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April 2016
Dean Andy Boynton

Leading with ideas



By Andy Boynton, John and Linda Powers Family Dean


Warren Bennis, one of the pioneers of contemporary leadership studies, was fond of saying, “The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.” It’s a distinction that speaks volumes to me as the dean of a management school at a prominent liberal arts university.

People like me are usually referred to as “administrators,” essentially managers, and Bennis himself was technically part of our tribe. He served for a while as president of the University of Cincinnati after teaching organizational studies at MIT during the 1960s. But I don’t think Bennis, who died in 2014, would have cheerfully accepted the label of “administrator” or “manager.” Neither would I.

Bennis once wrote out a list of 12 differences between managers and leaders. For the most part, the items in that collection (which include the above quote) do not flatter managers. Among those points: “The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust…. The manager is a copy; the leader is an original…. The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.”

I would put a finer point on the matter. Managing and administering are critical tasks—without them, we wouldn’t execute our best ideas and carry out essential functions. Still, Bennis is right. In the final analysis, I need to be a leader, not simply a manager or administrator. I need to not just do things right—which is about execution. I have to also do the right things, which means finding better ways to forge ahead with our mission at the Carroll School of Management.

As Bennis also said, “The manager administers; the leader innovates.” How true. Without leadership, there’s no agenda for change and improvement. There’s no vision.

Simply put: What does a great leader do? I’ve assembled a list of 10 things that make a leader something more than a manager or administrator. These reflect my experiences of leadership over the past 10 years as Carroll School dean, in addition to the 20-plus years from my perch as a strategy professor working with leaders at IMD in Switzerland, the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School of Business, and the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business.

Leaders stake out a clear vision. It’s simply impossible for organizations to do great things if they have no clear expectations of the future. Without a vision, people lurch in different directions. They run in circles. The result is a waste of time, money, and brainpower. Visions focus minds, hearts, and energy. At the Carroll School, we have a three-part vision: 1) for our faculty to ever excel in both teaching and research; 2) for our undergraduate program to be the best anywhere; and 3) for our graduate programs to become increasingly competitive.

Leaders are superb architects. They design organizations that create the space for talent to soar. At a minimum, leaders remove all of the roadblocks that people must work around to do their jobs. The obstacles could be inadequate information, conflicting goals, mixed signals from the top, or confusing reporting relationships. They could be any organizational disconnect that saps energy and stifles talent critical to an organization’s success.

Leaders call for leadership from every seat. They make it clear that everyone should step up and find their spots as leaders, regardless of rank, title, or position. This is especially true when it comes to generating ideas. In organizations that innovate, people have to raise their hands and say “I have an idea” about how to do something better. Then they have to pitch in to make it a reality. If everyone is leading with ideas, you’ll get a lot of ideas in an organization. And you’ll need a lot to come up with a few great ideas.

Leaders get out of the way. Organizations spend loads of money hiring great talent—and then its leaders often get in the way. I say: Put the vision in their heads and hearts—and get out of the way of your talented people. Once they buy into that vision of what you’re trying to achieve, they need to fill the space with their own energy and brainpower.

Leaders promote an idea-intensive culture—and they do so by example. In other words, they are themselves idea hunters. Leaders forge conversations on various topics with people in diverse fields and specialties far beyond their own. They go outside their organizations. They look for new ideas in offbeat places—that’s how they avoid the plague of “me too” ideas. Leaders also test out their ideas, in part by seeking honest feedback from those around them. They let ideas develop and morph in different directions.

Leaders encourage dissent from every quarter. People should have no hesitation to say “Wait a minute, I disagree” or “Stop! This isn’t a good thing.” Without that kind of pushback, the commitment to bad ideas escalates in an organization. A senior leader has to not only tolerate such disagreement and dissent. He or she must find ways to reward the dissenters.

Leaders experiment. We simply don’t know the right answers in advance of an innovation process. So every step of the way, we need to experiment with our ideas. At the Carroll School, we’ve piloted courses and programs through multiple phases, leading to such innovations as the interdisciplinary Portico class for all entering freshmen and the Summer Catalyst program for nonmanagement, liberal arts majors. That’s just part of the experimentation, a way of life at the School.

Leaders listen—and they learn from the people they lead. They’re intensely interested in what their people know. I often ask groups of executives, “How many of you manage or lead people who know more than you do about the technical or core elements of the work your firm does?” Typically, about 90 percent of the hands go up. I drive home the point by saying, “The best ideas are often in their heads, not yours.”

Leaders are ambassadors. As a dean, I’m constantly aware of the fact that I serve as an ambassador to constituencies ranging from our own students and others in the broader University to alumni and various business communities. A leader at almost any company is no less an ambassador. He or she must often relate not only to other units of the firm but also to shareholders, regulatory agencies, sustainability advocates, and many others. The leader is a visible face of the enterprise; stakeholder relationships are pivotal to organizational success.

Leadership is about choice—and flawless execution. This gets back to my refinement of Bennis’s argument. He drew a sharp contrast between the leader (who chooses ideas and initiatives) and the manager (who executes them). In fact, great leading and great managing go hand in hand. Leaders do both; they innovate and execute. What’s the point of having an idea if you don’t have the execution?

I’m sure the readers of Carroll Capital have their own leadership dos (and don’ts). I’d love to hear them and any other ideas you may have. E-mails to me are always welcome and appreciated.


Another version of this article is available at