Leadership vs. management
8 July 2020
A manager isn’t necessarily a leader, and a leader may not be the most skilled at a certain position.
Today, one oddity of business is promoting successful doers to management positions.1So a good receiver in American football may become a coach, as if the practiced ability to catch a ball while running full speed through people who are trying to flatten you qualifies one for guiding young athletes towards their potential, through physical, mental and emotional challenges. So the best PowerPoint creator becomes the manager and potential leader of all PowerPoint creators.
To be fair, there’s some specific job-related knowledge that can be transferred from a veteran to a beginner, and that’s quite valuable. There’s a bit of logic to a successful car salesperson who knows the ins and outs of the profession possibly teaching that knowledge to other people. (But that’s not leadership, that’s teaching.)
But the qualities and experience that make a good car salesperson don’t have anything to do with the responsibilities of someone who is supposed to lead, inspire and develop a group of car salespeople.2This is limited in two ways: first, being a good doer doesn’t imply the ability to teach that doing, and second, organizing, developing and inspiring a group of doers is not the same skill set as the doing itself. Shepherding customers through the car buying process isn’t close to coordinating different parts of a company towards a shared goal.
Management is really collating and possibly organizing work (along the lines of company policy) of a group of people in the same department, team or business. Leadership is developing and inspiring individuals who are part of a group, molding the group’s collective goals and direction, and serving as an example of behavior, character and attitude to further that direction.
So a manager tracks which employees come in on time, (and who leaves early), whether the project is done by the deadline, and how much vacation time team members use.
A leader – with example and character – inspires employees punctual work habits (or the opposite) and healthy attitudes towards rest, balance and priority in the context of their part of the business machine.
A manager enforces and tracks the rules, a leader creates, changes and coordinates the rules.3“Rules” (or policy, guidelines, etc.) are made to be bent, broken and changed as the culture grows over time. It’s a tricky balance between disobedience that leads to progress and disobedience instead of progress.
“Rules” are human expressions – sometimes written in a HR pamphlet with smiling stock photos – of the group’s culture. We can easily see that there are actually “rules about rules” in a culture. For instance, if a speed limit is 100 kph, everyone “knows” that you won’t be cited for speeding at 105 kph. Similar situations exist in a business culture, all employees “know” that it’s okay to buy their spouse dinner on the company card, or that no one can leave early the day before a holiday weekend.4My time in Russia taught me that they have incredible number of unwritten rules about the actual written rules, and it’s difficult to tell which written rule will get enforced, and when. It’s almost like a game. Almost. So a good manager and a good leader will work with the unwritten and official parts of a culture to get the best situation for all.
Managers and leaders need each other – they have a symbiotic relationship that makes both of their work more effective.
Leaders need good managers who will monitor qualities and metrics of the group and also offer blunt assessments of the group’s condition or reactions. For instance, a leader needs to know that people are stealing out of the “honesty” charity box of chocolates or that a certain portion of the business has taken on a charity drive challenge without company approval. True story: Shaun Peet and Mike Metcalf (authors of 12 Second Culture) were denied permission to organize a company-wide holiday toy campaign. They did it anyway with their group, making it an internal competition for bragging rights who could help the most. They succeeded, delivered a couple of trucks worth of toys, and the company participated in the effort in following years.
While stealing is not a good situation to deal with, it’s great information for a leader. What part of my leadership and our culture leads to this kind of behavior, and what can I do about it?
Simon Sinek writes about leaders needing practical partners and that the partners need the leaders just as much. A leader inspires, sets an example, tone and attitude in the context of the business’s goals, and the manager concentrates on the practical process of the goal and measures how that progress is going.
A leader is definitely not someone who can do every job in the company, he or she is not someone who is “always the smartest in the room” or an expert at everyone’s position. Any leader who claims that or aspires to that is far closer to a tyrant than a leader, and that does not end well.
So ask yourself: are you leading or are you managing?
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