Leadership Reflections Part 3 – Leadership Management and Supervision

Leadership descriptions and configurations of the roles of leadership, management and supervision vary widely.  I have come to the conclusion that there can never be a final answer because no one can understand and implement their understanding in their lifetime.  What we can do is accept that there are many fine people who would lead us to gain for ourselves a better understanding of the issues and we can act on this understanding in whatever role we have.

I had a twitter dialogue 08/15/09 with Scott Derrick http://twitter.com/kscottderrick about the distinction between these words/roles.  This is my response.

A critical consideration of our understanding the interplay of these three roles is to have a sense of how change happens in organizations.  This means more than how the organization’s leadership thinks they want things to change, it is related to how change really happens.

Change can be generated from the top down or from the bottom up or from the outside, or from unidentified sources.  How the people in an organization fair under these variable conditions, most of which are always active, shapes how the change occurs and if it lasts.   A wise manager, acting in the leadership role, would do well to listen to the internal constituencies in the organization and let them influence, or even shape, what changes and what gets preserved.

My contention is that anyone in an organization can be a leader and that people vested with titles and roles must be leaders.

My contention is that everyone in organizations has to manage their own activities to fulfill their own role.  A thoughtful person will understand that everyone around them, especially those above them are managing larger configurations of people and resources. A person who has the role of director or manager (especially in government or non-profits) has to have the mind set, leadership abilities, and business savvy to pull together more things than everybody else.  They have to manage, but they don’t do it alone.

My contention about supervision is that the activity of supervising someone else includes both guiding them in their tasks and managing the environment so that the person being supervised has what they need to be successful.  I remember reading somewhere that Deming said that 85% of all the problems in a system are created by the system rather than the people who work in the system (Dobyns & Crawford-Mason Thinking About Quality, 1994).  The supervisor acts through other people (up and down) to assure that other people succeed.

Consider what these three terms have in common.  All three rely on the ability to influence the behavior of others so the goals of the organization are achieved.  Leaving aside the fact that many government entities may have multiple and even conflicting goals, we can say that leadership, management, and supervision are successful if by their action the goals are achieved over the long term.  What enables people to do their job is a configuration of internal motivation (values, pay, goals, strengths) and external factors delivered via the organization as manifested by directors, managers, and supervisors (as well as peers).

I am most familiar with government and non-profit organizations.  Leadership and management in these bureaucracies is fraught with complexity (oh, but aren’t they all?).  The complexity can be adequately demonstrated simply by listing the numerous constituencies. Consider Child Welfare Services in the United States, it is governed by:

  • Federal law
  • Federal Policy and several different federal departments’ expectations
  • State statutes required by federal law
  • State statutes
  • County law, rules, policy
  • Court precedent & practices in Dependency
  • Court factors related to criminal, family law, & probate guardianship law
  • Social Work Values and ethics
  • County department policies, procedures, guidelines and informal practices
  • State and local demographic and economic factors
  • The local human services delivery system of state county and non-profit providers
  • History, research, and attitudes concerning child abuse and neglect
  • The elements that go into abuse and neglect, and
  • The children and families who are served.

A good manager, supervisor, leader or worker has learned how to work successfully in this environment.

No single person stays in such a complex system for long before they realize that this is a cooperative venture.  In fact, how people progress up as workers, supervisors, managers and directors is very closely related to their ability to cooperate and navigate and facilitate other people’s progress, and hence the organization’s goals.

Managers don’t manage by themselves.  For example, managers are expected to lie out and approve the framework of activities but they rely on others to actually plan the specifics of activities both before and after they set the framework.

Managers are ultimately responsible for bringing together resources and setting priority for using resources, but the ongoing use, diminishment, and replenishment of resources is achieved by many people at all levels of the organization.  Good managers know how to integrate these things, especially as all of this relates to inherent ambiguity (prediction, probability, data, life, etc.)

Directors (as managers) and managers are expected to act as supervisors of the Supervisors, who in turn supervise others.  One of the better pieces of advise my brother-in-law gave me was that the only job harder than being a supervisor is to have to supervise supervisors.

Managers are nominally responsible for controlling costs and quality; however, they achieve this by having other people organize the monitoring of costs and carrying out decisions (which are often group decisions).   In modern times (and probably olden times) we’ve seen that managers aren’t particularly successful at controlling costs sometimes.  As to quality, managers do have a primary role in assuring quality, and they do this by helping create a culture of quality, or fostering a culture if it already exists.  Many others have written far more eloquently than I about this.  A key observation I would make, however, is that you, the reader, know what quality is in what you do, so you can achieve it if you act like a leader.

Leaders can have titles and roles.  Leaders can also have integrity and skills which generates influence without a high title.  For the past year or so I participated in a work group in our county entitled Leadership Enhancement and Development (LEAD).  It started out in the context of succession planning and evolved into several components designed to nurture our staff to be ready to promote, but also to act as leaders in their present roles.  The significant thing about this as a leadership task is that our organization’s executive committee delegated to a group of middle managers and supervisors the task of developing the program to assure we will have better leaders in the future.  This seems one simple example of how leadership is both title and action based.

If you carefully read the list of goals we developed below you’ll recognize that most of the goals could be understood as fostering leading, managing, and/or supervising.

Goals for Leadership Development

*        Grow people to move up in organization

*        Preparing people to advance

*        Exposure to “next” job

*        Expose employees to career path management

*        Help people to move to positions they are suited for which are challenging and stimulating

*        Help employees self assess

*        Help employees set goals

*        Career awareness

*        Increase political savvy

*        Be in synch with Human Resources – take advantage of what they are offering (in positions and training)

*        Develop an internal talent pool to fill jobs – multiple candidates

*        Create culture of mentoring – not just top – down – atmosphere of learning

*        Retain staff – attract staff

*        Increase understanding of Department mission and their role

*        Supports our guiding principles – employee satisfaction leads to others

*        Increase manager knowledge of employees goals and interests

*        Talk to employees before interviews

*        Better promotional interviews by candidates

The role of the supervisor is always two fold; we must achieve the mission and build the capacity of the supervisee to achieve the mission in their role.  I’ve added a Part 4 blog post to cover some of my older thoughts, which haven’t changed much, however there are some summary points:

  • Remember, a supervisor is a teacher.
  • A supervisor needs to be very discreet and hold confidences.
  • A supervisor needs to use their own supervisor as a guide, mentor and advisor.
  • A person promoted to supervisor still keeps their friends, but the relationship has changed.
  • In most workplaces the good will and mutual respect are there between line staff and supervisors.  Some people try to test you though.
  • A supervisor focuses on outcomes and people.


Other factors which bear more discussion and perhaps guidance from people in the know include how to lead, manage and supervise when you are multiple steps removed from the actual client, such as state and federal participants, regulators, etc.    I also reference, how change happens, but this too is a topic for another day.

Post script:

Three of the well known names who have great perspectives include Warren Bennis and Jim Collins and John Kotter.

Bennis with Burt Nanus gave me some early perspectives in Leaders, The Strategies for Taking Charge (1985).  The many further works of Warren Bennis hold a depth of knowledge.  Jim Collins definition of Level Five Leaders in Good to Great (2001) defines success in financial terms.  In brief, Level 5 leaders have a type of drive and discipline overlaid with personal humility – It’s about the goal, not about the individual leader. I have met many leaders who gravitated to government and private non-profit roles who truly exemplify this definition.  Kotter in Leading Change (1996) offers an extremely useful framework for leadership and change management.

There are many more fine folks thinking about this.  I hope this part 3 was useful.

Coming soon – Some leading web sites, think tanks and blogs to pay attention to if you want to be a leader.

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