Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Macrovisions and micromanagement

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Much has been written about leadershipmanagement and the difference between them.   The former is associated with creating a shared vision and strategy for the future whereas the latter has administrative and bureaucratic connotations. Most organisations  celebrate leadership but consider management to be little more than an operational necessity.

In view of the exaggerated rhetoric regarding leadership it is of interest to ask how it is actually practiced on the ground.  This question was investigated by Mats Alvesson and Sven Sveningsson in a brilliant paper entitled, Good Visions, Bad Micro-management and Ugly Ambiguity: Contradictions of (Non-) Leadership in a Knowledge-Intensive Organization.  In this post I elaborate on one of their key conclusions:  that there is a gap between  the espoused view of leadership and its practice.

Leadership in theory

The emphasis on leadership in management theory  has lead to the widely accepted notion that leaders matter and that their actions can affect organizational performance and effect change in a positive way. Moreover it is also assumed that it is straightforward to identify leadership qualities in people as these manifest themselves through a set of well-defined behaviours and attitudes. In other words, leadership is a stable and robust concept. The main aim of the authors was to find out how well this theoretical conception of leadership holds up in the real world.

The case study and research methodology

The authors conducted a detailed study of how managers in a knowledge-intensive organisation viewed and practiced leadership.  The study consisted of extensive, multiple interviews with managers at different levels in the company (from the CEO to project managers) supplemented by observations made at management meetings.  Two rounds of interviews were conducted. In the first round, the authors asked the interviewees what their jobs entailed. Most responses centered on vision, leadership and strategy.  However, when asked to elaborate on their responses, most managers described their day-to-day work in terms of administrative and bureaucratic managerial procedures. This pointed to a gap between espoused leadership and how it is actually practiced. In the second round of interviews, the authors attempted to gain some insights into the reasons for the gap.

Macrovisions: the espoused view of leadership

The authors observed that when asked questions about their jobs, most managers spoke of leadership and how they practiced it. Big picture topics such as vision and strategy – what I call macrovisions –  were recurrent themes in their responses . Most managers claimed that their job was to articulate such macrovisions while leaving the details of day-to-day operations to their subordinates.  As examples, consider the following responses from interviewees:

A strongly knowledge intensive work as ours build on independent and active employees who has (sic)  the ability to take their own initiative.

This is consistent with modern themes of worker autonomy in decision, particularly in knowledge-intensive organisations such as information or biotechnology.  Reinforcing this, another manager said:

 I try not to interfere too much in operations. That would be wrong in every way, no one would benefit from that, but I am available if anyone has an operative question, otherwise it’s more me trying to make myself unavoidable in strategic issues but avoidable in operational issues.

Yet another manager spoke of macrovisions in the following way:

And if you provide the big picture, if there is a sense that these [minor decisions] are in the context of the wider strategy and it is not just, bang, bang [shooting with finger from the hip] we shoot this one and now we shoot that one, and now we gallop off in some other direction; if it fits a bigger picture, then I think we can manage. But that is where leadership comes in I think, we need to provide that context and the picture and the overall direction, to say “we are not here in the middle and you cannot [be allowed to] ride off in just any direction.

Macrovisions thus appeared to provide a broad framework within which employees had the freedom to make decisions that were broadly consistent with the organisation’s strategy.

Again, it is important to emphasise that managers were not specifically asked about visions, strategy or leadership, yet their responses invariably alluded to these themes.  The responses suggest that most managers in the company viewed leadership rather than management as their primary role.

This was consistent with the overall management vision set by senior executives.  As the authors put it:

The expectations formulated by higher-level senior managers and made explicit by the CEO on various occasions, is that managers should refrain from detailed management

Indeed, some managers spoke of managing details in derogatory terms. Consider the following response:

Requesting detail which is of no value to your personal job or position, and that can be detail about a specific office, budget thing through to really me going down to the project level and saying, “Well, how are we doing on that project and I really want to know”, so it is about the ability not to do that, and delegate and trust the people.

In short:  most managers felt that their work involved articulating and implementing macrovisions rather than practising micromanagement.

Micromanagement: the practice of “leadership”

A natural question arising from the above is: how did managers actually practice leadership? What are the things they did in their day-to-day work that exemplified leadership?

