Are “manager” and “leader” just different words that describe the same function?
In a word, no.
In this column, I will share my thoughts about the distinctions between managing and leading.
First, a caution: Despite the distinctions, good managers exercise leadership and competent leaders are capable of managing when necessary. There’s overlap, but the focus differs significantly.
I’ll discuss three important differences. For each, I’ll suggest an associated dilemma.
Distinction No. 1: Managers shepherd projects. Leaders build relationships.
Every organization depends on accomplishing tasks and projects in order to survive. Successfully completing projects involves some combination of directing and informing people (customers as well as project teams), assembling and interpreting data, and manipulating things: equipment, computers, tools and so forth.
Project managers make sure tasks get done on time and on budget. It’s a critical success factor that should never be underappreciated.
But it’s not the same as leading.
Leaders focus mostly on building relationships. The relationships come in four varieties: direct reports, peers, bosses and clients.
The best leaders spend 25 percent of their time (or more) connecting with and coaching those who report to them, one-on-one. Team meetings with direct reports are like family dinners: Good opportunities to catch up, but not very effective in building individual connections. For those to happen, one-on-one interactions are essential.
In addition to direct reports, leaders pay attention to how they are “syncing” with peers. They also take charge of connecting regularly with their boss. It’s best if those meetings reflect a mix of business and personal.
Attentive listening, sincere curiosity, candid self-disclosure, thought-provoking questions and dedication to one-on-one time are the most important features of connection. This also applies in a powerful way to spouse, children and sibling relationships.
Associated dilemma: Many leaders I know function like glorified project managers. Their over-involvement in tasks and to-do lists strangles their availability to establish solid connections with people.
When less disciplined top-level leaders spend too much of their time managing projects and putting out fires, relationships suffer and coaching gets ignored.
Distinction No. 2: Managers think shorter term. Leaders think longer term.
Projects and tasks carry deadlines that are usually short-term, which means the thought process of a manager occurs within a time fence. Forward-thinking managers might extend their sight line beyond the fence, but they still have to focus inside it.
A leader’s time horizon is longer.
Leaders cannot afford to get stuck in the issues and problems du jour; their mindset requires far-sightedness. Because a three- to five-year future is difficult to predict, a leader’s vision is at least partially guided by intuition and experience.
Experienced leaders ponder strategic questions: Where are we headed? What surprises might lie ahead that could influence our direction? What preparations can we make today to get ready for tomorrow?
Associated dilemma: Like athletic coaches, organizational leaders sometimes bemoan the ebb and flow of popularity according to their team’s most recent performance. Pressure from short-sighted investors and board members can pull leaders into a quick-fix mentality: “What did you make last month?” Or, “What’s the current stock price?”
Leaders fall into a dangerous trap when they take their eyes off the long-range vision and succumb to the pressures of the moment.
Distinction No. 3: Managers measure results. Leaders drive culture and clarify beliefs.
Managers—particularly project managers—live in a world of measurable results: costs, revenues, profits, hours, product or service outputs and customer complaints can, to a high degree, be numerically assessed.
Without those metrics, a business can too easily fool itself about progress and improvement.
Those who lead people consider a different but equally important variable: “What’s it like to work here?”
Astute leaders know that when it comes to attracting, retaining and developing high performers, culture is king. That’s why they promote values such as honesty, openness, enjoyment, challenge and a learning-driven mindset.
But promoting values isn’t enough. Since behaviors are rooted in beliefs, cultural leadership requires that leaders scrutinize and clarify their own and others’ beliefs. Paying attention to what people think and believe is at least as important as measurements.
For example, it’s tough to measure a change in the mindset of a direct report, or lack of confidence in a new direction, or the impact of a difficult conversation. Beliefs, not numbers, dictate how these situations occur and how they get resolved.
Culture is driven by the beliefs of leaders. What leaders believe—about attitudes, motivation, success, maturity and confidence—exerts a quiet power on outcomes.
If you’re a leader, I think I could convince you quite quickly that every decision you make is rooted in your beliefs, including your assumptions, biases and convictions.
Consider how beliefs show up in a few recent statements I’ve heard from leaders:
“I have to placate my sales force. They don’t like conflict.”
“The company we merged with just doesn’t get our culture.”
“The reason I work so many hours is because I love my work.”
“Employees in our Southeast region have a lower sense of urgency.”
All of these leadership statements are rooted in beliefs, not measurable facts. Are the beliefs accurate? Answering that question is the key to the kingdom.
Associated dilemma: Leaders who fail to question their beliefs, scrutinize their assumptions and clarify their values open the gates to not only bad business decisions, but also moral and relationship perils.
As one example, American voters appear to respond favorably to “strong convictions” from their presidential candidates. Are the strong convictions being looked at carefully? Do candidates’ beliefs line up with reality?
Without the filter of reasonableness and good will, strong beliefs become reckless governing tools. Every nefarious dictator in human history bellowed strong convictions.
Application to marriage and family: Leaders and managers who understand these distinctions enjoy advantages in not only their work organizations as well as their families.
Responsible parents function as both project managers and leaders. The seemingly endless stream of details, plus the tracking of learning, transportation, food and safety needs, can easily overwhelm the most level-headed parent.
Here’s the associated dilemma: Parents who get consumed in the day-to-day lives of their kids often forget to step back and lead their children.
The distinctions discussed in this column apply to parents. If you want to be a family leader, build one-on-one connection with each child, think long-term, and examine the accuracy of your beliefs about each of your kids.
In the end, your leadership will have a bigger impact on the family than the projects and tasks that fill up each day.
John Engels is an international leadership thought leader, speaker and writer. He is president of Leadership Coaching Inc., a science-based consulting firm serving top-level leaders and partners in family businesses and professional firms. He can be reached at John@LeadershipCoachingInc.com.
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