Leading vs. Managing: Not Absolutes, but a Continuum


In my recent article “leading with Impact” backing away from the day-to-day, I discuss how difficult it is for many people to make the transition from being a working supervisor of a team to a mid-level manager.  What I am really talking about is the difference between leading and managing.   I hate the idea that we label people as either “leaders” or “managers” (with leaders thought of as being those with higher organizational rank).  I think it is more useful to think less about the nouns, and more about the verbs (manage and lead).   Every supervisor, team leader, department head or executive needs to do some of both. We have the day-to-day challenges that need to be controlled, directed or “managed”.  In addition, we need to think about  establishing priorities, setting a course, providing encouragement and inspiration, developing people and making hard choices, “leading”.

When I speak about the differences between leading and managing, some people have difficulty because they feel it is an either/or proposition.

It is not.  Every team is unique, and has differing levels of demonstrated ability to solve problems and make good decisions.    There are always times when the stakes are so high that any manager needs to roll up their sleeves and wade into the morass.   But when that represents 70 – 85% of what your work week, I would challenge you to step back a bit.

Autocratic vs Delegating ManagerWe need to think about leading and managing as a continuum – as illustrated above.   At the far left there is an autocratic space where the manager dominates decision making.  This is probably appropriate with newly formed teams when you haven’t yet assessed how much latitude to give them.    At the extreme right end of the scale the followers dominate, after having earned your trust, and you are comfortable with their ability to analyze situations and make judgments that are aligned with what you have defined as your main mission and priority.

As your team evolves, your work doesn’t decrease, but it does become different.  You are less needed to manage the tasks and transactional issues faced by your team.   Your energy, instead, is put into developing the relationships within it.   Your focus becomes more about caring for each of your people (coaching, teaching, mentoring, and encouraging each person in the way that they most need at any point in time.)  You become the link between them and the corporation’s grand strategy.   You are the bridge between your team and the other departments within your organization whose help you must enlist to face the challenges in front of you. You run interference, and develop relationships with all other department heads.    Because you are less tied down with the daily tasks and transactions of your department, you should have more time to look outside to see what is happening in the world of your customers, competitors and new technologies.   You probably attend more conferences and travel more than your subordinates and should be able to bring back new ideas, perspectives and ways of thinking that could help your team grow.

Yes,  it is a continuum, and few teams operate at the extreme ends of the spectrum.  They are probably somewhere in between.  But you should be asking yourself not only where on the spectrum you are today, but what are you doing to move your team towards the right?

The hard part is that you need to be willing to let go more than you would like.   You have to trust your team more, even though that can be both risky and scary.   But if you concur that moving your team toward the right side of the grid is beneficial, it may help you to take some inspiration from one of my favorite leadership thinkers, Professor Warren Bennis.

In his foundational book “On Becoming a Leader”, Warren Bennis produced a list of differences between managers and leaders.  Because I dislike those labels, I have edited some of them to be about the verbs:

  • Managing is about administration – having charge of something and directing it, Leading is about innovation – thinking always of the new, better, and improved ways, and influencing events to help the team move ahead with a spirit of excitement
  • The manager is a copy; the leader is an original – comfortable with who they are, and confident to blaze new trails
  • Managing helps maintain order, the status quo, pressing for efficiency; leading is about developing – people, systems – tools – processes
  • Managing is about stuff, systems and structure; leading is about people
  • Managing relies on control;  leading works through inspiring trust
  • Managing is about the here and now  (a short-range view); leading is about possibilities of what could be (a long-range perspective)
  • Managing is about how and when; leading is about what and why
  • Managing focuses attention on the bottom line; leading requires looking toward the horizon – seeing things before others, and insuring your organization executes course corrections as a result
  • Managing is about eliminating risks – it  imitates; leading accepts prudent levels of risk – it  originates
  • A managing mindset values the status quo; a leading mindset challenges it
  • Managers want to do things right;  leaders care more about doing the right things

So think about it.  Where are you on the spectrum in comparison with where you would like to be?   Now is a good time to begin doing something about it.

Other Resources:

Leading Versus Managing: Eight Key Differences. by  Marie Peeler, Peeler Associates

What’s the difference of management vs leadership?from the Leadership Toolbox

Or watch this 4 min video clip, by Dr. Brian Wong, the Bedside Trust (patient driven leadership in Health Care)

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