How You Manage to Lead

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Leadership is oft talked about in the business world today. Is this because it is one of the more difficult concepts to specify? This articles combines NLP with other approaches to explore the nominalisations we label leadership and management.

We have found that combining Stephen Covey’s concept of Producer, Manager and Leader with Robert Dilt’s model of Neurological Levels to be a useful way of pacing and leading the business community. It allows us to introduce the ideas of ‘functional roles’ and ‘levels of process’ in language that is readily assimilated in an organisational setting. The relationship between the organisation, the functional role and individuals can be expressed diagrammatically as:

Beliefs and Values

On our trainings we introduce these ideas early as they provide an excellent starting point to explore the question: “What is a leader?”. They also provide a framework with which other models can be compared and contrasted. There are a variety of exercises (often using spatial sorting) that can help people get a full representation of each role. Then they can explore whether the roles are context related, the time they allocate to each role and the effects on those around them. Our outcome is for participants to understand they have choice over their actions and to increase behavioural flexibility.

One of the most useful aspects of this model is identifying how the higher levels impact on the lower levels and vice versa. We find a consistent goal of individuals and organisations alike is to operate with all the levels aligned.

Below is an article which introduces these ideas without using NLP jargon. It was first published in a shortened form in the Excel Communications (HRD) Ltd. magazine “The Know”, issue 2.


A common response to the question “What is the difference between a Producer, a Manager and a Leader?” is “Producers produce, Managers manage and Leaders… well, they tell people what to do.”

This answer may have been true in the past. However, with the ever increasing rate of technological change, the ever shortening time companies remain as entities, and with environmental, political and social factors transforming overnight, “it ain’t necessarily so” anymore.

Old, rigid definitions and work practices are giving way to new paradigms of organisation, workforce and most definitely leadership.

Limited Thinking

By thinking of people as producers, managers or leaders we miss the point. These are roles which all of us need to fulfil at different times and in different situations. When we habitually occupy any one of these roles we limit ourselves… and others.

Adopting this new perspective leads one to ask: “Which role is most appropriate for me to make the greatest contribution in a given situation at a given time?”

The decisions you make and the actions you take based on the answer to this question are likely to have profound consequences for you and your organisation. So let us look at these roles in a little more detail.

The Producer Role

The Producer is primarily concerned with managing his/her own behaviour to make changes to the external environment. In other words, Producers focus on output and they may use tools to increase productivity. While I am sitting here at my computer typing this article I am in Producer mode. On the down side, producers rarely delegate and therefore are restricted by how much they can do themselves. They may become overburdened and end up resentful at imagined lack of support. Producers are sometimes known to say “It would be quicker to do it myself than explain to someone else how to do it.”

The Manager Role

The Manager is focused on managing the capabilities of the people and the systems s/he is involved with. As Stephen Covey says “Managers understand the need for structure and systems – particularly training, communication, information and compensation systems – and the need for standard procedures and practices. Much of the production can then be done on automatic pilot. Managers tend to focus on efficiency rather than effectiveness – doing things right instead of doing the right thing.”

The Leader Role

The Leader is interested in aligning the beliefs and values of people with the overall goals and vision of the organisation. In the Leadership role you can bring about change by providing direction, by setting an example, by motivating through inspiration, by building teams based on respect and trust. A leader is focused on results rather than methods, systems and procedures. Leaders ask themselves “For what purpose?” and “What are the consequences for the system as a whole?”

Many self-employed people are learning the importance of allocating sufficient time to performing each role for themselves. Without a Producer nothing gets done. Without a Manager, time and precious resources get squandered. Without Leadership, the Producer and Manager lurch from one short term goal to another, often depleting the reservoir of motivation in the process.

So fulfilling these roles is not about the positions you hold, it’s about your ability to move between them. The higher in the organisational structure the more potential influence you have, but are you exerting that influence as a Producer, Manager or Leader? Let me tell you about George…

Saint George!

George was a semi-skilled machine operator. He was the kind of guy you looked past instead of at. It was only after a disaster on his housing estate that his qualities were recognised, and later utilised.

There was a fire in which one couple’s three children died, they lost their possessions… everything. They were alone and in shock. Quiet, unassuming George contacted the social services and organised local support for them: a place to stay, neighbours to help and a collection throughout the town to replace their burned possessions.

