Leaders and managers

What’s the difference between leaders and managers?

“Leaders focus on doing the right thing and Managers focus on doing things right”

So goes the well known quote.

But is it as simply defined as this? And would it even be desirable for everyone to be a leader if that left an organisation with too few people to ensure things were done right?

Leaders and managers are not clearly delineated, but there are some principles you can apply to determine the difference between the two.

What’s the difference between Leaders and Managers?

Harvard Business Review suggested there are three tests of leadership which might help define leaders and managers.

1. Managers count value (executing tasks, quality, hitting goals, output etc). Leaders create value through longer term initiatives, vision and change.

Bear in mind either can also destroy value if they perform their roles badly. For example, through micromanaging, leaving a trail of bodies behind them, or not having a clear sense of where they are headed.

2. Leaders find people beyond their immediate reporting structure come to them for advice, regardless of where they sit in the organisation chart. Managers tend to attract job-specific queries.

3. Leaders typically influence and inspire others to contribute to the overall success of the organisation. Managers are more focused on delivering work and leading a group in the direction of a defined goal.

Leaders and Managers summarised

Good leaders create vision. Managers execute it.

Good leaders create appropriate change. Managers react to it and try hard to prevent anarchy undermining progress towards goals or process.

Good leaders lead people. Managers manage work (although they do have to understand how to engage and motivate others to do this).

What are some characteristics of Leadership?

Leaders answer Why

Leaders eye the horizon for trends, opportunities, innovation and potential risks.

Their power is based upon influence and inspiration, regardless of the hierarchy within which they sit.

They should be able to answer the WHY very clearly.

Leaders operate to longer time horizons

This is a controversial one because it can be impacted by circumstances. If there’s an immediate crisis an effective leader can’t sit on the sidelines musing about strategy. Occasionally there’s a need to roll your sleeves up to galvanise an organisation.

Likewise, sometimes leadership is demonstrated by doing rather than planning. Sports teams talk about having leaders on the pitch. That’s not about long term horizons, it’s about setting standards that others follow.

So typically… Leaders operate to longer time horizons because they are setting vision. But there are occasions where being stuck in the future can be a disadvantage.

Leaders are not appointed

If you’re promoted to a senior leadership position then quite clearly you’re appointed to that role. The key point here is that neither the job title, nor the power and budget, confer leadership. That’s dependent on how you behave, not the size of your desk.

In contrast, managers typically manage via hierarchy, power and control (though you would think leveraged in a positive way). They should understand the WHY and be able to translate it into the HOW for those they manage.

It’s also worth considering you can end up being a leader for a number of different reasons, not just because you’re appointed.

In some organisations you might get ‘voted’ in by others. In some situations hierarchy is irrelevant, but some naturally demonstrate leadership that others follow.

It’s being the catalyst that makes you a leader, not how you got there.

Leaders create voluntary followers

“Leadership is the ability to exercise meaningful influence on others who voluntarily accept it, leaving behind a collective impact.” Dr. Leandro Herrero

Status and hierarchy don’t automatically confer leadership onto an owner or senior person. If they are unable to demonstrate leadership attributes and galvanise others, then people will drift away and find other sources of inspiration.

If you think you can manage by mandate, or force others to follow you regardless, then you’re wrong too. 

Followers of leaders do it willingly. They might begrudgingly respect a poor leader because they have seniority or the power to make their lives miserable, but they will never have their hearts in following that person. When push comes to shove that leader will find themselves abandoned.

When it comes to leaders and managers, the debate will always have grey areas because some managers have great leadership skills, whilst some leaders can’t really lead!

But by understanding the two you can identify differences in scope of impact and engagement that help distinguish between leaders and managers. If you’re agile enough to develop both sets of skills it will stand you in good stead for whatever journey your career takes you.