The opportunity quest separates real leaders from managers

Strategy & Leadership

ISSN: 1087-8572

Article publication date: 1 October 2003



Ackoff, R.L. (2003), "The opportunity quest separates real leaders from managers", Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 31 No. 5.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2003, MCB UP Limited

The opportunity quest separates real leaders from managers

Russell L. AckoffRussell L. Ackoff is Anheuser-Busch Professor Emeritus of the Management Science in The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He has authored or co-authored 22 books and several hundred articles that have appeared in professional journals.

Success at maintaining and exploiting an existing business advantage is the appropriate measure of a manager's skill. But when circumstances dictate that organizations must either undergo radical change or become obsolete, successfully achieving the transformation is the litmus test for leadership. The first step in transformation is to identify novel opportunity. Here's how real leaders (as opposed to skillful managers) can effectively use a tool called idealized design to discover unique business opportunities for growth and renewal.

The ability to lead, like artistic ability, is not always apparent. It does not always lie on the surface of one's personality and behavior. Education can draw it out and help it become more effective. To be sure, leaders can be made more effective by learning about the management tools and techniques available to them and how to use them. Managers may benefit significantly from such an education, but it won't make leaders of them. However, it may equip them to recognize and support leadership ability in others.

Both management and leadership are best learned on the job under the guidance of someone who knows how. Such an apprenticeship is a much better way to learn how to lead effectively than by being taught in a classroom by someone who has never passed the tests of leadership.

What's the difference between a leader and a manager and, for that matter, between a manager and an administrator?

An administrator is one who directs others in the pursuit of ends by the use of means selected by a third party.An administrator implements the will of another. Someone in authority specifies the tasks to be performed and how they are to be carried out. In most corporations, administrators are call "supervisors".

A manager is one who directs others in the pursuit of ends by the use of means that he or she selects. Managers decide what subordinates will do, and when, where and how they will do it. They have authority to enforce their will – that is, to reward and punish subordinates. Those who can seriously threaten the survival, safety, or security of those managed, are said to exercise command and control.

The principal functions of managers are decision-making; directing implementation of decisions that they and their superiors make; and managing the interactions of their subordinates and of the unit they manage with rest of the organization and its environment.

A leader guides followers in the pursuit of ends by the use of means that the followers select or approve. The most powerful motivator that leaders have is their influence (power to) not their authority (power over). This ability we call "charisma".

To carry out his or her functions a leader must be able to articulate:

  • An inspiring vision, one that others are willing to pursue even when doing so requires sacrifices.

  • A persuasive strategy, one that creates confidence that the pursuit of the vision under his or her leadership will be potentially successful.

Groups may provide leadership as well as individuals. Leadership may even emerge from a group of individuals, none of whom is a leader by him or her self. Leadership, like art, can be a synergistic process or be amplified by the interactions of two or more individuals – for example, Rogers and Hammerstein or Gilbert and Sullivan.

The vision quest, informed by idealized design

The effectiveness of leaders depends on the extent to which their followers, particularly those with experience and access to relevant information, participate in formulating and articulating the vision to be pursued. One of the most effective ways to involve talented individuals in formulating and articulating an inspiring vision is by use of a participatory process called "idealized design".

Idealized design begins by creating a scenario in which the relevant system, institution, organization, or artifact involved no longer exists, but its environment remains unchanged. Then the designers prepare a replacement design of that system, institution, organization, or artifact subject to only three mild but important constraints.

First, the design must be technically feasible. This precludes the kind of innovation that can only exist in science fiction. Additionally, for the purposes of this exercise, innovations cannot be based on knowledge that currently does not exist. For example, the idealized redesign of an automobile may include the use of fuel cells because we know they are possible, but it may not include an ability to use water as a fuel (although a steam engine would be a legitimate suggestion). For another example, in the idealized redesign of a school, the teaching might be done primarily by students with teachers serving as resources to be used as they, the students, see fit. This is technologically feasible and has, in fact, been done.

Second, the thing designed must be operationally viable, that is, able to survive in the current environment. This requires it to obey the law and relevant rules and regulations (An idealized design is considered operationally viable if it could survive if certain political or personal hurdles were removed).

Third, the thing or system designed must be capable of evolving into closer and closer approximations of the ideal design over time.

Some idealized design projects of note: the White House Communication Agency, a proposal for the city of Paris[1], and a rethinking of US healthcare system[2].


1. Ozbekhan, H. (1977), "The future of Paris: a system study in strategic urban planning ", Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London , A. 387, pp. 523-44.

2. Sheldon, R., Jeharajah, N., Dundon, M.W., Bright, S., Wilson, D.H., Magidson, J. and Ackoff, R.L. (1944), An Idealized Design of the US Healthcare System, Interact, Bryn Mawr, PA

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