The Single Biggest Difference Between Leaders and Managers

leaders-vs-managersI’m not dogmatic when it comes to distinguishing the difference between leadership and management. In fact, I think the difference between leadership and management is often over-exaggerated. I’m sure you’re familiar with the common refrains:

  • Leaders do the right thing; managers do things right
  • Leaders lead people; managers manage work
  • Leaders establish the vision; managers implement it
  • Leaders are originals; managers are copies
  • Leaders have a long-range perspective; managers have a short-term view
  • Leaders inspire and motivate; managers plan, organize, and coordinate

I could list a dozen more but you get the picture. Yes, there is a kernel of truth in these statements. There are certain activities that are more germane to one function or the other, but by and large, the practice of leadership and management overlap significantly. Leaders have to manage and managers have to lead. We have to learn to do them both well because they are much more similar than they are different.

Having said that, I do believe there is one key mindset that distinguishes someone as a leader versus a manager. Notice I personalized it—being a leader versus a manager. Regardless of whether your formal position or job title classifies you as a leader or manager, it’s your mindset, and the resulting behaviors, that identify you as one or the other.

So what is the key mindset that distinguishes someone as a leader instead of a manager? It’s this:

Leaders proactively initiate change to improve the organization, whereas managers deal with change on a reactive basis.

Leaders display a desire to consistently make things better. They aren’t content to maintain the status quo just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it around here.” Leaders frequently question the way their business operates, with an eye toward making things simpler, better, easier, or more efficient. When was the last time you asked questions like:

  • Why are we doing it that way?
  • What would happen if we stopped doing that?
  • How can we reduce this process by ___? (fill in the blank…number of steps, people, amount of time, etc.)

Let’s face it, having this leadership mindset can be tough for many people (which is why there are many more managers than leaders). Change can be threatening, especially when it calls into question activities or functions your team may handle. It raises fears that you may have to disrupt your well-oiled machine, learn new ways of doing your work, or may even eliminate some roles or responsibilities for you group. Adopting this leadership mindset means you have to be more concerned about the organization’s performance than the comfort of your own team.

Although I think the distinctions between leadership and management often get blown out of proportion, I do believe there are a few key behaviors that distinguish someone as a leader versus a manager. Chief among them is proactively initiating change to make your organization better. In this regard, are you being a leader or a manager?

7 Comments on “The Single Biggest Difference Between Leaders and Managers

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  5. I think that in order to be an effective manager, you have to think and act like a leader. As stated, leaders are constantly changing their organization, and if a manager just maintains the status quo, they will not be an effective partner.

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