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Is it important to label leaders and managers?

Updated: Dec 17, 2020

Photo by David Travis on Unsplash

Good managers and good management are essential in any organisation and both managers and leaders are necessary for success in an increasingly complex and volatile business environment. One is not more important than the other.

Even though leadership is accepted as important there is no single definition. Academics, successful business leaders, many professional and retired professional sportspeople and retired armed forces personnel are increasingly likely to opine on the subject. A challenge with management theory is that each framework typically replaces others and does not build upon what was written before. A note of caution, as Ben Horowitz (The Hard Thing About Hard Things), says

“Be aware that management books tend to be written by management consultants who study successful companies during their times of peace. As a result, the resulting books describe the methods of peacetime CEOs”.

The reality is that leadership is context-specific – to be a truly effective leader you have to be able to survive and thrive in war and peacetime situations.

I prefer a simple and concise definition of leadership:

The action of leading a group of people or an organisation.

To lead is about being effective at motivating and influencing others. This encapsulates:

  • Having a compelling vision or mission

  • Building and developing high-performance teams

  • Inspiring others and creating followership

  • Builds and engenders trust

  • Getting results

Previously as the supervisor of ambitious professionals as well as a sought-after mentor I was called upon to help managers move into leadership roles. Now as an executive coach it is a relatively common part of my work with some of my corporate clients. Coaches are often called to help highly talented and high potential professionals, with the transition from being a manager to becoming a leader.

Challenges such as how to step back and delegate effectively or set direction and think strategically, and not constantly do are real issues that executives need help to overcome so that they can be effective leaders.

This is what a few notable leadership experts have had to say on the topic of Leaders versus Managers:

John Kotter (HBR, What Leaders Really Do (2003))

  • Leadership and management are two distinctive and complementary systems of action. Each has its own function and characteristic activities. Both are necessary for success in today’s business environment

Warren Bennis (On Becoming a Leader (1989))

  • The manager administers, the leader innovates

  • The manager maintains the leader develops

  • The manager does things right, the leader does the right thing

Peter Drucker (Management Challenges for the 21st Century (1999))

  • one does not manage people

  • the task is to lead people

  • and the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of each individual

This is just a taste for the ink which has been spent delineating between the two over the years. Bottom line, leadership and management must go hand in hand, but they are not the same thing. It is important for any aspiring leader to be familiar with the comparison between managers and leaders and have a view on the subject. Early in the leadership journey and still developing a leadership mindset, being armed with information on the differences between managers and leaders will only help with your future career and personal development.

Some companies publish their leadership and management expectations and have lengthy lists of competencies, often in excess of fifty areas that people are expected to prove their capabilities. This tends to have adverse results with professionals feeling swamped and unmotivated, so they stop trying and the framework loses its importance and value. The answer is that there are core leadership characteristics and skills that have the most impact and not a long list of desirable traits or behaviours that can be a wish list of things a leader should demonstrate. Coaching can help to focus on the core elements which have the most impact over the short, medium and longer-term so that you develop your leadership mindset.

For leaders to be successful it is increasingly true that as Marshall Goldsmith said,

“what got you here won’t get you there.”

In today’s business world there is little possibility that leaders can have the technical skills of those they lead and one of the first things they have to let go off and be comfortable with, is moving from being a technical expert (be it, the highest producing salesperson or best coder etc) to becoming more of a generalist and shift their primary focus from themselves to others.

Bruce Peltier (The Psychology of Executive Coaching) provides the clearest side by side comparison that I have seen of Managers versus Leaders:

Manager: controls things, keeps track of things, budgets and plans, organises, solves problems, staffs jobs and tasks, rules orientated

Leader: creates things, changes things, finds and creates resources, creates an environment, shakes things up, aligns people, imagination-based

Peltier states that

“If real leaders are rare, then real leaders with good management skills are even rarer."

In my earlier career as a Chief Operating Officer (COO) of large divisions within global investment banks, it was the combination of the business head i.e. the CEO along with the COO which, when successful, achieved the good leader with good management skills. It is what made the COO role so appealing and why the best performing businesses of investment banks were often the ones where this combination was an outstanding success.

It is a gross oversimplification, but to help you get into the right mindset, I will summarise the various comparisons and lists with: managers embrace the status quo whilst leaders set goals and direction and hence challenge the status quo.

Leaders challenge the status quo

If you want to discover more about leadership, check out:


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