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Management or leadership?

In 1957, Sir William Slim, an Australian general, gave a lecture about leadership to a mixed public in South Australia. Between 1939 and 1955, Australia had been industrialized very quickly. In order to establish a well-balanced economy, this pace had to be kept up for a while, down under. In his speech, he compared the army with corporate life. Many elements of this speech are still relevant nowadays.

Sir Slim philosophized about the difference between leadership and management. According to him, leadership is one of the oldest, most natural and most effective human relations. Leadership combines vision and personality. Leadership is art. Management, on the other hand, is more intellectual. Management implies calculations, statistics and methods. It helps introducing routine in an organization. Management is rather science.

What is leadership? According to Slim, leadership reflects personality. It is the combination of conviction, persuasion and model behavior, resulting in the fact that others do what you want them to do. A leader’s personality is a mix of several qualities: courage, will power, knowledge, judgment capacity and a flexible mind.

Courage is the basis for leadership. A leader’s most important task is taking decisions. However, if (s)he isn’t able to take the right decisions, in spite of his/her huge will power, his/her decisions can have tragic consequences. In the past 15 years, I can recall tens of situations in which I had the final responsibility, but only disposed of a restricted amount of information, while I had to take a decision in order to progress. “Sometimes, a wrong decision is even better than no decision at all”, I told my teams in such situations. Of course, I have also been hesitating, but hesitating can be good, especially when you receive contradictory advice, internally as well as externally. Afterwards, some of those decisions turned out to be wrong, but generally, I took the right ones. Moreover, in the course of time, you can rely on your experience in order to judge situations more quickly. However, you can only really evaluate the impact of some decisions after a few years.

Sir Slim continued his speech by stating that although a person can dispose of all leader qualities, (s)he will never be successful without integrity. Integrity is the combination of treating everyone equally and acting unselfishly; considering the interests of the people you are leading before considering yours. Real leaders can only be identified in difficult situations. “Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm”, Klaus Jacobs, our late major shareholder once said in this context. But what to do when the weather changes and the sea becomes rough? How do you tackle such a situation? Can you still rely on your people under these circumstances? They will only follow you if they think you’re honest and you care about them.

These are the values of true leadership; not your stars, stripes or company car. It is surprising to see how many of these elements from a speech of more than 50 years ago, are still relevant nowadays. The amount of information has been multiplied, but the essence hasn’t really changed actually.

Leadership and management are different concepts although they are often being confused. And, as Sir Slim already told his South Australian public in the fifties: "Managers are necessary, but leaders are essential."


By Paul Donkers

"my purpose is to help improve strategy execution, to create high performing teams and coach for effective business leaders"

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