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Leaders vs. Managers: YES, PLEASE.

Updated: Apr 13, 2022

I have a bone to pick with the corporate world these days, and it's how we talk about Managers. It's almost as though "Manager" has become a dirty word (along with managing and management).

For instance...maybe you've seen this quote being passed around on social a few times recently?

"When I talk to Managers, I get the feeling that they are important. When I talk to leaders, I get the feeling that I am important."

As I read this quote, even in my head, I can't do it without taking on some kind of self-important tone. It's like I have to stick my chin out and look down my nose at you in order to get it just right!

Allow me to be blunt for a moment. This is a stupid quote, founded on a stupid debate, and it's insulting. It's insulting to all the Customer Service Managers, Accounting Managers, Operations Managers and Plant Managers who are showing up every day, driven to make a difference for their businesses and their people.

Why do we insist on continuing this ridiculous arm wrestle? Why do we keep putting leadership and management on opposite sides of the boardroom table...trying to figure out who's stronger?

I get the fact that the word Manager has taken on some negative connotations over the years, and I get the fact that we'd like to shake that baggage. I get the fact that there are a lot of bad managers out there. I've experienced my share. And...there are plenty of good ones too. I think we'd rather skirt the baggage by ditching the word altogether, in favour of Leader, or Coach, or Mentor...or anything but, frankly. And...this approach conveniently ignores the fact that the majority of people sitting in positions of authority in our corporate world today still have the word Manager on their business cards.

"Would you be so kind as to NOT be a Manager today please??"

Allow me to be the next person to try and clear this up.


1) Leadership and Management describe activities, and they are different

There is a difference between the types of activities that fall into these two categories. Leadership activities produce change and movement, while management activities produce order and consistency (adapted from A Force for Change: How Leadership differs from Management, pp.3-8, by JP Kotter, 1990). If the leadership activity is creating a vision, the management equivalent is creating an appropriate plan and budget. If the leadership activity is to inspire and energize, the management equivalent is creating relevant incentives. Leadership activities can only be performed in the context of a group (a leader cannot be a leader unless there are also followers hanging around). Management can be performed in isolation (we manage our finances, we manage our time). Management activities are necessary in any situation where resources are insufficient to support the need or want.

There are certainly some clear lines between these activities...and...we can't, and shouldn't ignore the overlap. When Managers are involved in inspiring a group to meet its goals, they are involved in leadership. When Leaders are involved in spelling out a detailed plan, they are involved in management. The activities are different, and equally important.

Two sides of the same coin. And that coin, is the Manager.

2) Leaders and Managers describe roles, and they are not different

Do you have both a Customer Service Manager and a Customer Service Leader? What about in Operations? Do you have an Operations Manager and an Operations Leader? You likely do not. You have one position - a Customer Service Manager. You have one Chief Financial Officer. You have one Sales Manager. You have one Director of R&D. When it comes to roles in the workplace, we tend not to differentiate on the org chart, our leaders and our managers.

They are all in a position of authority, and every single one of them needs to be able to both lead and manage. Inspiring leadership doesn't work without management skill, because there's no context within which to lead. Management skill alone will not create committed followers without layering on inspiring leadership. We need both leadership and management activities to be taking place within the role of Managers if our businesses are going to thrive. We need every person in a position of authority - from team leader to CEO - to have the skills for both leadership and management.


Rather than avoiding the word Manager, how about we redeem the word Manager? How about we do the work of overcoming the baggage our bad Managers created, by deciding to develop more exceptional ones? How about we encourage and support up all those exceptional Managers in the corporate world who are bringing loads of leadership and loads of management, and creating exceptional workplaces as a result.

Leaders vs. Managers? YES, PLEASE.

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