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The past few days I’ve been reading Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done by Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan. It’s an excellent read, but one point that I found especially poignant was the concept that intimate involvement with the day-to-day operations of a business is an integral component of great leadership. There’s this nugget (emphasis mine):

But there’s an enormous difference between leading an organization and presiding over it. The leader who boasts of her hands-off style or puts her faith in empowerment is not dealing with the issues of the day. She is not confronting the people responsible for poor performance, or searching for problems to solve and then making sure they get solved. She is presiding, and she’s only doing half her job.

and this one (again emphasis mine):

Jack Welch, Sam Walton, and Herb Kelleher …Leaders of this ilk are powerful and influential presences because they are their businesses. They are intimately and intensely involved with their people and operations. They connect because they know the realities and talk about them. They’re knowledgeable about the details. They’re excited about what they’re doing. They’re passionate about getting results. This is not “inspiration” through exhortation or speechmaking. These leaders energize everyone by the example they set.

…As someone who often relishes / takes pride in being a “hands-off” manager more focused on keeping talent engaged and giving them the tools they need (as opposed to managing the details), the idea that day-to-day operations detail orientation is a table stakes attribute stung a bit.

But upon further reflection, I realized that a really key component of strong people management is demonstrated competence. An inspirational leader can (probably) effectively manage people without competence in exceptional circumstances, but only when their team is made up of subject matter experts. In such cases a leader may be able to play a less significant role in operations… but even then only for a time. In today’s economic environment, businesses must constantly adapt or die, which requires the discipline to routinely execute new strategies to accomplish ever changing business objectives. Such a level of detail requires a significant understanding of not only one’s people, but also the jobs that they do to drive business results.

With that said, there is a fine line between driving operational excellence through attention to detail and falling into the trap of micromanagement. Bossidy and Charan give some excellent tips in their book on how to thread that needle, but it is nonetheless difficult.

What do you think? Does a good leader have to drive execution? Or can they effectively generate excellent business results strictly through focusing on strategy?

As always, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.