Spring 2015
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The Public Manager

A Tale of Transformational Leadership

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

An unlikely source provides a Marine Corps officer a story that conveys the difference—and the distance—between management and leadership.

At the Federal Executive Institute, we teach government managers to be leaders, leaders to be visionary leaders, and visionary leaders to transform government. The first step in this mission is to distinguish leadership from management—a seemingly simple task.

Yet, even a cursory search of the Internet reveals thousands of books, blogs, courses, and charts claiming to know the distinction. Ranging in quality from scholarly to silly, these sources vary widely, but they do find common ground in defining a manager's job as planning, organizing, and coordinating, while the leader's job is to influence, inspire, and motivate.

Repeatedly, managers are typecast as transactional and effective in times of certainty, whereas leaders are typically transformational and essential in times of uncertainty. While helpful, these black-and-white checklists do little to illuminate the gray area separating the two.

In Search of a Story

Understanding that a story has the power to bring concepts to life, I searched endlessly for an apt illustration to shed light on what it means to be a leader versus a manager. Scouring history books, biographies, self-help texts, and websites, I sought the perfect story to depict the difference.

I began my quest and my career in 1983 as a Marine Corps officer. In the Corps, leadership isn't just a position or profession; it's a passion. From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, Marine Corps history is awash in stories of heroic leaders, and Marines spend countless hours reading and retelling these tales. Rarely, if ever, is management mentioned.

Therefore, I'd yet to find my perfect story by 2002 as I led a 750-man infantry battalion up a snow-covered mountain near Bridgeport, California. Having just crested the 8,000-foot peak in freezing temperatures, the battalion's Sergeant Major and I sat down to start a fire, share some coffee, and rest.

Here I found my story. But the elusive narrative I sought did not come from the salty Marine at my side. Instead, it came from a sophisticated lady who soon slogged up behind us.

An Unlikely Source

Television host and journalist Joan Lunden was on the mountain that day to film the battalion's training for her show, Behind Closed Doors. During filming, she routinely participated in events to gain greater insight. That day was no exception, although she provided the insight—not us.

Attired in military-issued long-johns, fleece sweater, parka, knit cap, gloves, and bulbous boots, she sat down on a snowbank and questioned us about the unit and its training. As the conversation progressed, the topic turned to leadership. Talking in tandem, the Sergeant Major and I explained the Marine Corps's leadership philosophy in theory and practice. We boasted proudly as she listened politely.

When we were done we chided her that she'd probably not seen much leadership in the television industry. We suspected she had to settle for a lot of management masquerading as leadership.

Setting her coffee aside, Joan set the record straight. Amidst the blowing snow, she recounted the most insightful story on the difference between managers and leaders I have ever heard.

The Tale Unfolds

Joan's story began on a television set in the late-1950s. Due to technical limitations of the time, shows aired live. Without the ability to record or delay transmission, production crews had to rapidly shift from one camera to another. On cue, one camera would be shut off, and at the same time another would be turned on to film separate segments. To be successful, the effort had to be synchronized and seamless.

During one primetime show, the host was engaged in a spirited discussion with a young starlet while the production crew watched from the shadows. As the time for a commercial break neared, the production assistant signaled the host. Holding up his hands, palms outward, he began to count down. At zero, with both fists clinched, the production assistant directed the primary cameraman to cut his camera.

At the same moment a second cameraman on an adjacent set turned on his camera to film a one-minute cereal commercial. The production manager, responsible for filming that day's show, was pleased by the crew's performance. Perfect timing made priceless television. At his side, the director, who led the entire program from its initial casting to closing credits, smiled as well.

Back at the host's desk, a trainer approached and set a French poodle and bowl atop the wooden desk for a dog food commercial to begin in 30 seconds. Whether it was stage fright or a commentary on the food, the poodle chose that moment to defecate on the desk. Horrified, the host pushed back in his chair. Disgusted, the make-up artist squealed. Shocked, the remainder of the crew stopped in stunned silence.

