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How I Use Family Systems To Teach Managers v. Leaders

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Whenever I teach Family Systems Theory to management students, I begin my talks with a simple question, “What is a manager?”

If you just suffered a wave of nausea, felt an urgent desire to break something, or experienced an urge to uncontrollably curse, then you know why I like to begin my lectures with such a loaded question.

In the internet of memes, you’re either a manager (pathetic, despicable, unworthy) or a leader (awe-inspiringly awesome).

If you’ve ever been a manager (I have been one) or worked with one (you probably have), you know that the real world experience of managers and management is neither clean nor black and white. More to the point – leadership, like so many things, is in the eye of the beholder. Memes and tropes are fun diversions, but they are useless when it comes to the daily grind of succeeding in the workplace.

A Manager is an employee of a company empowered with resources – human and capital – towards the completion of a goal.

For me, this simple, purpose-oriented definition helps separate what a manager is tasked with doing – completing a goal – from whom I would like them to be – inspiring me as a leader. This is why I ask the question. You see, in my experience, the manager’s job is to get the job done. It is their job to marshall me as a resource in making that happen. By contrast, being a “leader” is not part of the definition simply because my beliefs about what they must do to be a leader to me are entirely beyond their control. 

Therein lies the reason the binary manager-leader paradigm / fantasy fails. When it comes to leadership, it doesn’t matter what kind of leader I think I am. What matters is what type of leader others think I am. Which, I can tell you from personal experience, can be both widely varied and, like some parent-child relationships, incredibly volatile.

I’ve been screamed-at by people who believe I’m an incompetent a–hole. I’ve been complimented by people who (claim they) love working under (and being mentored by) me. Both are true. But is one truer than the other? 

The Car Accident is a thought-exercise I like to play with students, one you might consider trying out at the water cooler with your co-workers or employees. Here’s the scenario: Imagine you’re still in college (I know, that’s a long time ago for some of us). It’s Saturday, 2am. You’re in a minor car accident and (only) your car is damaged. No one is hurt and you have not been drinking, etc (so nothing illegal to worry about). Do you call your parents and tell them right then at 2am? Do you tell them the next day or sometime? Do you never tell them? 

I love this game. How a person defines the problem of the car accident, and the way they socialize the scenario within their family system, helps them to begin to understand how they fit within their ‘organization’. Consider this – one person might call and wake their parent at 2am because they’re afraid, another might do the same because they want to be comforted. The action may be the same, but its their relationship with the person who has authority over them that dictates why they take the action in the first place. 

What the individual looks for (and gets/doesn’t get) from those who have been empowered towards the goal of raising them enables a deeper understanding of the managers they were raised by.

Which is why, in the workplace, clarifying what a manager is/isn’t matters. As with your parents, you are stuck with the manager you’ve got (unless you plan to quit your job, of course). Maybe they’re a loving and supportive and nurturing parent (A Leader!). Maybe, to quote Woody Allen in Manhattan (when talking about his mother), “they’re a castrating Zionist” (Not A Leader!). Maybe they’re somewhere in-between.

Regardless, the more you can let go of the manager-leader meme, and figure out how to live with the (work) “family” you’ve got, the more successful you’ll be. And, hey, if your manager happens to have the ability to lead along the way, well that’s just bonus.

Agree? Disagree? Have a different definition of Manager? What would you do in the car accident? Hey, that’s what the comments are for!

 
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