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Leadership and management are often intertwined concepts, especially in recent years as the roles have become increasingly blurry through organizational life.
In large matrix organizations, a manager may have authority over some stakeholders, but not all. Similarly, a manager may manage “things” like deadlines, resources, and tools. They may also manage people. In small or medium-sized businesses, a manager and a leader may be the same person, which may create tensions between the two hats that the individual wears.
What is leadership?
Leadership is a big, fuzzy term that is often misunderstood.
When you want to differentiate between leadership and management, remember that it is similar to the rule that all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. In leadership circles, I believe that all leaders are managers, but not all managers are leaders. To me, this all comes down to influence.
Influence is, in its basic form, the ability to have an effect on an outcome. Simply put, one cannot influence a “thing.” For example, I can’t influence a report to be written. I can’t influence a widget to fit into a machine. I can’t influence sauce to taste better. These things have human components to them: a writer, an engineer, a chef.
These human workers must be managed until they achieve mastery — an informative report, a sleek machine, a delicious sauce. It’s the role of a manager to help the person achieve that mastery. This may entail instructing, monitoring, assessing, giving feedback, and giving incrementally more challenging tasks. The manager has to keep people motivated day-to-day.
A leader, on the other hand, has a job to directly influence.
Whereas a leader may not deal with the tactical nuances of a project, the leader does inspire and influence their people to take action. This influence is typically based on a strong vision. A leader creates that vision and tells its story, ultimately selling it and getting buy-in from stakeholders, employees, and customers alike.
A manager executes on that vision — usually deep into tactical planning, focused on how to get his or her people from point A to point B.
A leader sets a vision and may get others to help execute on it, while a manager directly executes a vision.
Another way to think of this is similar to parenthood. A parent must be a manager and a leader when a child is young and reliant on their parents. However, as the child grows to be an adult and become more independent, the parent’s role changes to one of leadership.
At this point, the parent’s job is to continue to influence their son or daughter to live within the family set of values, standards, and aspirations. Yet, typical parents can no longer manage the day to day activities of their adult children (thank heavens).
1. Asks strategic questions.
A good leader, whether explicitly or internally, is always asking, “are we solving the right problem?”
Sometimes this question may show up as a simple “why?” or “why not?” This is the leader’s way of challenging the normative thinking so the team can be more focused, creative, and/or strategic.
2. Creates clarity
The business world today is ambiguous and constantly changing. A successful leader creates clarity for their team.
This can be verbal clarity, such as deciding or reiterating something, or it can be behavioral, such as exhibiting the values of the organization with consistency.
3. Focus attention on the right things
Attention is scarce in today’s working world.
Distractions, getting pulled in different directions, and varying interests all threaten our ability to hold our attention. A good leader does more than show people what is important.
They also help people focus on what can be (and should be) deprioritized. This is critical for a busy modern organization.
4. Is vulnerable and humble
While many leaders in the news and media are flashy, bombastic, and egotistical, I argue that the vast majority of good leaders show humility and vulnerability.
Especially for new leaders, humility fosters trust. Vulnerability, or the openness to express raw emotion, creates a closeness and identification with employees, even if there is no personal relationship. Both of these constructs have been found to motivate and engage employees.
5. Is a compelling communicator.
The ability to influence most often relies on verbal communication.
While leaders communicate in a variety of styles — tough, fervent, kind, supportive, persuasive, funny, inspirational — the style matters less than the ability to compel someone to act or think differently. This is what it means to be compelling.
5 key characteristics of a good manager
1. Is organized
Coordination, planning, and control are all part of a manager’s purview.
This organization must extend to other people and teams, meaning the manager must be able to communicate the methods or mechanisms of organization. For example, this could be a dashboard report, a key metric, a daily meeting.
What are the mechanisms you are using to keep things organized, and are they accessible and understandable by everyone?
2. Can “see around the corner” for both threats and opportunities
This is all about being strategic and anticipating what might happen. This preparation and scenario planning is critical for the manager as all the subject-matter-experts have their heads down, immersed in their own tasks.
3. Is a systems thinker that can articulate how their work projects fit into a larger goal or initiative
Similarly to the above, the manager must be able to explain what part each person plays in the initiative. Sometimes, one task or role may seem superfluous, but in reality it is a critical keystone to the entire initiative.
4. Has empathy for front-line workers
The manager is one that must balance empathy and direction, such as both listening and telling.
This is a very hard balance, no doubt. Empathy is understanding the good, bad, and the ugly with front-line workers, and oftentimes that requires an abundance of listening.
5. Has a healthy risk tolerance (but not too healthy!)
Managers must learn to take small, calculated risks. Too big of risks can put the project tasks in a threatening position, but smart risks can prove very fruitful.
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Are you better as a leader or a manager?
It’s important to note that we need both managers and leaders.
Both roles contribute to achieving the right goals in the right way. If your strengths lie in keeping things organized, tactical, and productive even when things get uncomfortable or pressured, then you may have great management potential.
If you have a knack for inspiring big thinking, challenging the status quo, and influencing people to go along with your ideas, then leadership of some sort may be in your future. Lean into developing more and broader leadership skills.
Regardless, working on this self-reflection of your strengths with your coach is a great way to get some clarity on your next career move.
BetterUp Fellow Coach