Response Crafting

Managers are not Leaders.

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And, in fact, the two approaches and philosophies fundamentally contradict each other on many fronts.

So. Unless you’re making conscious, deliberate steps toward leadership and away from simply managing, chances are you’re only a manager, and not a leader.

The difference between managers and leaders has been growing in popularity across management teams, with many articles and books offering guidance. Wall Street Journal wrote a management guide about the Difference Between Management and Leadership, offering some distinctions between the two:

  • The manager administers; the leader innovates.
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original.
  • The manager maintains; the leader develops.
  • The manager focuses on systems and structure; the leader focuses on people.
  • The manager relies on control; the leader inspires trust.
  • The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.
  • The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
  • The manager’s eye is on the bottom line; the leader’s eye is on the horizon.
  • The manager imitates; the leader originates.
  • The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.
  • The manager is the classic good soldier; the leader is his or her own person.
  • The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

This last bullet is one of the most famous distinctions between managers and leaders, originally asserted by Warren Bennis, an American scholar, organizational consultant and author who is widely regarded as a pioneer of the contemporary field of leadership studies.

The manager does things right; the leader does the right thing.

A manager busies himself with thinking about tasks and how-tos; with defining a process – “the way it’s done” – or, more often, simply aligning his work to it as closely as possibly, with an almost anxious obsession with “doing it right” and little regard to the bigger picture of what is going on. Doing the right thing, however, is a much more philosophical concept and makes us think about the future, about vision and dreams. This. This is a trait of a leader.

Leadership is about asking the questions, ‘what’ and ‘why’ and empowering people (followers) by giving them the responsibility to do things right. Leaders therefore work with people and their emotions. Managers ask, ‘how’ and work mainly with processes, models and systems – things.

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A Manager: administers and maintains. He or she has a near-obsession with consistency, control, and sameness and a reverence for “the way things are,” an innate fear of change and an anxiety around risk. A manager focuses on systems and structure in attempt to protect that sameness and prevent change (which inevitably happens anyway, subjecting the manager to “surprise” and anxiety.) A manager controls. And, frankly, seeks to be controlled, only passing the control on down the ladder. To subordinates. Which is how the manager sees his or her team.

A Leader: innovate and develops. Seeks to improve the things that are being done, the ways in which they’re being done, and the treatment and morale of those doing them. The focus is on people, and they have not only an acceptance of change, but a love for it – they pursue evolution and improvement. In fact, a leader seeks to inspire it, and spends a lot of energy questioning “the way it’s done” and “the way things are,” and encouraging his or her team members – who are every bit his or her equal – to do the same. The phrase “it is what it is” is by no means an explanation for anything, and the leader seeks to make all things greater.

In demonstrating the difference, I’ve always liked this:


Uh. Okaysure. Maybe not. Maybe all of us can live in places where we are permitted to pretend that all things will forever stay the same. That we can control all things. And that, above all, the commitment to consistency and convention is the only professional pursuit worthy of our time.

Or. We can admit that all things inevitably change. People change, contexts change, clients change, markets change, technology changes. Things evolve. All things are forever shifting. And if you commit yourself to trying to define things, point in time, and then keep them that way forever, you’ll inevitably find yourself either left behind, run over, or ignored. And, above all, frustrated.

Leaders embrace change. They pursue change. In the least, they respond when the world evolves around them; at best, they’re at the forefront of it. They hear the pleas of the team, they lead the charge, they create a better world. (The world will never be “better” if you are instead trying to control it and keep it the same.) They collaborate with others for great ideas, they inspire rather than force. It is the leaders, not the managers, who yield greatness from a team.

“You are breathing life into what would be otherwise a mere machine. You are creating a soul in your organization that will make the mass respond to you as though it were one man. And that is espirit.” – Napoleon Hill

Napoleon Hill wrote of leadership, using the military as an example, that:

“Great results are not achieved by cold, passive, unresponsive soldiers. They don’t go very far and they stop as soon as they can. Leadership not only demands but receives the willing, unhesitating, unfaltering obedience and loyalty of other men; and a devotion that will cause them, when the time comes, to follow… to hell and back again, if necessary.”

Indeed. To hell and back again. Because this, in turn, is the limitation of how far a good leader goes in carrying out what’s important; the way in which he approaches his responsibility to his team in his work. To hell and back again.

