The Difference Between Leaders and Managers? Less Than You Think!

The world is full of classic face-offs:

Red Sox vs. Yankees

King Kong vs. Godzilla

Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla

Dracula vs. Frankenstein

Kirk vs. Picard

They’re all pikers! Nothing, absolutely nothing, compared to the big one: Leaders vs. Managers. As important as any of these other matchups might be in some circles, none of them have ever generated the sheer volume, passion, and press as the eternal debate over the difference between leaders and managers. Classic arguments in the leader vs. manager debate include such pearls of wisdom as, “Managers take you safely along the map, leaders take you off the map;” Peter Drucker’s classic, “Managers do what’s right, leader’s do the right thing;” and so on.

If there is a fairly consistent theme in the leader vs. manager debate it’s that leaders are somehow innately superior to the poor manager. Managers are relegated to the role of also-ran or minor functionary. While I hate to disagree with Drucker, not only is this unfair to managers, it’s also inaccurate.

The fact is no one can single-handedly lead a large organization. A skilled, charismatic leader might be able to individually lead 10 or twenty people, although even that is probably pushing it. By the time your organization is up to 100, 1000, or 10,000 members, it’s too big for one person. There are too many moving parts, too many specialized groups. Each of those groups needs to know how they fit into the overall mission and strategy of the organization; how does the corporate mission apply to them and why are they important? Let’s face it, groups and individuals who are seen as not important to the success of the organization don’t stick around. Either they get fired because they aren’t producing or they leave because they don’t feel connected and involved.

That overall leader needs lieutenants, essentially “sub leaders,” whose job it is to communicate the leader’s vision to their individual groups. Those lieutenants, better known as managers, are the conduits through which the overall vision and strategy is brought home to individuals and small groups. It is up to them to provide the underlying support that enables the CEO to lead. The CEO of a company can speak in terms of broad and exciting visions, but the managers need to make it specific to each individual team member, and then enable each team member to contribute to the vision.

By individualizing the vision, managers enable individuals to contribute to the vision and help bring it to life. The best managers recognize that one of the most important things they can do is bring out the best in each person, hone their strengths so that they can become enthusiastic contributors to the organization; they don’t try to put in what isn’t there. The CEO is too far removed from the individual team members to see each person’s strengths and weaknesses and figure out how to make the best use of them. The individual managers, on the other hand, are perfectly positioned to do that. Just as the overall leader of an organization must identify and build the strengths of the business, so the leader of each team must help each individual develop his or her own individual strengths. Just as the CEO must weave together the differing strengths of each part of the organization into a cohesive whole, the manager must weave together the differing strengths of each individual team member to produce a high performance team. Mediocre managers focus on “fixing” weaknesses; great managers focus on building strengths. It’s not an easy task, however, which is why so many managers, and CEOs, fail to do it.

So what then is the real difference between leaders and managers? It comes down to scope: While the leader may set the overall vision and direction for the organization, the managers then bring it to life within their particular areas. People who cannot do that should not be managers-¦ or leaders. In the end, managers and leaders really are not all that different!

Stephen Balzac is an expert on leadership and organizational development. A consultant, author and professional speaker, he is president of 7 Steps Ahead, an organizational development firm focused on helping businesses get unstuck. Steve is the author of “The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development,” published by McGraw-Hill, and a contributing author to volume one of “Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play.” You can contact Balzac at (978) 298-5189, or [email protected].

Richard Blanchard

Rick is the Managing Editor of Corp! magazine. He has worked in reporting and editing roles at the Port Huron Times Herald, Lansing State Journal and The Detroit News, where he was most recently assistant business editor. A native of Michigan, Richard also worked in Washington state as a reporter, photographer and editor at the Anacortes American. He received a bachelor of arts from the University of Michigan and a master’s in accountancy from the University of Phoenix.

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