Doing the right thing…seems like a basic principle that most people should follow doesn’t it?

One of my favorite things to write about is the topic of leadership, and one of my favorite business theorists is Peter Drucker. Peter authored more than 35 books during his lifetime and is considered by many to be the founding father of the study of management practices. In this blog post, I will breakdown one of my favorite “Druckerisms” which states that: “managers do things right, while leaders do the right things.” At first glance, this statement might not seem to be all that insightful, but I believe it is a very powerful observation that highlights the difference in philosophies between most managers and leaders.

Let me begin by stating that I take a lot of heat for pointing out the differences between leaders and managers. While they can be one and the same from a skill and talent perspective (managers can be leaders, and leaders can be managers), because they will typically have different functional responsibilities, this rarely ends up being the case. Doing things right is a trait that causes many managers to be focused on security, which is often underpinned by fear-based motivations. Doing things right will drive managers toward a position of being safe and politically correct in their approach to business. It is this fear-based motivation that causes managers to protect turf as opposed to gain ground, to control as opposed to inspiring, and to refine as opposed to creating. Doing things right leads to comfort zone management that completely inhibits the ability to innovate.

By way of contrast Doing the right things is a trait that causes leaders to be guided by their instincts, principles, values, and desire to achieve. Leaders motivated by doing the right things are not risk-averse, rarely politically correct, and they thrive on shaking things up. It is a leader’s ability to do the right things that innovate, motivate, create and inspire. Doing the right thing is oftentimes controversial, but true leaders are not daunted by the thought of conflict, as are most managers. Leaders guided by doing the right thing are willing to step up and make the big decisions that open markets, exploit opportunities, and drive innovation.

If you’re not sure whether you are doing things right or doing the right things take yourself through the following personal assessment:

  1. When was the last time you witnessed something that you didn’t agree with but kept quiet on the issue to protect yourself rather than voicing your concern in order to protect the enterprise?
  2. When was the last time you rocked the boat by design? Rocking the boat by default or by mistake doesn’t count.
  3. When was the last time you drove innovation? Hint: purchasing a new software application is not innovation.
  4. If a survey was taken of your peers and subordinates, would they refer to you as a leader who inspires, motivates and mentors, or a manager who exercises authority and control?

It is important to realize that everyone has fears. Ask anyone who has ever been in combat and they’ll tell you that it is being in touch with their innate sense of fear that kept them alive. However as important as it is to be aware of your fears, as a leader you cannot allow yourself to be ruled by them. Don’t “just do it”, rather just “do the right thing” and watch your successes multiply.