What’s the Difference Between Manager and Leader, and Why Does It Matter?

Why should we care about the difference between manager and leader?

I was having coffee with a new friend last week.  He had been recently promoted to his first supervisory position.  As we talked about the challenges he would face, we found ourselves discussing the differences between a manager and leader.

When first given a leadership position, we tend to focus on the specifics of getting the job done.  There are clear tasks and goals, and we want to sure that our team accomplishes them.  That is the approach of the manager.  But I think that to accomplish them effectively, what serves us best is taking the approach of the leader.  Here’s why.

What's the Difference Between Manager and Leader and Why Does it Matter?

What’s the Difference?

Much has been written on the differences between manager and leader, and I’m not sure I can meaningfully add to the thinking about the distinction.  In that coffee shop I think I hit most of the points that this chart depicts.  [adapted from this Wall Street Journal post based on the ideas of Warren Bennis]

The Difference Between Manager and Leader

Making the distinction seems like a good academic exercise, but what’s the point?  Why does it matter which is which?

It think it’s that last line on the chart that carries the answer.  Peter Drucker agreed with Warren Bennis when he said management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.

Management is doing things right; Leadership is doing the right things. – Peter Drucker Click To Tweet

To me, it’s the difference between focusing on a process and focusing on possibility.

Doing Things Right – Process

The manager focuses on process.  He identifies with systems and tactics.  The underlying premise is that you already have a fully formed machine, and the job of the manager is to keep it running.

His aim is to make sure all the gears are turning in the right direction, are lubricated, and the machine is functioning efficiently.   This results in two things that characterize the manger’s approach to the world:

People are cogs in the machine.  Their purpose is simply to function as a specific part of the whole.  He needs people to do what they are told when they are told to do it.  To make sure this happens, the manger has access to tools of control.

Focus is on the negative.  Success for the manager is in having this machine produce a specific output at a desired rate.  The manager’s focus is to watch for anything that might go wrong that would keep this from happening.  In that sense, he is focused on the negative, always looking for problems.

We all need our “machines” to function, but here’s the thing:  if success is defined as “not breaking down” or simply “working properly,” we’ve put a limit on what we can accomplish.  We’ll only ever be able to function at the maximum capacity of the machine we currently have, nothing more.

Further, if we see people only as cogs, we place limits on them too.  Thing is, people don’t respond well to being fenced in

Doing the Right Things – Possibility

On the other hand, to the leader it’s not process he’s thinking about so much as possibility.  Like a sculptor looking at a block of granite, he sees the shape that lies within.  His focus is on thinking strategically to realize a vision.  As a result, the Leader takes a different view of the world.

People are more like software.  They have the potential to do more and be more if you invest some time and effort in upgrading.  Beyond that, they can be inspired, and engaged.  And when we tap into their capabilities, they can become multipliers, adding initiative, foresight, and problem-solving skills to our pool of resources.

Focus is on the positive.  In that light, the outlook of the leader is positive.  She is looking for possibility, asks questions that include words like What and Why, and is constantly looking for ways to make the machine better, or build a new one that can do more.

The vision and strategic thinking of the leader are vitally important.  Stephen Covey once said that leadership amounts to making sure the ladder of succes we are climbing is leaning against the right wall.

Management is efficiency in climbing the ladder of success; leadership determines whether the ladder is leaning against the right wall. - Stephen Covey Click To Tweet

But you can lean that ladder against any wall you want; if someone doesn’t do some actual climbing, you’ll always be at the bottom rung.

It’s Not a Question of Which

So is it better to be a manager or a leader?  I’m not sure that’s the right question.

It’s not that one is better than another.  We need good managers who can keep the machine we have running smoothly and produce the things that need to be produced.  We need leaders for their vision, sense of possibility and for the smart questions they ask that inspire, challenge, and develop us.

With managers we get a machine that runs; with leaders, we can make that machine better.  Both manager and leader are essential.

It’s also not a matter of either/or.  Following someone who is purely a manager could quickly become deflating – who wants to be a cog?

Following a pure leader might be exhilerating for a while, but also frustrating:  how will we actually produce something?  How many more times will we move the ladder before we start climbing?

Manager and Leader – The Takeaway

For most of us, the best place to be is at the intersection between the two – we need to be both manager and leader.

To keep the machine running, a managerial outlook is essential.  But to do it effectively, and to make it better, it can be very helpful to approach the job as a leader.

Manage as you must to make the process happen, but look for the possibility in your current situation.  Ask “What could make this better?” and “Why not do things differently?”

Look for the positive in people.  Think about how you can help them grow, improve, and develop.  Earn their trust.  Inspire them.

When we focus on the positive, we are likely to find ourselves spending less time dealing with the negative.

As I told my friend in that coffee shop, when working with our teammates the more we focus on leading them, the more likely it will be that they do the things we need them to do as their managers.

When I talk to managers, I get the feeling that they are important. When I talk to leaders, I get the feeling that I am important. - anon Click To Tweet

After all, which person would we want to work for?  Our answer tells us the kind of person we should try to be.

We can be leaders in management positions.

Lead on!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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