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Leadership is a skill, Manager is a role

Posted in Leadership, Management

Lyda Hawes is the Director of Client Services at LexBlog, the company that developed this blog. From time to time she and I have discussed the topic of management and leadership and I asked her to share her thoughts in this guest post. She also writes for LexBlog’s Client Services blog, Please Advise. Apart from this, as all who deal with her will confirm, she is one of those special people you get to deal with in the business world from time to time – Sean

Leadership vs Management? In this guest post Lyda Hawes  reviews this age-old distinction. I always encourage managers to develop their leadership skills and leaders to exercise good management skills as and when that is required as part of their role – Sean

Comparing the difference between leaders and managers is a popular topic in the leadership blogosphere. In fact, if you do a Google search on “leader vs manager” you get over 30 million results. While I expect there are examples that extoll the virtues of managers buried somewhere in those 30 million sites (well, at least I am aware of one, the one I wrote almost a year ago, Managers are People Too), the general consensus is that leaders are where all the cool stuff like vision and strategy take place, and managers are often left to the less fun task of managing tasks. In the 1989 book, “On Becoming a Leader,” author Warren Bennis gave us these comparisons (cited from The Wall Street Journal):

  • 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 has his or her eye always 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.

When I look at the list I ask myself why anyone would ever sign up to be a manager. What I find that most of these comparisons lack is a fundamental discussion of the difference between someone’s role based on their job title (Manager, Director, Executive Director) and the skills they need to perform that role successfully (leadership, organizational skills, vision). I believe what most of these leader vs manager comparisons are really trying to say is that many people in the manager role are failing to exhibit leadership skills. I’m not sure we should all aspire to be CEOs, but any of us has the opportunity to develop our leadership skills in whatever role we play in the organization.

I also think there is a real temptation to associate leadership traits only with those who have the appropriate title. Those of us who have climbed the corporate ladder a rung or two often forget that it was the skills we honed earlier in our careers that helped us make that climb in the first place.

It brings to mind an experience I had as a member of a leadership team. This team decided to do a SWOT analysis (examining our Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) for the organization. We worked hard and were well-pleased with our results. We decided to share the outcome with the larger team and get their feedback and input. I can’t speak for the other leadership team members, but I know I made the mistaken assumption that we might get a question or two, and perhaps even a new idea, but otherwise our efforts would essentially be rubber-stamped for their elegance and brilliance (clearly, a lesson in humility in the making…).

Instead, the larger group took our initial results and expanded them and improved on them by measurable leaps and bounds. It was an inspiring reminder that no one holds the keys to good ideas. The true leadership skill exhibited that day was the wisdom to invite our colleagues to exhibit their own leadership skills.

Would I rather be a manager or a leader?  That is the wrong question. The better question is how can I grow my own skills as a manager and leader to build an outstanding team of leaders and managers.