The children in the neighbourhood wanted to contribute in memory of their friends who had died and came to George. He suggested they form teams and mobilise themselves to tidy up the area and repair the playground. This they did and the community spirit generated and fostered as a result of George’s actions made the housing estate a happier and safer place for everyone.

Back at work, George received the admiration of his colleagues. Soon he was booked on a course to train as a skilled operator. Last we heard, he was Machine Shop Foreman. So George the Producer was also George the Leader and is now George the Manager. George is still George. All that changed to release his latent skills was the context. This in turn influenced attitudes and a virtuous circle was created.

Leaking Values and Leading Values

Another example, from a Scottish manufacturing company will show the subtle yet powerful influence the application of these roles can have on an entire company.

A number of valves supplied to North Sea platforms were leaking because of faulty o-rings. One platform had to shut down production completely, and others appeared likely to follow suit. Replacement valves were needed fast in order to preserve the reputation of the company and maintain future orders.

The entire workforce were asked to change to a 24-hour shift system to manufacture the replacement valves. This included the Board of Directors who joined the production staff on the shop floor. At times the shop floor workers could be seen showing the Directors what to do and suggesting how best to get the job done. The valves were produced in record time and the company went on to increase orders and to become an international leader in the field.

You might notice that in this instance the Directors became Producers and the machine operators became Managers. So who were the Leaders?

Crisis Management or Principled Leadership?

At one level, this example could be seen as “firefighting” or “crisis management” unless you look at the deeper consequences.

» First, in this part of Scotland in the mid 1970’s the workforce was not used to seeing Directors at all, let alone working beside them as a team.
» Secondly, the supplier responsible for the faulty o-rings was not reprimanded. Instead they were supported to design better procedures to ensure the product was manufactured to the required standard and quality.
» Third, the attitude of the workforce to the “bosses” and to the whole company noticeably changed after this episode. The Director’s beliefs and values, although never previously documented or expressed, were demonstrably visible. This in turn influenced the beliefs and values of the entire workforce. And this was only the beginning of new ways the Directors of this company manifested their role as Leaders.

The company never had this problem again, and over the next decade they could boast the best labour relations record of any manufacturing company in the region.


Crisis management usually produces cynicism and criticism. So what was the difference that made the difference in this case? For us, it was the intention, the commitment and the congruence (alignment behind values) of those displaying the leadership. In this example, the whole workforce was influenced without a single Total Quality Management seminar or glossy booklet.

Of course TQM programmes are valuable, and we have been involved in a few ourselves. Yet it is our belief that these programmes will end in empty slogans if Consistent Quality Leadership (CQL!) is not demonstrated.

Excellent Leaders

Just by knowing the difference between a Producer, a Manger and a Leader, you can begin to ask, “Which role is most appropriate NOW?”. We all have the potential to take on all three roles. However, do you have the capabilities to recognise which role is required when and to be able to switch at will?

Robert Dilts has been conducting some fascinating research on Leadership in the Fiat Corporation in Italy. Using the principles of Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) he has been studying what is the difference between someone who is an excellent leader and someone who is merely competent.

It is our opinion that “natural” leaders have a number of things in common. They formulate shared visions; define the values by which they will operate; align themselves congruently with their vision and values; and act with wisdom, ie appreciating the consequences for the larger system. In other words, natural leaders aren’t born, they’re built from the inside out. As Peter Senge says:

“Most of the outstanding leaders I have worked with are neither tall nor especially handsome; they are often mediocre public speakers; they do not stand out in a crowd; and they do not mesmerise an attending audience with their brilliance or eloquence. Rather, what distinguishes them is their clarity and persuasiveness of their ideas, the depth of their commitment, and their openness to continually learning more.”

For 20 years NLP has provided techniques and methodologies for transferring patterns of excellence from one individual to a multitude of others. While most other approaches supply the “what to do,” NLP is uniquely placed to provide the “how to do it.”

In our work with leaders and managers across a whole spectrum of industries we have seen the benefits of applying the technology of NLP. The resultant increases in productivity, efficiency and effectiveness need to be experienced to be believed.

© copyright 1997- 2001 Penny Tompkins and James Lawley of The Developing Company
Reproduced with permission.


Stephen R. Covey, Principle Centered Leadership
Robert B. Dilts and Gino Bonissone, Skills for the Future
Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline

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