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Why "Big Picture Only" Bosses Are The Worst

This is the fifth in a series excerpted from a new chapter in the paperback version of Good Boss, Bad Boss, a New York Times best-seller by Robert Sutton. Read the other installments here

There is a difference between management and leadership, but focusing on it is dangerous.

I sometimes mentioned this theme when I gave talks or did workshops based on this book. I wrote posts on it for Harvard Business Review and my blog, Work Matters. But I didn’t realize how important the topic was—or how worked up people got about it—until I did a Good Boss, Bad Boss workshop for a dozen or so CEOs of big high-tech companies. I said to them, yes, leadership is about things like taking a long-term perspective, vision, setting a strategy; and, yes, management is about operations, details, implementation, and the little things required to keep a team or an organization moving forward. Or, as guru Warren Bennis famously put it, "Managers are people who do things right and leaders are people who do the right thing."

I argued this distinction was accurate but dangerous because it distorts how too many bosses—at all levels—view and do their work. It encourages bosses to see generating big and vague ideas as the important part of their jobs—and to treat implementation, or pesky details of any kind, as mere "management work" best done by "the little people." Even if left it unsaid, this distinction reflects how too many bosses think and act. They use it to avoid learning about people they lead, technologies their companies use, customers they serve, and numerous other crucial little things. Among the CEOs, Brad Smith of Intuit (maker of popular software such as QuickBooks and TurboTax) reacted most strongly to these arguments. He explained they struck a nerve because of his experience with developing new managers: The best are obsessed with learning details about every aspect of the business; the worst—the least promising and most arrogant—treat such nuances as being somehow beneath them.

The same difference can be seen among leaders at the top of the pecking order. One senior executive who spent a decade on the top team of a big cellphone company confided that his self-important CEO made a string of bad decisions about which prototypes to develop and sell. This CEO was out of touch with consumers because he had little interest in technical details and refused to visit stores where phones were sold. After all, as he explained to his team and board, his job was "strategy" not "management." In contrast, I think of the late Steve Jobs, who often visited the Apple Store near his house in Palo Alto (the first in this now large and extremely profitable chain). Jobs constantly fussed over details such as the quality of the shopping bags, where employees stood in the store, and the color of the walls and tables, and what they conveyed about the brand.

Unfortunately, the story of the cellphone CEO is all too typical. "Big picture only" bosses often make decisions without understanding constraints that affect the cost and time required to implement them. They are especially prone to suffer from the smart-talk trap because actually doing things and making sure things get done are chores for little people, not top dogs, A-players, or high potentials like them.

I am all for big ideas, visions, and dreams. But the best bosses do more than think big thoughts. They have a deep understanding of their industries, organizations, and teams, the people they lead, as well as other mundane things. For example, Anne Mulcahy’s efforts to turn around Xerox were successful in part because of her in-depth knowledge of the company’s operations; she was especially detail-oriented during the crucial early years of her reign when Xerox was so close to collapsing.

This ability to go back and forth between the little details and the big picture is evident in the leaders I admire most.

[Image: Flickr user TheOtter]

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  • Jeremy Stinson

    The "Hybrid Leader" of today is what I would call a "Servant Leader". One who's motive is not the "me", the "it" or the "we", but instead it is the "thee" the motivates them. They seek the greater well being of the followers even at the potential expense of the organization.

  • Loraine Antrim

    Leadership today is a hybrid model. As an executive coach, I work with many executives who see themselves as leaders rather than managers. There's a cache to the word "leader" and many eschew "managing" as too low level. But from what I've seen, the more successful executives are those who use a blended model: know enough of the the day to day details to optimize (manage) and know the vision and strategy thing to set direction (lead). Loraine Antrim,!/lorainea...

  • Brian Hodgson

    My experience is you need both, either within yourself as a leader, of failing that be secure enough to know your strengths and hire your team to complement you. Recently, heard a blurb on NPR about leaderships styles: Hedgehog or Fox?

  • leenjones

    I couldn't agree more with this post and look forward to checking out the book. I work in digital strategy, where design, content, and development merge. 

    After almost 15 years of experience, I'm convinced you can't make strategic decisions about a digital product or digital marketing without considering what SEEM like small details or "going into the weeds." That's why I'm a big fan of the term "stratecution." A real leader, especially in digital, gets the connection between strategy and execution.

    I'm shocked at how many executives in digital marketing, especially, don't have a grasp on these details. I have lost projects for trying to explain them or proposing they be addressed. I hope your book spurs current and future bosses to develop deeper expertise while keeping an eye on the big picture.

  • John Kyle

    Life is a balance. CXO leadership that is too distant from the details of the business will eventually cause a problem for that business. There are plenty of case studies on that. But, CXOs that are too close to the details of the business also create a problem. These leaders often fail to fully delegate and encourage leaders below them to take full responsibility. In my consulting practice, I work with a lot of growth-stage, founder-led start-ups. Getting these founders to relinquish control and delegate is often the most significant strategic challenge faced by these companies.

  • atimoshenko

    A distinction must be drawn between the types of challenges one is focused on solving and the way one goes about solving those challenges. In terms of challenge types, there is a clear split (including in terms of ideal temperament) between day-to-day continuing operations, long-term strategy and innovation, and emergency/crisis management. In terms of methods of solving, all three, however, involve significant amounts of 'deep-diving' into details and specifics. The distinction between management and leadership does not lie in deciding whether or not to focus on the details, but on choosing which details to primarily focus on (since the human brain is not capable of focusing on all of the details).