Again, Hill offered quite a bit by way of guidance, writing that leadership was built of a few key characteristics…

A leader serves the team, rather than expecting the opposite, and commits himself to this role with utmost seriousness. He watches out for the team first, himself second. “You must be far more solicitous of [your team’s] comfort than of your own. You must look after their health. You must conserve their strength by not demanding needless exertion or useless labor.” And if something is owed to one of your people, you must “turn heaven and Earth upside down to get it for him.” You are last to eat; last to reap the benefits of the work of the team: “Give the man under you his due. the man who always takes and never gives is not a leader. He is a parasite.” And, perhaps most importantly: “do not ask any man to go where you would not go yourself.” A leader takes the first and heaviest blows, accepts any benefits last.

(A manager, it should be said, typically does the opposite.)


Typically, our natural inclinations and comfort zones cause us to fall in one of the two categories and exist there in perpetuity. Using something like the Myers Briggs assessment, which breaks us down across four dichotomies, we might realize that, with regard to our preferred interactions with the outside world and our level of tolerance of change and spontaneity, we fall into categories that lend themselves to more “managerial” or more “leader.”

a.) A preference for order, structure, programmed responses, formality, systems, contingency planning, schedules and scheduling, standards, familiarity, routine, planning, dates, deadlines, details, metrics, organization, caution in action, and a discomfort in all things that challenge these… this describes the “Judging” preference, which lends itself to merely managing.

b.) A preference for informality, organic changes, adaptability, casual interactions, variety, spontaneity, flexibility, freedom, ad hoc approaches, speed in action, and, above all, a comfort in unexpected changes, in making adjustments as situations require, and in taking risks… this describes the “Perceiving” preference, which lends itself to leading.

(Want to know which you are? You can take a Myers Briggs assessment and see where you land in all four dichotomies, including “Judging vs. Perceiving,” here.)

That being said, you can pull in strengths from each side. Someone who is a natural “big-picture thinker” can learn how to implement their ideas, an introvert can learn to build a network, and a manager can learn to lead.

You won’t strike a successful, effective balance between the two by accident alone – you cannot put on airs of evolving, say, from transactional to transformative relationships with your clients (or your customer or your teams) while simultaneously still approaching them as subordinates to be controlled, and expect that all to just magically work out.

That’s not to say that we can’t take pieces from each realm and combine them – to commit ourselves to those lofty aspirations from the leader’s realm while also driving them to completion via the manager’s commitment to detail.

The problem, typically, is not the theory of joining forces, but rather the practice of it…

it would be easy to offer a condolence to each party; to pretend that both are playing equal blocking force in the progression of the other. Ultimately, however, that’s really not the case. In reality, the manager is typically uncomfortable and fearful with the leader’s approach, and becomes anxious and tense with what he perceives as a “cowboy.” The leader, in turn, feels stifled by the manager’s metrics, and becomes angry and restless with what he perceives as a “simpleton;” a “stick in the mud.” In other words, it’s the manager who resists change, and it’s usually the manager who’s resisting evolution here.

In my experience, the leader is asking very little of the manager other than the invitation to come along. The leader is fundamentally invested in finding the best approach; in evolving. It’s the manager, conversely, who is, by his nature, afraid.

A manager must overcome his or her natural fear in implementing some of the leader’s approaches and relinquish his death-grip on the system. In turn, a leader should take time to see some of his initiatives through, strengthening the discipline and detail necessary to make the high-level, end-goal things happen.

If, that is, things are not already happening. 

Answer: Whoever is achieving the business objectives more successfully. (Or, if applicable: whoever’s overshooting them.)

Sure, if a leader is simply causing trouble, and leaving his or her team in ambiguity and confusion, with very little to show for the big ideas and innovation and change he or she is so hot on pursuing, then, okay, wrangling may be needed. In this case, it’s on the leader to learn the system – to take a seat, pipe down, and fall in line.

But if a leader’s initiatives are happening – if his “grandiose plans” and “big ideas” and “reckless ways” are paying off – then, frankly, it’s on the manager to let it go. To get on board, pipe down, and buckle up. To embrace some of the leader’s approaches, relinquish his compulsion to control, accept the inevitability of change and embrace the greatness of the team at large.

And frankly, it’s this latter one that’s more often the case.

Managers are, by their very nature, a dime a dozen… I can say this because, if they were honest, they would have to agree. Their very subscription to the system means that they are a part of it. They embrace it, fit themselves into it, and simply follow suit. In aligning themselves to the structure, they reduce themselves to mere parts of it. Leaders, however, fundamentally exist outside of it. They are constantly searching for better. Their value is in their individuality. And while they can be created through good mentorship and training (and a bit of empowerment), are far, far more difficult to come by.

So the goal, ultimately, is to build a team of leaders who can also manage. Rather than building a team of managers and pretend that they’ll one day, somehow, make out as leaders.

Want a great team? Learn to lead.

Want a great company? Learn to let your leaders lead.


One thought on “Managers are not Leaders.

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