working on designs for systems supporting manned exploration of the solar system are not interchangeable pieces. They cannot be moved around from some task to some other random task – each assignment needs to be optimized (I don’t mean it needs to be perfect – it just needs to be the best assignment achievable given the people, the time and the demands).

The knowledge and skills required to optimize personnel assignments are very different than deciding where to apply funding – trust me, the ten-dollar bill really doesn’t care where it gets spent. You can spend it any way you want (but as my business manager once observed, you can only spend it once – that’s management).

Why do I harp on this (to some people) trivial distinction? Because it matters. How does it matter? It matters because the acquisition of leadership skills involves a great deal of implicit and tacit knowledge. You have to practice leadership to get really good at because every person you lead is different and you can’t simply apply a broad-brush approach to every leadership problem.

I just read an article, 10 Hard Truths About Management No One Tells You. The article stated the following:

“I did not ascend to a higher plane of enlightenment when my title changed. I was still myself, with all my faults, and dealing with a totally new set of challenges.”

It then goes on to describe those 10 hard truths, but most of them are about leadership – not management. Therein lies the problem. If you’re going to hire someone to make cabinets for you, you don’t want that person to be someone who thinks that they’re going to use their carpenter skills – you want someone who has honed their cabinet-making skills. Companies need to introduce their employees to leadership training early – before they are placed in leadership positions, because leadership errors can cost a company money and/or the loss of valuable employees. My experience is that companies rarely do this, because they see it as a cost that may never repay itself.

I’ve previously posted about the costs and benefits of training employees on leadership (Developing Leaders). I think that the benefits are well worth the costs. It’s just that those benefits are future benefits and not as easily captured in a spreadsheet as are the costs. I also think that the incorrect (my opinion) use of the words “manager” and “management” contribute to this perspective. If companies used the words “leader” and “leadership” in addition to “manager” and “management,” they might appreciate the importance of emphasizing leadership skills early in employees’ careers.

Management and leadership are different! I’m not implying that one is more important than the other. I’m simply stating that they are both important and that they shouldn’t be lumped together under a single title. NFL teams make a distinction between the right and left guards in their offensive lines and commentators often blather (excuse me, discuss) the difficulties of moving from the right side of the line to the left side. The difference between playing on the left side of the line versus the right side is far less than the difference between managing an inventory and leading a team.


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