Too many years ago, at the start of my career, I had the chance to hear Capt. Grace Hopper speak. Hopper, who invented COBOL, was a computer visionary, and over the past 30 years, I have watched the changes she foresaw come true. There was one topic she covered in her speech that I would like to borrow and season with my own experience.
Hopper said, "Leadership and management are two different things. You lead people, and you manage projects."
Hopper said that in 1973. Its still true, but in 30 years of watching and observing the workings of business and technology, Ive found that expression has become an easy hook on which people hang their dreams and frustrations. Lots of people talk about these subjects, and their common conclusion always seems to be: leadership, good; management, bad.
What is a leader? It is someone who has the vision to see what is possible where others cant. It is someone who inspires others to work together to do more than they could do individually.
Does leadership guarantee success? If you are a leader, is that all youll need? If youre not a leader, will you be able to reach the stars by latching your career to a leader? What would George Armstrong Custer or John DeLorean or their followers have to say?
IT is a unique breeding ground of leaders and managers. Many people are attracted to IT because it offers many chances to be a leader. We all know hotshot IT people who are considered quick and intuitive at their work. Even if they dont have the mantle of supervisor, they are natural leaders, and they drive us crazy. How long did the last "two week" project take, anyway? Six months? How intuitive did users find the last project? Was it even what they wanted?
The area in IT that most naturally attracts leaders is consulting. I had a chance to be a consultant for Nike. The company literally had hundreds of consultants—each considered himself or herself a programming god. The result of letting them all do their thing would have been chaos, had Nike not instituted an ironclad system of management and review. That ensured that the work was coordinated, standardized, documented and, most of all, successful.
Leadership is a talent a few are born with; management is a skill anyone can acquire. Leaders are kids in a toy store who want everything. Managers are parents who say, "No!"
We look down on management because it represents our conscience. Managers count the beans we try to spend. They count the days and remind us that two-week projects dont have 180 days. Managers arent leaders. And managers arent nearly as exciting to work for. But a good manager will prevent a corporate Little Bighorn.
Mike Dawson is a senior SAP analyst with Phifer Wire Products, of Tuscaloosa, Ala. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.