I had no idea what I was going to write about as I sat myself down to put words to virtual paper today, until this topic popped into my brain. I’m not sure why it came to me, but let’s address the subject first; there are very key differences in these words, beyond their definitions. Many places use them interchangeably, and add in the word ‘strategic’ to define who they actually mean when talking about their company. When someone mentions the leaders or management of a company, they convey very similar images, perhaps a board room or power suits.
What really separates these two is the function of the roles. Let me draw this image for you and you tell me what you think the difference might be. “He led the unit into battle.” Or “He ordered the unit into battle.” The first statement says to me that whomever “He” was, he was right alongside the brave men and women of his unit, fighting and risking everything right there with them, climbing the same hills and sharing in their pain, sacrifice and loss. The second statement to me is of an officer of some rank whom issues orders to the various captains and sergeants on the line to carry out instructions.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that generals are not leaders in their own right or have not earned through exemplary leadership these privileges and burdens of responsibility, but given the imagery above, it is hard to find the two qualities of leadership equal. You can find leaders in any organization in the world, from local governments, to school boards, to welders unions, to company board rooms all the way down to the mail room. Leaders are the ones who take PERSONAL responsibility for the people who report to them, for their well-being and their conduct. You also don’t need to be a supervisor to be a leader. Someone who is there, inspires their fellow man through their own work, and puts in as much or more effort than even their most senior coworker could be considered a leader. Leaders trust the people they work with to make the decisions that are best for themselves and the work.
Managers are a necessary component to any organization. Managers are the rank and file supervisory people who need to ensure all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed. Without managers, many projects go unfinished and goals of a visionary or leader could never get realized. The manager is there to coordinate workload, reduce wasted effort between individuals while expanding the output overall of the organization to its maximum efficiency. That’s in a perfect world, of course. The real world has a much different realization on what a manger can or cannot accomplish, but I believe most of that can be attributed to organizational politics which is another topic entirely.
So in closing, leaders take personal responsibility for the people around them and are held accountable willingly by others and themselves for those people, inspiring action and progress along the way. They don’t have to be the best or the smartest, they just have to show others they are willing to work as hard as they are and will never let their end fall of whatever the project might be, and trusting others to keep their end up just as much as they are. Managers take the workload of a project or organizational process and make sure it’s carried out in the most efficient and logical way, working to improve the output with fewer resources where possible. Managers can be leaders. Leaders can be managers. These two words are not mutually inclusive and are not interchangeable.
For further reading, please see Simon Sinek’s brilliant book “Leaders Eat Last”.