Managers and Leaders Are Different?

Posted on 6/23/2016 by Merryn Rutledge

The tired claim that managers and leaders are different has serious consequences for the way we treat people and run organizations.

First, what is the alleged difference between a manager’s and a leader’s roles and capabilities? Guru Warren Bennis put it this way,

The manager administers; the leader innovates.
The manager maintains; the leader develops.
The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.
The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it. (Bennis, 2003)

In other words, a manager sees that projects and programs get done. A leader has strategic vision, originality and the ability to inspire.

Bennis went on to make the case that managers can become leaders—but the either/ordistinction stuck—and not just in business schools. Haven’t you heard a supervisor say something like, “she’s a competent manager, but not a leader” or, “he’s just not leader material?”

Such beliefs, whether voiced or not, put blinders on our own vision, constrain other people and limit our organizations. Here is how.

  • Because an employee’s job duties focus on managing programs or projects, we imagine she/he does not possess or cannot learn strategic thinking.
  • We make hiring and promotion decisions based on rigid ideas about what management vs. leadership competence involves.
  • We inadvertently compromise our ability to retain valuable employees.

shutterstock_134350289I propose that we see every employee as a leader—actually and potentially. This view activates the Pygmalion Effect wherein you, as a leader, are like the mythic artist Pygmalion. The human figure he sculpted became real when he fell in love with her. Similarly, your belief in our employees’ leadership potential activates that potential.

Here is a true story about leaders who encouraged leadership behavior in an employee: Even after several improvement cycles, a hospital Quality Improvement team could not bring the post-operative infection rate down to the target. After they invited more levels of staff onto the team, a custodian noticed the small pile of scrubs in the dirty laundry bin and wondered aloud if changing scrubs more often would make a difference. When providers began to change their cover-ups unerringly, the infection rate declined. The custodian’s careful observations, critical thinking and initiative showed leadership in action.

I invite you to explore your assumptions about leadership—what it is and who shows it. Then, analyze the way you develop leaders in your organization. For example:

  • Take a hard look at how you manage performance. “Appraisal” practices are often judgmental and punitive. Recreate a system that focuses on learning and appreciative leadership.
  • Create an organization-wide mentoring system.
  • Provide an external, credentialed coach for all executives (for example, all VP’s; all C-suite executives.)
  • Make sure every person promoted into a supervisor role learns how to supervise with a focus on learning. Provide a variety of ways to learn—with a mentor; with a coach who is not in the chain of coachee supervision and not from HR; by reading and reflective writing/discussion; through communities of practice; through courses.
  • When you form project teams, include staff at all levels so they learn to collaborate, identify problems, find root causes, and design and implement solutions.