Human Machines: Your Organization is Under-led and Over-managed

HUMAN MACHINES AND The distinction between management and leadership

Applying integrated leadership and organization studies through a psychoanalytical perspective, specifically Freudian ego psychology, Zaleznik (1992) determined derived their influence from talents as opposed to competencies. For Zaleznik the leader’s abilities in  inspiration, vision, and human passion were far more essential than traditional views of management which were rooted an organization’s processes and structures (Zaleznik, 1992). In other words, Zaleznik argues that a leader is not solely (or even primarily) concerned with control and power, pointing to a ordered and structured viewpoint, and instead, is able to move within chaos in order to be more dynamic and address issues in terms of the big picture. We can see a certain reflection of the Freudian eros and thanatos drives, or even right brain vs. left brain thinking. In either description, logic and stability are the modes of a manager, where creativity, imagination and innovation are the modes of a leader (Zaleznik, 1992).

Skills and competencies are developed through training and practice. Abilities, knowledge and commitments are cultivated from inborn personality traits (or are extensions/expressions of those traits). For Zaleznik, the leader requires an environment which fosters creativity and imagination in order to fully develop visions, innovations, and holistic approaches. Whereas the manager is strategic, focusing on the linear procedures and measurable outcomes (Zaleznik, 1992).

Kotter (2001) seems to confirm Zaleznik’s distinction between management and leadership, in his response to Zaleznik’s works. Kotter (2001) defines management as the process and the role of those who are concerned with budgeting, planning, organizing, coordinating, directing, and oversight. This includes subsets such as decision making, conflict resolution, communication, facilitation, goal-setting and staffing (Kotter, 2001). Management is thus product-orientated; its success is measured in the outcome. Leadership is the converse and is about the process. Leaders have vision, create buy-in for that vision, produce useful change opportunities, empower teams, and perhaps most importantly, leaders move an organization into the future through innovation and imagination (Kotter, 2001).

Effective leadership

Here Kotter reiterates the functions of leaders and managers as expressed by Zaleznik. The manager’s authority is hierarchical and rule-based. The leader’s authority is charismatic and inspires followers by engaging their insights, their abilities, and their talents (Zaleznik, 1992). Kotter agrees that the two roles are distinct, but he is critical of both the hierarchical assumption and the inborn charismatic trait. First he argues that leadership need not be at the top of an organization but woven throughout the fabric of that organization. And second, he takes issue with the idea of a charismatic leadership because it implies that only a select, special few can be leaders – those that are charismatic (Kotter, 2001).

Application in the 21st century

Kotter expresses the need of both managers and leaders. The leaders create vision and innovation, while the managers create stability and implement processes to reach visions. Yet, he is careful to say that leadership is not a way of working harder to manage. Managing is how the day-to-day functions of the organization are carried out. Leadership provides insights into a fast-moving world. Specifically, he argues that today’s organizations are over-managed and under-led (Kotter, 2001).

The reason Kotter sees this trend is largely due to the fact that both management and leadership operate in 20th century mindsets. As machine processes and assembly-line mentalities were incorporated into human resource management and organization, the Industrial Age treated the individual as a mechanical process. Each individual was measured solely on output. Just as a machine can be quantified and measured by how much production or how much contribution is being made to the organization’s assets, the person was seen as a cost. This cost is a means to an end. Machines are a cost; they require maintenance, upkeep, and fine-tuning. When a human machine’s cost outweighs its output, then it is no longer useful and is replaced. Under this Industrial Age mindset, people are one in the same as machines – they are costs and are valued in the hourly output of product or asset (Foster & McChesney, 2009).

In the contemporary era, human capital is not only our greatest asset, but also an organization’s strategic advantage. But many organizations continue to operate under the mantra of pushing profit by cutting wages, increasing production of goods which largely turn to waste, and an upper-class focused solely on capital accumulation. Those organizations which are revolutionizing labor, no longer view the human being as a machine in the system, but rather as a collaborative contributor whose value includes intangibles (and thus unmeasurable) such as organizational climate and culture, fostering a positive working environment, mentoring, information capital, and growth potential. Here, the human being is no longer reduced to an hourly-output ratio, but is a part of social relationship labor (Foster & McChesney, 2009). Thus, human capital is not a cost but an asset. Labor is informational, intellectual, emotional, and social. That labor is then an asset as opposed to an expenditure. This is the truth behind investing in an organization’s people – human capital is an investment as an asset (Foster & McChesney, 2009).

Those organizations which are using processes to make work more machine-like are moving in the wrong direction, concerning progressivism and the 21st century marketplace. Organizations which have focused on healthy work environments, high standards for leaders, and integration of image and vision, have seen an increase in productivity and profitability. Organizations which prioritize engagement and sustainability have operating margins of 27.4% as compared to 14.3% for traditional high engagement organizations and 9.9% for low traditional engagement organizations (Joyner, 2015).

Qualities, strengths and skill sets

In order to foster high sustainable engagement, leaders need to implement collaboration over competition; community building over scarce and singular subject matter experts; authenticity and agility over authority or credentials; interactive and integrative communication as opposed to top-down approaches; interdisciplinary methods over technology and tools; and most importantly, measuring impact instead of activity or output (Joyner, 2015). Instead of focusing on particular skill sets, talents or competencies, leadership needs to be able to foster these environmental aspects. There is no one way to foster these essentials, but rather, each individual leader creates this dynamic environment through a variety of diverse means. The truth is – leadership is not able to create vision or facilitate imagination because of an individual, but because of an environment. Culture creates collaboration, community, authenticity, interactivity, interdisciplinary approaches, and impact. No one person is responsible.

This is largely why organizations fear this approach. Who do we hold accountable? Who holds the blame or the credit in the eyes of shareholders or stakeholders? This is an outdated, 20th century belief in the sole individual. This is an ideology which segregates each person from the group, and promotes self-reliance. Perhaps management can monitor the process and implement benchmarks in order to appease the ideology of accountability and individual contribution. Specifically if we look at Kotter’s argument for the need of both leaders and managers. But we must remember, that an organization which is over-managed is under-led (Kotter, 2001). It is best, then, to err on the side of imagination and culture, ensuring that we treat humans and beings and not machines. For how can we measure the contribution of a positive attitude, or true mentorship, or innovation? How can we quantify this – or perhaps the question is, should we quantify this? Should we attempt to measure these intangibles, or does that crush the very spirit of these intangibles being so important they are unmeasurable?


Foster, J. B., & McChesney, R. W. (2009). Monopoly-finance capital and the paradox of accumulation.

Kotter, J. P. (2001, December). What leaders really do. Harvard Business Review.

Joyner, F. F. (2015). Bridging the knowing/Doing gap to create high engagement work cultures. Journal of Applied Business Research31(3), 1131.

Zaleznik, A. (1992, March-April). Managers and leaders: are they different? Harvard Business Review.

Additional Resources

Caplan, E. H., & Landekich, S. (1974). Human resource accounting: Past, present and future. Inst of Management Accountants.