Fifteen years in organisation and people development and it’s as clear now as it was in the early 2000’s that the differences between leadership and management are often misunderstood. In fact, they are used interchangeably and often in the wrong context.
Research the topic long enough and you will see some confusing stuff; I have found several articles that start out by saying that leaders set strategy (a job role) and in the next breath they declare that being a ‘leader’ is a quality not a job. It’s certainly not cut and dry.
In contrast, most would agree that when we refer to someone as a ‘Manager’ we are referring to a job they fulfil, whereas the title of leader denotes a quality that a person may possess and model. Like the manager example, if you are a ‘Director’ or ‘President’ you may well be responsible for developing strategy, but strategy doth not make a leader.
A common misconception is that managers cannot be leaders because of the work they do. That’s not true, they can if they can embrace the skillset required and act in the manner of a leader.
To be a leader is to act in a way that signals leadership to those around you, engaging, inspiring, and encouraging people toward positive discretionary behaviour.
Ultimately, the title of leader is granted by the people, those who follow or do not.
Marcus Buckingham, in Harvard Business Review, offers up a superb analogy for the difference between average managers and great managers. He tells us that “…average managers play checkers, while great managers play chess.”
- Average Managers (checkers players): treat everyone in the same fashion, adopting a one size fits all approach. As in checkers, average managers plan and coordinate the movements of the people (checkers pieces), but all movements are at the same pace, with each person being only allowed to work/move in the same way.
- Great Managers (chess players): understand each person (chess piece) they manage and then expertly leverage their unique qualities by adapting their approach. As in chess, great managers plan and coordinate movements, but movements are in many directions, all according to the qualities of the person (chess piece) and the requirements of the business and its environment (the chess board).
Great managers understand and value people in all their uniqueness. They know their employees’ abilities and their needs; they put them to use in a carefully coordinated fashion to get the best performance from each of them.
Great leadership, according to the masses, is the juxtaposition to a management approach (not a ‘manager’s’ approach). Keeping with the chess analogy:
- Leaders rarely determine the exact movement of individual pieces, but they show them what winning looks like and provide the pieces and moves needed to get there (translates to communicating the vision, goals and strategies, and providing the resources necessary to achieve them)
- Leaders set the context and ‘rules’ of the game, sometimes questioning the size of the board (translates to communicating what the organisation does and doesn’t do – often communicated through values, policies and strategies. A leader will foster innovation and look for new opportunities)
- Leaders influence people to want to play the game (translates to inspiring people toward a desired future, the vision, and its associated goals)
The choice of leadership approach employed will be dependent on several influencing factors, including personality and preferences for one style over another. The key is to be an authentic leader, you can’t fake it in a game of chess (you’ll lose!).
Approach should be contextual, meaning you should adapt your leadership style to a given situation. For example, in a crisis (i.e., COVID-19) you will often adopt a different style than when its business as usual.
There is no such thing as the best style because it is highly contextual.
Yes, in my opinion leadership and management are not mutually exclusive, often they can show up in the same conversation and from the same person. Whether you are a Team Leader, Manager, Director or President, you can show up as a leader.
Perhaps we need to stop obsessing over the differences between a leader and manager, accepting that to be a great manager you need to possess leadership qualities in addition to the archetypal management ones. Moreover, we should strive to develop leadership in people at all levels of an organisation.
A Managing Director will often have a role that requires them to look to the future and plan (often cited as a leadership skill). They may also have to manage a board of Directors, which will require tasks generally designated as management. The art is in figuring out ways, both ethical and morally sound, to get the best from people in any situation.
For organisations to succeed there is a need for both leadership and management, so developing leaders and managers is critical. Leadership is in no way better than management; they are just different things that can most certainly co-exist.
The modern-day organisation is in constant flux, change is the common denominator. Here is an example of a Manager providing both leadership and management qualities in a time of change. Note that this is one person doing one job, but with differing styles to suit the situation:
Imagine you are trying to communicate a change to your team, you might describe a compelling reason for the change and paint a wonderful picture about how we will all benefit or the consequences of not changing. You might signal some personal commitment and demonstrate how the change fits with your own personal values.
In your desire to have the change implemented quickly, you have designed some smart goals to ensure a quick and reliable implementation, you have secured the budget required and appointed a project team with clear responsibilities. You will track the project milestones and KPI’s to ensure everything is on track and step in to provide support when needed.
In effect, you have set the course (leadership) and now you are steering the ship (management).
As I have already mentioned, I think the title of leader is decided by the people, and not a finite list of characteristics. However, there are clearly things that managers are said to do and those that leaders are said to do.
Remember, I said that management is a job and leadership is a quality; in role modelling any of the management characteristics below you could be exhibiting leadership qualities in tandem.
Here are some of the ‘characteristics’ of managers and leaders:
What a typical manager does
- Plans how to utilise people and resources to achieve a goal
- Communicates the work to be done
- Organises people and resources to accomplish a goal
- Recruits people that they feel can contribute to the accomplishment of a goal
- Monitors and checks progress against goals
- Manages people and team performance against expectations
- Co-ordinates action in line with a plan or in reaction to a situation (change, feedback, observation etc.)
- Problem solves to ensure efficiency and effectiveness in pursuit of a goal
What a typical leader does
- Influences people by articulating direction and how things can be better for the person/s concerned
- Inspires people by providing a compelling vision of the future, one that is an attractive proposition for them
- Innovates to create new ways of doing and seeing things, ones that further the ambitions of a business, its shareholders and/or its people
- Aligns people by creating a line of sight, a golden thread that connects their work to the bigger picture of the organisation
- Energises groups of people by understanding their motivations and catering to them
- Defines culture and signals their ongoing commitment to the ‘way things are done around here’. In essence, they embody the attitudes and behaviours they expect to see from their people.
The vanilla manager versus the manager acting as leader
No one can tell me that a Manager wouldn’t be served well by exhibiting the leadership qualities above. The ‘characteristics’ of a manager are more like tasks, the way to be a leader is to achieve these things through leadership behaviours.
A vanilla Manager plans in isolation – A Manager acting as Leader will involve their people, asking for their valuable input when the time is right. In involving others the Manager can foster innovation, create alignment and energise their people
A vanilla Manager communicates the work to be done by ‘telling’ their people what they need to do and by when – A Manager acting as Leader will communicate a goal for a project, mobilising their people with the autonomy and trust to achieve that goal as they see fit. This Manager is energising their people and creating positive discretionary behaviours that are aligned to organisational goals
It is easy to speak in these extremes of course, but just remember that leadership qualities can show up in many management tasks. You don’t have to democratise everything you work on, nor do you have to be the perfect leader, just consider how you can be more inspiring, trusting and motivating.
Yes, they can, if they are willing to put in the effort to acquire and apply a different set of skills and approaches to their work.
More than that, anyone regardless of status or job title can be a leader. All you need is an idea of how things can be better, the skills to inspire others, and the energy to see things through.
Self- reflection is a great way to work on your leadership. You should reflect on your performance and behaviours in each situation and consider how you could have showed up as a leader. Key to your continuous leadership development is in taking action and showing your people why you deserve their leadership vote.
Becoming a great leader is a journey, not a destination.