As the production assistant announced the cereal commercial would close and the dog food commercial would commence in 15 seconds, the production manager flew into action. He screamed for resources: "No problem. Quick, get paper, water, and a sponge!" He yelled to the trainer, the make-up artist, the cameraman, the floor manager, the stage manager, the gaffer, and the grip to get the "[poop] out of the shot now!"

The crew knew the goal, timeline, and required resources. They also knew the manager would monitor their performance and take corrective measures should they delay or err. With hands raised and fingers spread, the production assistant commenced the countdown to return to the show.

Fueled by urgency and oversight, the crew sprang to life. Racing across the set, they frantically sought the supplies and, more importantly, someone else to do the dirty work. At the count of "three," the production assistant hesitated slightly, yearning for direction to cut or continue. Steadfast amidst the chaos, the director stepped forward and calmly announced: "We'll be ready. Roll camera." Reassured by his conviction, the count continued.

Swiftly stepping from the sideline and onto the stage, the director scooped the poop off the desk with his bare hands. Sliding back into the shadows, he cradled it in his hands just as the production assistant completed the count-down and cued the primary cameraman to, "Roll!"

With the offensive matter removed, the host looked into the lens and spoke his well-rehearsed lines. The viewing audience remained unaware of the turmoil that transpired. Perfect timing had again produced priceless television.

Standing beside the director was the crew's junior member, a runner, responsible for fetching supplies and doing odd jobs. Mouth ajar, the teen gawked in amazement, never expecting to see a television executive scoop excrement. Turning to the runner, the director grinned, exposed his cupped hands, and in a low, fatherly tone explained, "This is leadership." With that, the director thanked the crew for their commitment, and walked into the wings to clean up and attend to other duties.

And, with that Joan concluded her story. She thanked us for the coffee and conversation, turned, and trudged back to her camera crew. Speechless, the Sergeant Major and I stared into our empty canteen cups.

A Message Worth Repeating

Despite years of studying academic and applied leadership in classrooms and combat, we'd just heard the ultimate illustration of the difference between management and leadership. Joan had detailed the story of a manger doing things right and a leader doing the right thing.

As the story unfolded, we watched a transactional manager determine the goal, plan the work, organize the resources, and monitor the outcome, yet fail. Conversely, we witnessed a transformational leader exercise the awareness, vision, commitment, and courage required to succeed.

Although executed almost instantaneously, the director's actions exemplified the essential elements of transformational leadership. First, he displayed the personal strength, the courage, and the character to let the situation develop. He separated himself physically and psychologically from the confusion, moving from "the dance floor" to the "balcony" where he could objectively assess the environment while unobtrusively observing the crew members' performance.

Refraining from intervening too soon, he afforded the crew—individually and collectively—the opportunity to resolve the issue unassisted and, in doing so, to lead and learn. His restraint challenged them to be active problem solvers, not mere minions. His silence tested their ability to devise and implement a solution.

Indeed, while seemingly counter-intuitive, his lack of action demonstrated his respect for the crew's abilities, as well as his consideration for their continued development. He empathized, but did not act, thereby providing the space needed for new leaders to emerge and new styles of leadership to be exercised.


Second, the director made sense of the situation and made meaning for those around him. He confronted the nasty new reality facing the crew while retaining full faith they would prevail. Accepting that "stuff happens," he neither denied the dilemma nor delayed its resolution by blanketing the scenario with "happy talk." No, there was a problem—a disagreeable situation that demanded an immediate solution.

Expanding his mind to embrace the new reality, the director moved quickly to close the "belief-reality" gap—the mental distance between what had been and what now was. He did so first for himself, and then for the others. Grasping what needed to be done, he communicated his vision as well as his values in a brief yet compelling statement. He declared: "We'll be ready. Roll camera."

His vision: The show will go on! His values: pride, professionalism, and commitment. In five words he conveyed a vision that was imaginable, desirable, feasible, focused, flexible, communicable, and effective. The director expressed through his motivational message and manner his confidence in the crew and his conviction they would succeed.

