Leaders vs. managers

There’s been an ongoing debate for the past five decades, and I’m not talking about Medicare or why the Chicago Cubs haven’t won a title since 1908. This debate has to do with leaders and managers.

In fact, a quick Google search of the phrase, “Leaders vs. Managers” produces more than 15 million results. Clearly, this is an issue people care about and are searching for the answers.

After all, should a manager also be a leader?  Must a leader utilize management skills?

Before I attempt to answer those two questions, let’s look closer at the differences between leaders and managers.

Organizational consultant Warren Bennis is widely known as the pioneer in what is considered the contemporary field of leadership. In his book, On Becoming a Leader: The Leadership Classic he delved into the qualities that define leadership, which included describing the differences between managers and leaders.

According to Bennis:

• The manager administers; the leader innovates.
• The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
• The manager maintains; the leader develops.
• The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
• The manager imitates; the leader originates.
• The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.

Okay, so it seems that the leader is the innovator who brings out the best in their employees through inspiration. The manager, on the other hand, is more focused on metrics and efficiency.

It’s no secret that leaders are admired, while managers can be unpopular among direct reports. How else can you explain the infatuation with Steve Jobs? I’m fairly certain no manager has ever reached the same amount of pop culture fame, except perhaps in a negative light (aka Office Space).

Still, if you’re a leader and hate the idea of also being considered a manager, and if you’re a manager and don’t believe you must also lead; you’re shutting off a big opportunity to advance your company to a higher level of success.

Think about it, while the economy is ever changing, I think it’s safe to say that budgets will be tight for some time. Instead of having 10 people to work on a project, companies would rather just pay five and get the most out of those employees. The same can be said for managers. 

John Kotter, author of “John P. Kotter on What Leaders Really Do” wrote, “Leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Both are necessary for success in an increasingly complex and volatile business environment.”

Since both are needed, isn’t it possible that a person can be both a leader and a manager?

Connecting the two skills-sets

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, top executives should collaborate with others to create effective programs that boost productivity. In other words, they control a group for the purpose of coordinating and harmonizing that group toward accomplishing a goal. You know what that sounds like? Management.

At the same time, decision-making, being assertive with ideas, communicating more clearly, and clarifying goals and objectives while inspiring creative commitment are all competencies that have increased in today’s management role.

It looks like today’s managers are faced with additional responsibilities as they take on the traditional competencies utilized by a manager, while also needing to apply leadership skills.

It almost seems like a requirement for leaders and managers to perform both roles at different points in time, depending on the circumstances of course.

Here’s another reason why you should encourage managers to learn some leadership competencies and vice versa: some leaders are promoted through the ranks so fast that they are not able to acquire the management skills necessary for their role. I think it would cause fewer headaches if your company already encouraged your workers to learn both leadership and management skills.

Okay, I fully realize this is not an easy concept. So, I’m going to include some tips for both managers and leaders to start them on the right track.

Managers, learn how to take some risks

Leaders create the strategic initiatives of their organizations. Now when you, the manager, are approached with a new idea, do you recognize it, support it, and put it to work? Effective leaders are bold thinkers and take calculated risks. This quality goes a long way toward motivating colleagues to meet the innovative changes the leaders have envisioned.

As the manager, there’s no reason you can’t serve as a role model for innovative thinking. You should work hard to gain the self-confidence to take risks and define your risk tolerance comfort zone.  

Development Tips

• Take a look at your style to determine how risk averse you are. What is your level of tolerance for ambiguity? What prevents you from taking risks? A personal preference or personality type inventory will give you some clues.

• Garner support from your manager and others. Seek permission to make mistakes. With their help, determine what constitutes acceptable risks. Risk where you have support.

• Take risks in stages; set risk milestones. Break down risks to manage them more effectively. Minimize the costs of failure.

Leaders, involve others in the process

Just because the leader is considered the one to produce the so-called “great ideas” for the company, you shouldn’t make decisions in a vacuum and base those decisions on your limited perspective and your emotions. Not only may the quality of your decisions be limited, but you may also alienate those around you who have much expertise and creativity to offer.

It’s commonly known that management succeeds when it elicits creative and innovative ideas from team members so that everyone feels a shared responsibility for the success and quality of the team’s output. This shouldn’t change just because someone adds leadership to his or her title.

After all, rarely is any one person smarter than the team.

Development Tips

• Identify the business processes involved in accomplishing the goal and the process owners for each part of the process. Typically, these people should be included in the planning.

• Balance the need for involvement with the need for action and speed. Don’t allow decision making to drag on unnecessarily long. Train people in team processes so that team discussions will go more quickly and smoothly.

• When one of your employees plans a project, ask how the plan affects other work units and what conversations the person has had with his or her coworkers in those areas. These questions will reinforce your expectation regarding integrated efforts.

I believe most people who have some sort of responsibility for others in the workplace require some blend of leadership and management. And that’s a lesson that may endure the next five decades and beyond.

Categories: Management & Leadership