Leader or Manager – Which Are You?

Does the word “manager” fill you with revulsion? Does the word “leader” make you feel inspired?

When I look at LinkedIn, I see a pattern: Leaders are held up as an aspirational example, while everyone complains that Managers are get in the way of change.

Properties of Leadership

What does LinkedIn think about Leaders? I did a quick Linkedin search on the word “leadership” and reviewed 10 posts about “leadership” which described these characteristics of what leaders do:

  1. Empower and inspire others to make change happen
  2. Embody optimism
  3. Make courageous decisions, such as taking a position that could make you unpopular
  4. Take initiative to start something while others are self-focused
  5. Be goals-driven, be curious and assume nothing but good intent, take ownership to build functional and intuitive products
  6. Ask the right questions and believe in your people
  7. Create psychological safety on your team
  8. Cultivate kindness on your team.
  9. Support diversity
  10. Model the behavior you want to see in others.

Now, don’t get me wrong: these are all laudable qualities – which you can aspire to in any role, from an individual contributor to a CEO, because they are How descriptors – they talk about How you do a job.

Properties of Management

Management is more about the What than the How. The three core responsibilities of management boil down to:

  1. Cultivating a team of people to do the work, and helping them evaluate their own performance.
  2. Establishing and maintaining a system that allows work to flow reliably through your department / area / organization, even if the people change.
  3. Communicating with others, outside your area, on the results of your work in a way that enables you to continue to increase your team’s contribution.

Yes, there are nuances to management that aren’t captured here. But this is the basic management job. And they are the same, whether your job title is Manager or CEO: you still need to fill the positions that report to you, you still depend on systems of doing work; you still have to report out results to earn the right to do more – you’re just reporting out to a board or to shareholders, instead of to your supervisor.

I sometimes hear people say that this model doesn’t work in “creative” jobs. I disagree. JJ Abrams just lost a huge HBO contract because he didn’t have a system of work that enabled work to flow reliably and ran up crazy cost overruns. This is not an uncommon story for creative leaders – they perceive management as non-creative and are unable to meet their goals.

What happens if you’re a leader without being a manager?

I promoted someone once because they had great leadership skills: they could build allies, their employees loved working with them, and they inspired people to follow their vision. Unfortunately, they failed because they were a terrible manager: they couldn’t keep their department staffed (“too busy” to do interviews or train) and their department’s system of work continuously broke down. They flamed out and moved on, and I learned an important lesson.

I see this all the time: someone is a talented individual contributor. They have vision and charisma, and they get promoted based on their ideas. But then they are unable to realize those ideas:

  • They don’t make hiring a priority; they underappreciate or undermine their team members; they don’t hold the team accountable for teamwork.
  • Or they don’t have a system for getting the work done, they don’t meet their goals or deadline – or exceed their budget – and they lose credibility.
  • Or they do a great job but don’t know how to share that information outside their team, and they are unable to increase the contribution of the team.

They may have great Leadership skills – but they lack the structure to get results.

I’ve seen this in entry-level managers, who thrived as individual contributors and had great ideas, but were unable to learn to delegate and fell behind then burnt out. I’ve seen it in VPs who had innovative strategies but no idea how to establish a system of work and saw their ideas blocked by their lack of understanding of the supply chain, and failed to make their numbers. I’ve seen this in C-level managers who thought they could carry out their vision if they were involved in the details, instead of hiring someone to do that work so they could focus on the relationships necessary to get their peers on board with their vision.

An abundance of leadership skills cannot overcome a lack of management skills.

What happens if you’re a manager without being a leader?

A manager who is not a leader is uninspiring.

I interviewed a candidate once, a very capable employee who wanted the management position within her department. I asked her what she would change and she lost the opportunity when she replied, “Nothing. I think the department is great the way it is.” The position would not have been open if the department had been great the way it was, and her inability to recognize the necessary change indicated that she would keep the department plodding along in mediocrity.

She had the necessary management skills: she could hire, she could manage the established system of work, and she could report out on how much work they had accomplished.

But she would not have the courage to make the hard decisions necessary to take that department to the next level. She would not inspire her people to think differently about their work. She would not question how the department did things.

If you are uninspired or feel apathetic about your job – if you see managers as an impediment to success – maybe you’re working with a manager who is not also a leader.

So, Are You a Leader or a Manager?

If you see yourself in the manager description, but lack the leadership skills, you may be wondering why are you are always overlooked for promotion.

If you have leadership skills in abundance but lack a grounding in management, you may be wondering why it’s so hard to achieve your goals.

It takes both.

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