Proving that courage is contagious, his words pulled the crew back from the precipice of an acute stress response. His calming comments elevated the crew from the neurological basement where fear and doubt dwell to the higher-order thought required to return to normalcy and function effectively.

When all else failed, the director decided to act. Simultaneously displaying strength and humility, he willingly did what his followers could not or would not. He "walked his talk," aligning his behavior with his beliefs—personifying the organization's values and modeling the traits his followers should emulate. By doing the unthinkable without hesitation, he proved himself to be a champion for the organization, not himself. His selfless act epitomized the paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will required to build individual and institutional greatness.

Although not intended, the director garnered attention and accolades for his noble act. Those on the set that day credited him with such traits as courage, commitment, decisiveness, dependability, and unselfishness. Inspired by his behavior, they may follow his example. Others will learn of his actions only later as the "step and scoop" story spreads.

Retold countless times and in innumerable ways, the story will pass from employee to employee throughout the organization. It will be shared in hallways and snickered at in meetings. It will be relayed to new employees during orientation and recalled by senior executives facing similarly tough crises. It will be edited and embellished in each retelling and, in doing so, the story will grow greater than the sum of its facts.

Ultimately, the story will become enmeshed in the organization's folklore and embedded in the corporate culture. So, while the details will blur and the director's name will be forgotten, the leadership lessons will remain. Hearing the story, generations of employees will not only come to admire the director, but more importantly, emulate his behavior.

Indeed, in showcasing his selfless act, the story will establish a new norm for individual and group behavior. Educating even as it entertains, it will informally set a higher standard for employee conduct better than a formal rule or regulation ever could.

While easy to miss, the director's final action returned to his first. His words weren't the end of a leadership episode, but rather the start of an educational experience. He capitalized on this unpleasant event to provide the runner with a leadership lesson he would not soon forget.

His comment and cupped hands summarized the responsibilities and risks of transformational leadership better than a publication or professor ever could. Together, they spoke volumes about the distance leaders go to inspire and influence people. Yet this impromptu lesson was not about the leader; it was about developing a future leader from a follower.

To Be Continued ...

While I suspect the runner walked off the set that day with new appreciation for the director, I know I walked down the mountain with a new appreciation for leadership. In Joan's words, I discovered the elusive illustration I long sought: a simple story that conveys the difference—and the distance—between management and leadership.

In the intervening years, I've used this story countless times to instruct and inspire my students and colleagues. After they endure an especially trying leadership experience, when they are discouraged, disappointed, and in doubt, I turn to them, cup my hands, and quietly remind them, "This is leadership."

"Established in 1968 by direction of President Lyndon B. Johnson, the mission of the Federal Executive Institute is to ‘develop visionary leaders to transform government.' The Institute's flagship program is the Leadership for a Democratic Society Program, a four-week leadership development program for GS-15 and Senior Executive Service personnel or their civilian equivalents."


About the Author

Michael Belcher is faculty at the Federal Executive Institute. Contact him at [email protected]

He joined the Federal Executive Institute (FEI) faculty in May 2013. Capitalizing on 35 years of service in the public and private sectors, he teaches leadership, organizational development, change management, inter-organizational collaboration, and strategic planning to senior-level government officials attending the Leadership for a Democratic Society Program. Concurrently, he is a performance coach and manages FEI’s Health and Wellness Program.

Prior to joining FEI, Michael served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 28 years, ultimately earning the rank of Colonel. His last assignment was as the Director of the Marine Corps War College, MCB Quantico, VA. After retiring, Michael accepted a position as Vice President, Defense Strategy and Operations, for MetroStar Systems, Inc., a commercial IT services and solutions firm.

Michael holds M.S. degrees from the Naval Post-Graduate School and the National Defense University. He is also certified as an Associated Certified Coach, Conflict Management Consultant, StandOut Advantage Facilitator, and Emotional Intelligence Consultant.

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