To answer this question, interviewees were asked what they did in their day-to-day work.  Strangely, most managers reverted to themes they had described in uncomplimentary terms. For example, when asked to elaborate on how he practiced leadership, one manager said:

There are many different ways of working. I think that as a manager here one has to implement significantly more directive ways of handling people, that is, that you say to people that you will spend the next month occupying yourself with this development, I want you to learn about this. I think that you have to have a much more directive way of handling of people in these operations.

This was not an isolated case;  another manager said:

I do get involved from a technical viewpoint, I expect, obviously my knowledge is still developing here, but I expect to understand quite consciously what the group is doing.

Yet another manager, when asked about the leadership tools that he used, referred to things such as budgets, recruitment etc. – things that are usually concerned bureaucratic, administrative procedures. There was little if any reference to activities that one might associate with leadership.

There is thus a clear gap between what the managers professed to practice and what they actually practiced. In the authors’ words:

…the responses brought forth aspects of managerial activities obviously quite far removed from most understandings of leadership in contemporary management literature and also from the more ‘grandiose’ ideas on the subject that they also claim to believe in and base their work on. Managers therefore talk of themselves as leaders without doing much that clearly and strongly refers to ‘leadership activities’. The case study exhibits the contrary: the activities of managers are more closely related to what is understood as micro-management…

Indeed this view was confirmed when the authors spoke with lower level managers. A project manager said:

Perhaps there’s a dialogue about that (leadership) that doesn’t really percolate down to those in production and it tends to become reactive. And micro-management, there’s a will to know too much in detail, when perhaps they should really be working with empowerment, that people are able to take responsibility, to send responsibility for the budget to me and have faith that I take responsibility for my colleagues, and all the positive talk such as “we are going to be the company of choice”, how are we going to realize all that, there’s too much administrative detail going through my superior.

…so much for all the talk of leadership.

The rhetoric and reality of leadership

From the above it is clear that we have a paradoxical situation:  managers believed they were being leaders when they are actually weren’t leading at all. The question is: why did this happen?

The authors offer a number of speculations for this, which I briefly outline below.

Firstly, leadership qualities are generally seen as desirable. Management literature and education tends to place leadership at the pinnacle of managerial practice. Consequently, there is considerable pressure on managers at the middle and senior levels to display these qualities.

Secondly, there is the issue of identity; how managers see themselves. Like those described in the case study, most managers would like to view what they do as leadership rather than “mere” management or administration. As a result, they may unconsciously describe what they do in the flattering language of leadership rather than the mundane terms of management.  However, as the authors stated in the paper, “Leadership talk and fantasies seem to leave a thin spray of grandiosity on the ‘leaders’” Clearly,  this may be of more use in bolstering managerial self-esteem than anything else.

Thirdly, managers often have to deal with conflicting agendas and requirements. In the case study managers were expected to display leader-like behaviour. However, at the same time, they were held responsible for specific and very tangible results. To deliver on the latter, they often felt they had to keep track of the details of what their teams were doing and step in when things were going wrong. There was a continual pressure to get involved in detail while maintaining the illusion of being leaders.

Another point that the authors do not mention explicitly is that middle and frontline managers are often expected to lead without being given the autonomy to do so.

It is likely that some or all of the above factors lead to a divergence between the rhetoric and reality of leadership.


The central message of the paper is that the concept of leadership is an idealization that is often compromised in practice.  Most people who work in organisations will not find this surprising: managers are generally  aware that their day-to-day work has little in common with the  rarefied notions of leadership promoted by management schools, while  others are likely to have worked with  micromanagers  who are masquerading as macrovisionaries.

Written by K

October 20, 2011 at 7:35 am

8 Responses

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  1. I wonder why “management” is such a devalued concept. As a “manager” I also do as a matter of routine, what your article says are “leadership” practices. I “delegate”, “empower” and “strategize”. I also wade into the nitty gritty to rescue a project from the clutches of organizational grid lock when asked for, using the networking available to someone with 25 years in the same company. I work in the company’s product development centre where technical knowledge/ skills are highly valued and managerial skills less so. Leadership traits are considered rare but from my experience so are good managers


    ravin kurian

    October 22, 2011 at 2:53 am

  2. Ravin,

    Thanks for your comment. You are right that good managers are rare, and I would hazard a guess that many of them – like you – are also likely to display leadership when it is needed. The paper I have outlined above focuses on the reasons why some (many?) managers who claim to be leaders end up micromanaging while deluding themselves that they are leading. As discussed the fault often lies not with them but with the environments they work in and the contradictory expectations that their managers have of them.

