If you watch the hilarious sitcom The Big Bang Theory, you have probably heard the term “string theory.” This is the project that Sheldon has been working on for years and which he believes holds the greatest promise for mankind. I am not sure if the show ever really defines string theory, so I am going to do that here and I am going to agree with Sheldon that string theory (as I define it) does indeed hold great promise for mankind.
There is an age-old debate about the value of leaders versus managers and about where they come from. My 33-year career has convinced me that leaders are born and that managers are made, and that leaders are more valuable than managers. In a classic management/leadership training instance, you are asked to consider the “Lost” script. In this script, a plane crashes on a deserted island. For imperative reasons, it is necessary to get off the island. In this scenario, the leaders will get the people off the island and the managers will keep the people fed during the process. Both roles are important (everybody needs to eat), but the leadership role is more important or there is no “getting off the island”. Without leadership, everybody remains “lost”, the imperative reason to leave is not met, and disaster is inevitable.
Leaders and managers are different because they employ entirely different methods to obtain their goals. Depending on the goal- getting off the island or obtaining food along the way, one method may be preferable to another.
The String Theory of Management
I thus come to my “string theory” and a practical examination of management versus leadership when it comes to employee productivity. This is a teaching moment and you will need two props: a piece of string about 12 inches long and single sticky note. (If you lack a string proper, you can always use a cord as demonstrated below.)
Place the string on your desk. The string is a group of people. To the right of the string, place a sticky note labeled “destination” or “way off the island”, whichever you prefer. The goal is to get the people to the destination.
A leader will go to a place between the people (as indicated by the string) and the destination (our sticky note). A leader through action (hard work), word (encouragement and influence), and sheer will (knowing what they believe) will draw the people toward the destination. You can demonstrate this by placing your finger on the rightmost end of the string and drawing it toward the destination. Note what happens to the string. It moves straight and true. Both leader and people arrive at the destination in the shortest amount of time, with no opposition, and no confusion.
Now let us see how a manager works. Reset the string. A manager will go to the back of the people (far left). A manager through action (pushing), word (yelling and screaming), and sheer will (power) will push the people toward the destination. Try it now. Put your finger on the string at the left end and move your finger toward the destination. What happens now? The string crinkles up and resists virtually all movement toward the goal. There is confusion and resistance and the manager ends up crashing into and plowing through the people. Eventually, the manager will reach the goal, but the human and capital price will be high.
Same stuff, different approach
Both the leader and manager are using action, word, and sheer will, but not in the same way. People will follow a leader who goes ahead of them as the tip of the spear, facing the dangers and risks first, and blazing the trail. People will not follow a manager who pushes from behind, showing little concern for those at the tip of the spear.
As I stated earlier, both managers and leaders are necessary for the good of the group. However, I contend that based on their way of achieving goals, leaders should be in charge of people and managers should be in charge of things. A thing, not having free will, cannot resist or resent a manager’s effort to push it into compliance. A person, having free will and looking for the safest and truest path to a destination, will follow a leader willing to lay down their life for them.