Manager or Leader – which one are you?

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We are constantly bombarded with advice on how to be a better manager or leader. Expert opinions abound; thousands of books, articles, blogs, and TED Talks have been dedicated to management and leadership, and the terms are often used interchangeably. The job market routinely showcases management positions that require the incumbent to lead a group or department. Not surprisingly, many young aspiring leaders actively seek management roles with the belief that a title can provide the credibility they need to make an impact in the business world. But I believe this pursuit is often misguided.

The dictionary definitions of leadership and management seem similar at first glance. However, business gurus know leadership is not as straightforward as Merriam-Webster would have us believe. Effective managers may excel in managing administrative requirements, ensuring the team follows process, maintaining system and structure, and working toward stated goals, without ever embodying the characteristics of a true leader. Their tasks are important. Without their supervisory oversight, organizations and society as a whole would cease to function (or at least function properly). Some managers will eventually ascend to even more senior roles with increasing responsibility. However, the term leader conjures up a different image for me.

The definition of leadership deserves further exploration. In a recent article, best-selling authors Kevin Kruse and Dr. Travis Bradberry define leadership as a “process of social influence which maximizes the efforts of others toward the achievement of a greater good.” Unlike management, leadership is independent of level or seniority, and transcends organizational hierarchy. It is often present at the reception desk and, at times, absent in the proverbial C-Suite. But to my mind, Warren Bennis coined one of the most defining aspects of strong leaders in On Becoming a Leader: “The manager accepts the status quo; the leader challenges it.”

Leaders can be developed, but some of the world’s most influential leaders – from Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher to Steve Jobs and, more recently, Elon Musk – didn’t have a PhD in leadership. Yet, they have inspired countless others. They demonstrated a passion, focus and vision that others followed and motivated people to accomplish great things.

If you’ve read any book on Steve Jobs, you may have noted he wasn’t much of a manager. In fact, Jobs seemed to go out of his way not to manage others. But it would be ill-advised to conclude he wasn’t a leader. Jobs had a clear vision of what Apple was, what the brand meant, and the limitless potential of the organization. He inspired people to follow his vision, and ultimately Apple became the most valuable company on the planet. As he put it, “My job is not to be easy on people. My job is to take these great people we have and to push them and make them even better.” So was he a good manager? From a traditional people management perspective, I’d say no. But by almost any account, he was an effective leader.

There are other examples of leadership far less famous then those cited above, but still critically important in our daily lives. These people come from all walks of life and include community leaders, coaches, volunteers and employees at all organizational levels. They may have managerial authority within their respective organizations, but they often do not. These leaders influence others not through hierarchy, but through less tangible qualities, including vision, creativity, energy, enthusiasm, empathy, intellect and drive. But above all else, I think great leaders show concern for others. They put the needs of the group ahead of their own and celebrate the successes of the collective. We’ve all heard examples of outstanding individual performers being promoted to management only to learn just how difficult it is to lead. Often, people in these situations miss the personal satisfaction of their individual accomplishments. In contrast, people with strong leadership qualities place greater value on the opportunity to share in something bigger than themselves.

As a recruitment professional, I’ve met with hundreds of young professionals who long to become managers. This ambition comes with the best of intentions, as they want advancement, increased authority and responsibility, enhanced compensation and to gain the experience that comes with being responsible for others. The motivations are usually quite self-serving, but there is nothing wrong with having these goals. In fact, I remember wanting the same things earlier in my career. What I missed at the time, and what I believe others still miss, is that the opportunity to lead is often right in front of us.

We all have the opportunity to lead in one way or another, be it in our workplaces or in our communities. These opportunities surround us and, unlike a promotion, no one needs to give us the right to grasp them. We can demonstrate leadership in simple ways, such as helping a new colleague adjust to his or her surroundings, taking on a new project at work, volunteering to coach minor hockey or giving back in some other way to the community. For example, organizations like Fusion Halifax provide young professionals with excellent opportunities to take on leadership roles, and the learnings can be profound and career enhancing. I’d argue that leadership opportunities outnumber management opportunities by a considerable margin. To be a leader, you simply need to act like one.

This is not intended to discredit managers. Effective management is a critical component in how we structure the world around us. However, let’s not confuse management with leadership. I encourage young professionals who can’t wait to become a manager to first ask themselves if they’ve taken advantage of the leadership opportunities available to them. In an ideal world, the responsibility and authority that accompany management roles are only granted to an individual once leadership traits and competencies are demonstrated. I believe the very best managers were leaders first, and some of the best leaders never actually manage much at all. So before you decide to pursue that promotion, ask yourself if you have the leadership qualities that will be required to excel. If not, temper your expectation for formal advancement and direct your energy toward being a leader first.