I read yesterday that Abraham Zaleznik died several months ago (in November). Zaleznik was a professor of leadership at The Harvard Business School for 43 years and a certified psychoanalyst. He was also the author of a very important, and famous, 1977 Harvard Business Review article: Managers and Leaders: Are They Different? I did not take any classes from Zaleznik, but did hear him speak in the late seventies after his HBR article was published. His talk and writings have continued to influence me over the years.
To understand the impact of his article, one should remember that when written there was much less of an understanding that leadership is quite different from management; Zaleznik was on the leading edge of the wave. Zaleznik also had the ability to convey some of the psychological differences between leaders and managers and their formation and did so in a way that is still valuable.
The example of Polaroid and Land suggests how leaders think about goals. They are active instead of reactive, shaping ideas instead of responding to them. Leaders adopt a personal and active attitude toward goals. The influence a leader exerts in altering moods, evoking images and expectations, and in establishing specific desires and objectives determines the direction a business takes. The net result of this influence changes the way people think about what is desirable, possible, and necessary.
Managers tend to view work as an enabling process involving some combination of people and ideas interacting to establish strategies and make decisions. They help the process along by calculating the interests in opposition, planning when controversial issues should surface, and reducing tensions. In this enabling process, managers’ tactics appear flexible: on one hand, they negotiate and bargain; on the other, they use rewards, punishments, and other forms of coercion.
Zaleznik used William James’ model of once born and twice born personalities. Once born people have become generally reconciled to their environment and their social relationships, and tend to place the priority on conserving structures and preventing problems. The twice born are much less reconciled and put the focus on changing the status quo and are often bored with the mundane tasks of management. Managers are much more likely to be once born, leaders twice born. Zaleznik believed that large organizations usually develop and promote the former, not the latter.
In his talk, Zaleznik also spoke of the problem of “psychopolitics” getting in the way of the “real work” of producing and marketing products and services, and connected this to the distinction between managers and leaders. In his view, the internal dynamics of large organizations (which his writings discuss in depth) encourage an emphasis on social relations and social process, in part to reduce personal anxiety and encourage cooperation. But organizations tend to go too far and as a result take too much attention away from the real work of the organization. This hurts not only the organization’s competitive position and future, but can also increase the level of anxiety and general unease as people spend less time on the real work tasks that develop a sense of productivity and competence. These ideas were the basis of some of his future writings, including Real Work.
His writings go into much more depth, and are well worth exploring.