Managing Things or Leading People

by Mike Ayers May 3, 2016

There can be no doubt that Jesus lived, died, and was resurrected with the goal of seeing people transformed. That is the primary way he brought glory to the Father. People—their redemption and transformation—were at the heart of Jesus’s ministry, and despite all the challenges, frustrations, and distractions he faced, his leadership was intently directed toward these outcomes.

Yet, leadership in our day carries with it many potential diversions. Ironically, the subtlest and most detrimental is the drift away from leadership itself. That is to say, if we are not careful, we find ourselves doing many things as leaders—everything, in fact, except leading.

As organizations (churches included) continue to exist over time, bureaucratic and administrative demands become prevalent, and problems must be solved. “Putting out fires” captures the leader’s time and attention. Program needs must be addressed and effective processes put in place. These details are at the heart of good management. Yet often, the important tasks of influencing people in the organization are sacrificed for the urgent tasks of managing it. In time, leaders begin managing things more than leading people. This trend away from people and other leadership priorities is a costly mistake.

The Difference

While every church must be managed well, and an organization’s success will in fact be undermined without good management, management should not take place at the expense of leading. Rather, leaders must assign management its proper place. Unfortunately, many organizations today are over-managed and under-led.

This is true for two primary reasons. First, many people mistakenly equate management with leadership. They haven’t learned the core beliefs and behaviors of leadership that distinguish it from management—with the focus upon people being the highest of those distinctions. Second, it’s actually easier to manage things than to lead people. Creating programs, maintaining processes, establishing policies—none of these things is nearly as messy as the stuff of leadership, which includes modeling character, directing people to fulfill calling, inspiring them with vision, building community, and developing people to their potential.

Management seeks to bring stability and predictability to an organization through administrative systems and regulations. Many people welcome such bureaucracy because it provides a sense of control and consistency and thus reduces anxiety. Leadership, on the other hand, challenges the status quo. It is disruptive in nature because it often provokes change. This may cause tension and ambiguity. Management is mostly a present-tense orientation and asks, “What can be done now to ensure a well-functioning organization?” Leadership has a future orientation: it envisions an ideal future and moves people toward it.

Unlike management, leadership is not concerned about the efficiency of an organization as much as its bottom-line effectiveness. Instead of asking, “How are we doing what we are doing?” (a concern for the way things are done), leadership inherently asks, “Why are we doing what we are doing?” (a concern for the purpose behind the actions). Leadership is focused upon people, with the outcome being their transformation. Management focuses on people too, but it does so from the standpoint of how they function in the organization. Leadership points people toward ministry to people. Management tends to focus people upon processes. Managers can view an organization as a functioning machine. Leaders view it as a living organism. In the words of both Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”[i]

Things (Programs, Processes, Policies People
Efficiency Effectiveness
Maintenance Mission
Control Empowerment
Stability Change
Human Resources Human Transformation                      
Asks: How? Asks: Why?

Despite the marked differences between them, management and leadership are not mutually exclusive. To be a good leader, one must manage some; and to be a good manager, one must be capable of leading to some degree.

When taken to their extremes, however, it is easy to see how management may rob a leader from actually leading—that is, management tends to defy leadership. Therefore, with all due respect to managers, leaders must be the ones who actually direct an organization and ultimately decide its priorities. If not, the proverbial tail will wag the proverbial dog. The way things are done becomes more important than the why of doing them. Leaders point people and resources toward what moves the organization forward to achieve mission, not necessarily toward what maintains it as it currently exists.

Organizations without leadership experience a subtle spiral of slow death. Bureaucracies feed upon themselves, growing more encroaching and entrenched. Policies tend to over-police (notice the similarity in words), and there are never enough processes in place to satisfy those who must have control. Sadly, the energies and attention that should focus people toward growth and advancement are spent instead on matters of management. In the end, we may have the tidiest, most well-managed ship at the bottom of the sea.

What did Jesus Choose?

This battle between doing things right and doing right things was at the heart of Jesus’s ministry—and most of the time, the choice between the two involved the core priority of people. The Pharisees repeatedly ridiculed Jesus’s behavior because, while he did what was right, he often didn’t do things the right way from their perspective. For example, rather than protect his religious reputation, Jesus was criticized for being close to “tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19). He was judged for healing on the Sabbath (doing right things) rather than ignoring a man in need due to religious rule keeping (doing things right) (Mark 3:1–6). Jesus, of course, knew that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). Today we might say, “Management was made for leadership, not leadership for management.”

Additionally, instead of being obsessed with every minute oral law that reflected man-made traditions, Jesus focused upon the larger matter of reflecting God’s heart (Mark 7:1–13). Jesus broke almost every code of proper conduct in order to ensure that he did the right thing. He held the law in proper perspective and thus kept the law in its proper place.

Looking closely at his choices, in most instances, we can see that doing the right thing revolved around the core subject of people and ministry toward them.

People are of immense value to God, more important than anything numeric, programmatic, managerial, or material, and our leadership should have the development and transformation of people as its object. It is for people that Jesus died. It is for people (not things) that we lead.

[i] As cited in Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Deluxe Edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013. 108.