    That said, there are also those who are just plain bad managers and leaders.





    October 22, 2011 at 4:49 am

  3. Some wise person once observed that when amateur generals get together to talk shop, they discuss strategy & tactics, but when professional generals get together to talk shop, they discuss doctrine and logistics. It sounds like the authors of the study are thinking in terms of strategy (leadership) and tactics (management) while their subjects are working in terms of doctrine (corporate goals) and logistics (assuring that all actions by staff members advance towards those goals). When you’re working in the wrong paradigm, your methods may seem sound, but the results won’t make sense.



    October 23, 2011 at 2:44 pm

  4. Dean,

    Thanks for your comment.

    The distinction between doctrine and strategy is an interesting one. As I see it, a doctrine is a framework of beliefs or principles that govern how an organisation (be it an army or a corporation) does the things it aims to do whereas a strategy refers to the formulation / planning of high level objectives. Doctrine is akin to corporate philosophy whereas strategy has more to do with where the organisation wants to be. Leadership involves elements of both but is quite distinct from either.

    My reading of the paper is that it is about the gap between the espoused view of leadership and how it is actually practiced on the ground. As regards methodology, the authors asked the same individuals about their views on leadership and how they practiced it – and then noted the contradiction between what they said and what they did. Since the same individuals were involved in both surveys, I’m not sure strategy/tactics vs doctrine/leadership distinction is relevant here.

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking comment!





    October 23, 2011 at 8:45 pm

  5. K, thanks for this post. It encouraged me to grab the source paper, which I plan to read this evening (planning…there’s a ‘mananger’ thing to do!). The world of pop- and not-so-pop business discourse has latched onto ‘leadership’ for, I think, complex sociological reasons, to do in part, I hazard the guess, with the individualistic framing of social action (I mean any activity involving others, such as most work) in the United States: so the ‘heroic’ leader is applauded, although criticised in some literature (I think of Henry Mintzberg’s work, for instance).
    The use of the term to be an exhaustive description of a person in a role, or perhaps a person, in themselves failes to recognise the complexity of social interaction. For instance, my job title says that I’m a ‘director’ but I direct few things. I enter into a vast range of intentional relationship episodes: leading, helping, supporting, administering, managing, and so on, but I wouldn’t call myself in the organisation any of them. My basic job, I think, is to be a provider of enablement. I provide people with contacts, intellectual context, the resources and delivery framework for their activity, a sounding board for ideas, and a source of critical reflection through conversation. Indeed, sometimes the people who report to me ‘lead’, and I follow: I applaud this! The idea of ‘leader’ as a total characterisation, rather than as merely one aspect of a productive/intentional relationship is, I think, largely mythological, and the ‘leader’ as ‘out there’ hero is dangerous. More likely to destroy than advance an organisation.



    October 25, 2011 at 4:09 pm

  6. David,

    Thank you for reading and taking the time to respond. I agree entirely, and love the way you have put it:

    “…My basic job, I think, is to be a provider of enablement. I provide people with contacts, intellectual context, the resources and delivery framework for their activity, a sounding board for ideas, and a source of critical reflection through conversation. Indeed, sometimes the people who report to me ‘lead’, and I follow: I applaud this! ”

    This is a brilliant summary of what a person directing/leading/managing a team ought to be doing. I can well imagine some of the challenges and obstacles you face when working this way as there are many who are not sympathetic to such an approach.

    The paper has much more than I have covered in my post. I think you will enjoy it…





    October 25, 2011 at 5:19 pm

  7. […] a post entitled, Macrovisions and Micromanagement, I discussed some of the reasons for the gap between the espoused view of leadership and its actual […]


  8. […] Some will argue that this article merely sets up and tears down a straw man, and that modern managers are well  aware of the pitfalls of a directive approach to leading teams. Granted, much has been written about the importance of setting the right conditions (such as autonomy)…and it is possible that many managers are aware of it too. The point I would make is that this awareness, if it exists at all, has not been translated into action often enough.  As a result, the gap between the rhetoric and reality of leadership remains as wide as ever – managers talk the talk of leadership, but do not walk it. […]


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