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Manager or Leader?

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

I'm going to start with the question that I get asked most frequently.


What's the difference between management and leadership?


It's interesting to look at the organization chart of a modern business. Odds are it will show a pyramid-shaped heirarchy with a CEO at the top, a board of Directors under that, and several tiers of management below that. How often do you see the word "leader" mentioned in such a chart?


It's probably not much of an exaggeration to say, "never".


All those senior managers, middle managers, department managers, sales managers and so on presumably have staff - real people who do the work at the coal face (perhaps literally). Those people need to be led, one way or another, don't they? Is the manager's job just to manage, or does a manager also need to be a leader?


What, when it comes right down to it, is the difference between management and leadership?


Management is transactional. It's about rules, standard operating procedures, inventory, profit and loss, budgets and timelines, processes and quality assurance. It's about doing things right.


Leadership is personal. It's about people: their hopes and fears, likes and dislikes, wants and needs, strengths and weaknesses, emotions, character traits, skills and experience. It's about doing the right thing(s).


Often people get promoted into a management role simply because they were good at the technical, transactional aspects of their job. That does not necessarily mean they'll be effective leaders! In fact, if they do turn out to be good at leading their people, this is often more due to luck than anything else.


So, are we doomed to suffer poor leadership just because the traditional route to promotion is through technical, transactional, non-leadership roles?


Not necessarily. There are some things that can and do influence non-leaders that will help them to pick up leadership skills as they perform their role, so that when they finally find themselves with a team to lead, they’ll have some idea of how to go about it.


The first of these is that leadership starts from the top. If the CEO is a good leader who does a good job of leading the senior executive team, that sets an example for other leaders in the organisation to follow. Excellence in leadership can become part of the organisational culture.


Next, those in leadership roles must be aware that they are leaders and not just managers. It never ceases to amaze me how few managers recognise this. They must know when they're being called on to show leadership, and they must be willing to step in and do it.


No matter how highly developed a person's leadership skills are, there's always more to learn. I would say that one of the traits of an effective leader is to never stop learning, and to always be open to extracting lessons from the situations life throws at us.


I'm often asked, are good leaders born or made? I maintain that anyone can learn leadership skills and can become an effective leader, but only if the will to do it is there. If you really don't want to be a leader, you won't ever be any good at it. The moral of this story is clear: if you don't want to be a leader, don't accept a promotion into a management role that involves leading people. Just don't. If you do it'll all end in tears, I promise you.


Are you a leader, or a manager?

To be sure, if your job title proclaims you to be a manager, you'd better do some of that. But if you have people reporting to you - working for you - then you'd better not neglect your leadership obligations. If you do, you're automatically failing on the management front, too.


If you'd like to explore what it takes to be a leader, check out our "Foundations of Leadership" workshop series. It's available here on the website in video format, and we also run it as a face-to-face, interactive online seminar from time to time.


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