Managers vs. Leaders, Authority vs. Influence

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Much has been written about the difference between managers and leaders.  And while I don’t wish to add more to the debate, I feel compelled to jump in based on a discussion with one of my employees recently.

I sat down with this employee as part of a regularly scheduled check in and we talked about her development and growth.  As she aspired to eventually step into a management role at some point, we got into how managers are actually different from leaders.  Now, perhaps by true definition managers could be misconstrued as leaders because they are the head of a team or department.  The leaders I’m talking about are the types of people to whom others look up to.

To me, managers are tactical.  They are responsible for getting things done to meet deadlines and make deliveries.  They are highly task focused, making sure that everything under their domain is organized, crisp and scheduled appropriately.  In short, managers are focused on execution in business.  And there are managers who are extremely effective at this and who are reliable time and time again.

Leaders, however, will also be good at execution but how they get the results distinguishes them from managers.  In my view, leaders possess similar skills to managers, but are further enhanced by their interpersonal connections with people.  Further, leaders understand that their results are obtained through inspiring and motivating employees, encouraging them to want to do their best.

Here’s a simple example of the difference.  A customer calls on Monday and asks for help.  They are in need of a critical product shipment by Friday.  An effective manager is likely to map out the various items that have to get done, and will go ask Michael, Anna and John to each perform a specific task in order to make the Friday deadline happen.  A good manager will do this in a non-threatening manner and the employees will gladly follow the direction to complete their respective task.

In contrast, a good leader will pull Michael, Anna and John into a meeting room to discuss the situation.  The leader would map out what he or she thinks needs to happen as a vision.  The leader will also explain why the Friday deadline is so important and then solicit additional ideas from Michael, Anna and John on how to go about the activity.  The employees, in response, feel their input is valued and that they are part of the solution.

In both cases, the results may be the same.  There was a rally and the team was able to pull through successfully.  But while the manager was able to get the task done well and one time, the leader did the same but got the results through engaging and empowering the employees.  So while many of us want to work for a great manager, to me, even more of us want to work for a great leader who will inspire and empower us to do our best.

To illustrate some specific differences, here are some traits of two different department heads I worked with in my career.  One I would call a great manager.  The other was a great leader.

The Great Manager

The Great Leader

Organized and planned employee activitiesOrganized and planned activities with employees
Scheduled work to be completed on timeSought feedback on how to get work done on time
Created accountability and expected employees to deliver to their promisesExpected employees to deliver, but helped remove obstacles
Respected by others and kept people on taskConnected to others and willingly related to employee challenges
Hedged commitment dates to which the team could comfortably deliverProvided commitment dates based on prior feedback from employees
Highly engaged in coordinating things within the departmentProvided vision for what needed to get done and asked the team to find the best solution
Sought by employees for directionSought by employees for feedback
Respected and valued for their authorityRespected and valued for their influence

While I didn’t want to jump into the debate, the meeting I had with my employee got me thinking about the differences between managers and leaders.  In short, leaders connect with people in ways that managers may not.  Those interpersonal connections and inspiring vision are what create great leaders and long-term success.  In the words of one executive I met with many years ago, “natural leaders have followers because we gravitate towards those who provide inspiration and motivation.” I highly encourage you to look at people you see in your business.  What traits do you find?

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