(This is an update to a March 2018 article originally published on Forbes.com.)
The role of leadership in any enterprise is fraught with a number of legitimately urgent distractions — especially in a volatile marketplace. A single projection missed, one team assignment blown, a silver bullet misfired can wind up costing precious resources. In short order, leadership can find itself caught up in the management of commotion.
The challenge is that commotion is a constant. Responding to it is a full time job.
And when reacting to commotion occupies the attention of leaders whose highest calling is to see beyond distraction, it threatens the timely recognition of real disruptions — some of which may shake the foundation of once stable firms.
Dealing with daily commotion should not be mistaken for visionary leadership.
To be clear, the issues that cause commotion can have a measurable impact. So this is not to diminish in any way the task of managing daily operations. This is not an either/or proposition. And one is not better than the other.
But in great organizations, responding to issues related to personnel, processes and systems is the purview of a strong management team. Admittedly, in some organizations — especially small businesses or those possessing an entrepreneurial nature — one or two members or a small team must both manage and lead.
And though they often are, the two roles should not be confused.
The difference is leaders have the ability to see through the commotion that can potentially characterize every day, and recognize the signs of what might disrupt and threaten an organization.
When the response to disrupting factors is born solely in the experiences of daily commotion, the outcome is likely to be less than satisfactory. Organizations that mistake even the most effective daily management for the core responsibility of leadership are likely to miss impending fundamental change until it is too late.
The contemporary marketplace offers vivid examples of the dangers that accompany the absence of leaders who are able to recognize disruption. Consider the consequences inside once stable industries like film (Eastman Kodak), print production (typesetters), home video (Blockbuster) and public transportation (taxi cabs).
Where management is mistaken for leadership, and success has historically been gauged by monitoring daily, monthly or quarterly metrics, there is an increased risk of missing severe disruptions.
For example, within the professional services industry — accounting, consulting and law firms in particular — innovators are reshaping go-to-market realities. Certain services that were once only available via hourly rate or retainer fees are increasingly using technology and infrastructure shifts to redefine the way in which clients determine value.
To be sure, there is comfort in black-and-white benchmarks. Progress or position can seem clear. Value seems easy to define. Established benchmarks provide a necessary roadmap for managers. Reach this point in this amount of time and you’re on track. Miss a benchmark, deviate from the charted course or take too long along the way and something must be awry.
The challenge comes when a reliance on these management tools comes at the expense of or is mistaken for spotting issues no less real, but much less black and white.
In 1962, speaking of the essential nature of a focus on the future when considering a space program and other issues of the day, President John F. Kennedy often quoted the story of the French Marshal Louis Hubert Gonzalve Lyautey. Reportedly, Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a specific tree on his property. The gardener noted that the tree would not reach maturity for 100 years. Lyautey replied, “In that case, there is no time to lose, plant it this afternoon.”
There are no processes or project maps…no org charts or committees…no reading of metric tea leaves that will secure the the future. Great organizations acknowledge this and cultivate leadership that sees beyond daily commotion, looking toward a spot on the horizon that beckons.