Leadership, Management and Ambiguity

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: January 12th 2013

When the topic of leadership versus management comes up, it is always with a bit of disdain for the tasks of management reflected against the more lofty aspirations of leadership. School administrators, when asked, will normally state that they wish they spent more time on leadership and less on management. In a recent workshop, there was again a chance to think about the leadership/management paradigm and the topic of leading in times of ambiguity came into the fray. It was upon further reflection that it occurred to me of a new way to think about leadership and management and it was through the lens of how we tackle times of ambiguity as opposed to times of clarity. Is management what you do when you are faced with a certain task and goal as opposed to leadership which is what is needed when you are less certain of the path and the outcome?

In the past, when thinking of leadership and management, I have always been of the belief that being a good manager is absolutely essential. Management is complicated work that requires excellent organizational and communications skills. Taking care of the myriad of routine tasks required to operate a school is part of the daily task of administration. Handling the management of a school is the very basics of school-based administration. The way in which one generates trust, respect and confidence in leadership in the early days of school-based admin is through how the routine tasks of management are completed. As people within the organization watch how management is undertaken, these tasks develop relationships and inspire confidence in the leadership skills for more difficult and complex tasks that require deep collaboration and skilled navigation. The very way in which these management tasks are undertaken demonstrates leadership capabilities. Co-workers and colleagues need to have confidence that the basics can be done before they are likely to follow you down the path of a difficult process of organizational change. Management is important, complex work but on the spectrum of skills, it doesn’t require the broader skills of challenging leadership.

Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky’s work on adaptive leadership describes adaptive leadership as what needs to occur when an existing skillset will not be sufficient to tackle a task at hand. In the blurry line between management and leadership, adaptive leadership is at the extreme of complexity. Not only may the task be unclear, but it is acknowledged that those who will tackle the task do so knowing that they have yet to develop an adequate skillset to address the issue at hand. When trying to discuss what adaptive leadership was to someone, I suggested that putting in place full day kindergarten in British Columbia was largely a management task. We know what kindergarten looks like, many people had experiences with full day programs and so it was a complicated but doable management task. Leadership of change at the school level played a key role, but we were well able to implement this initiative. If we were to expand now to implementing a full day program for 4 year olds, or 3 year olds, then, in my humble opinion, that moves to an adaptive leadership task. Our educators and schools while skilled people in all regards, lack the experience and skillset to simply launch into implementing such a set of programs. This does not mean that it can’t be done, nor does it mean that the skillsets can’t be gained, it simply means that in our current structures and mindsets, we have never tackled such a task. New learning would have to occur and mindsets would have to shift in the very way in which we envision elementary school if we were to expand to providing programs to 4 and 3 year olds.

This blog entry has simply been to suggest another way to think of the management/leadership paradigm. Perhaps management is what we do when we have complex and multifaceted tasks but largely we know what to do and the outcomes are fairly certain. When faced with complexity that includes ambiguous direction, uncertain outcomes and multiple variables, then the tasks may shift to the leadership paradigm when clearly collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, and effective communication are the only paths through the murky forest of possibilities.

Finally, keeping with the overall philosophy of the blog and the avatar of praxis, leadership and management are Yin-Yang. Every significant management task requires a bit of leadership and every complex leadership task has to be well managed. While there never will be a complete separation, hopefully throwing in the topic of ambiguity and uncertainty has helped to shed a bit of light on the ongoing debate of where management ends and leadership begins.


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