Are you managing or leading?

Turns out management really is the problem

When managers account for roughly one in every ten employees, it might come as no surprise that they place an outsized burden on an organisation’s costs and complexity (*cough* meetings *cough*). As a result, organisational structures are constantly being reworked to address demands for efficiency

While many think the titles are interchangeable, managers and leaders actually play very different (and very important) roles – and very few people are good at both. Once you understand the difference, you’ll be able to recognise the two hats and know the right one to put on in every situation.

Management is a role, but leadership is a state of being

Leadership has nothing to do with job titles. 

Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr, Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai and Nelson Mandella are just some of the great empathetic leaders of the last century. The commonalities of this varied group perfectly define the label; they can inspire people to buy into a shared vision and give them the confidence to achieve it. 

On top of empathy, charisma and a powerful sense of purpose, these household names have one other vital trait in common; they weren’t promoted to a formal leadership position. Their influence didn’t come from sitting at the top of a hierarchy; it resulted from an incredible ability to inspire change.

Leaders use influence, managers require power – and a manager’s power is bestowed on them by their job title. Within an organisational hierarchy, managers are responsible for controlling how work gets done. They are generally accountable for delivering outputs, which can lead to micromanagement. And while this may have worked in a production line, it can backfire in modern workplaces.

Managers execute a vision, leaders create it

As you rise through the ranks, the importance of exhibiting leadership traits increases accordingly. At an executive level, leaders are expected to see the big picture; understand the business as a whole system, and see how the moving parts interact. They deal in nuance and uncertainty and are adept at juggling competing priorities. Great leaders become symbolic figures; without relying on individual relationships, they can bring people together and engage, empower, and motivate them to achieve their vision. 

Where leaders are artists, managers are technicians. Their role has a narrow focus; to execute the vision. A good manager can understand their team’s tasks and ensure they get done; they are organised, detail-focused, and tactical. They rely heavily on their ability to closely oversee the flow of work, which has become more difficult in a hybrid world. 

Because a manager’s primary focus is on the outputs (not the people performing them), they can make poor leaders. A study of 10,000 leaders within Google found that technical ability came last on the top 8 traits employees identified in an effective leader. We see the irony – organisations tend to promote technically sound experts to leadership positions.

How to show leadership at any level 

While the title of ‘manager’ is only ever assigned, leadership can be exhibited in any situation. We see examples of it everywhere, from the friend who organises a book club to students who speak out against gun violence. Within an organisation, ‘leaders’ are found at more than just senior levels. They’re easy to spot; they’re usually the people others look to for advice and guidance.

The transition can be extremely challenging for those thrust into a formal leadership role (congratulations!). The skills that got you into the position aren’t the ones to make you any good at it. Adding to this seismic shift is a challenge unique to high achievers; they are used to being good at what they do. 

Becoming a good leader at any level can mean putting the skills you’ve honed for years aside and learning an entirely new set almost from scratch. So, regardless of whether you’ve landed a leadership role or are starting in an entry-level position, it’s time to get practising:

Look across, not within
Managers are specialists, but leaders are generalists. To become a good leader, you must move outside your functional comfort zones and look outwards to the bigger picture. Whatever you’re working on, take the time to understand its broader impacts and collaborate with people from other business areas. Especially if it’s an area you need to gain more knowledge of. When making a strategic decision, learn how it relates to the broader competitive and economic environment.

Navigate competing demands
Learn how to make decisions for the good of the whole organisation, not just your area. Departments often compete for budget and people, but leaders must make trade-offs. Next time you’re working on a project, consider the desired outcomes and consider how that might impact your behaviour.

Build empathy over logic
Leaders empower people to achieve results rather than focusing on the outputs they need to deliver. Are you able to succinctly communicate the strategy you’re working towards? Can you align it with the values of the people you work alongside? Have you asked for critical feedback recently? Have you given feedback recently?

30 second action:

The next time you’re in a group situation (or watching a reality TV show!), identify the most influential person. No, they aren’t always the loudest. Who does the rest of the group look to for decision-making or to give advice and recommendations? Title aside, they are the leader.



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