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Do You Need a Leader or a Manager?

team effectiveness Sep 07, 2020

Written by Ed Cook

The words leader and manager often are used interchangeably, and with that slipshod usage, their individual meanings can be lost.  Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis are often quoted as saying:

“Management is doing the things right and Leadership is doing the right thing.”   

This points to deeper insights.  Management is about making things happen. It is literally about manipulation.  The words management and manipulation both come from the Latin word manus, meaning hand.  If done well, there are efficiencies gained and improvements made in every aspect of what the manager’s organization is doing, but that success is circumscribed.  Great managers are still working under constraints that have been given to them.  They can be awesome but only with what is given to them.  Leadership is about seeing beyond the confines and setting a vision for something better.  The origin of the word is very different.  It comes from Proto-Germanic, laidjana meaning to go.  Leaders take their teams somewhere else.

What is the difference between leadership and management?

A way to parse the difference is to ask: "When should you lead and when should you manage?" To answer, there are three key questions to ask, and if any of those are true it is s time to move from being a manager to a leader.

1) Do we need to make a change in order to grow or even survive in the future?

Amazing managers can optimize and improve, but if the situation requires a change it is time to throw away the manual (another word that comes from the Latin, manus).  For a change, you need a leader.  On January 15th, 2009 as US Airways Flight 1549 climbed over New York City, the crew experienced a  nightmare -- a double engine failure from multiple bird strikes.  Having quickly exhausted the procedures in the manual, there was no more managing left to do.  Captain “Sully” Sullenberger made the decision to land in the Hudson River,  saving all onboard the aircraft.  Beyond being a remarkable feat of flying, it is an exemplary bit of leadership.   Applying six-sigma, exercising management-by-walking -around, or even holding a brainstorming session, were not going to work.  Only a Leader as Change Agent was going to save the day!

"In a battle between two ideas, the best one doesn't necessarily win. No, the idea that wins is the one with the most fearless heretic behind it." --Seth Godin

Since most of us will not need to apply leadership in life and death situations, a useful question to ask is “What is the best I can hope to achieve with management tools?”  If all was fully optimized and efficient and lean and all the other important terms of management, then where would you and the team be?  This is a powerful question...if truly applied.  First, it means that to be successful as a manager you must master the tools of management so it is possible to answer the question.  Second, you must develop a true honesty with yourself about the ability of you and your team to hit the maximum value with these tools.  That achievement is rare.  Don’t bet on always being the best and hitting the near-impossible goal every time. 

2) Are the people on my team able to drive change without me?

If you are the only one who can drive change, then, again, you and your team are limited by your abilities.  It’s time to start coaching your team members to advance their own skills.  Coaching is a leadership skill.  Creating a high-performing jazz ensemble is a wonderful example.  In this essay, David Berger, a high-school music teacher,  gives a masterful example of management and leadership, particularly coaching.  He talks about how jazz was traditionally learned from experienced players, but, in the high school setting, there is only one experienced player, the teacher.  So he arranges the seating of the ensemble to allow them to better hear and learn from each other -- management.  He then goes on to describe how to help his bassist feel confident without an amplifier -- coaching (a part of leadership).  And then he further describes the changes that every other player can make now that the bassist no longer is amplified and drowning the other players out.  It is a masterful example of Leader as Coach.

“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be." --Rosalynn Carter

An insightful illustration offered by music performance is the difference between a symphony conductor and a jazz leader.  A conductor needs to manage the performance all the way to the end.  To be certain, conductors can be leaders, but on the stage, they manage.  Note: in jazz, the term “leader” is used,  not “conductor.”  At the time of the performance, most of the active leadership is done.  It all happened in rehearsals. The successful jazz leader has been coaching the ensemble so that they now can make decisions and adapt as the performance evolves.  In the performance, only light leadership is needed.  Done well, the result is a moving piece of art unmatched in other genres.

3) Do my people have Joy at Work?

A great manager will have laid out the skills each person on the team needs to be successful.  A great manager will carefully define the competencies required for each job and then match employees to those jobs.  A great manager will give instructive feedback about how each person on the team is doing and how the team is doing as a whole so that action can be taken to continually improve.  All of that work is wonderful, but done at the top-level of managerial performance with subtle and impactful conversations, it will not grow Joy at Work.  Managers can set the necessary foundation, but only a leader can provide the conditions that grow Joy at Work.   

"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea."  --Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Whether it is research from 15 years ago or more recent popular books, growing Joy at Work is reported as elusive for so many.  Why?

On the surface, growing Joy at Work is in tension with business profitability. The business is about the service or goods it produces, not about being a joy generator for employees, right? In the moment-by-moment decision-making that is true for every manager, the pressure is to handle the solution to the immediate problem. Growing Joy at Work for those on your team is great, but you have a problem to solve now! This is another distinguishing characteristic between the leader and the manager.  

Managers solve immediate problems. Leaders solve future problems.

I’ve been conducting research into growing Joy at Work.  There is far more to learn before publishing anything in an academic journal,  but one pattern is clear.  Leaders, who use change initiatives to not only get the work done but to advance their team’s culture, get to experience the benefits of growing Joy at Work. Those who are leaders in name but not intention, and who tend to shove change into their team, often experience the perils of being a change agent.  There is a connection between change and Joy at Work. Each reinforces the other.  Whether that reinforcement is positive or negative is created by the intent of the leader.

“There are many leaders in this world but few will ever feel the joy of true, virtuous followership.” --Roxanne Brown 

Do you need a leader or a boss (manager)? 

The answer, not surprisingly, is you need both to grow Joy at Work. There is a relationship between leadership and management that is important here. A great manager can create a high-performing team that gets more efficient with every turn of the management screw. But the business annals are rife with well-managed companies that flamed out because of a lack of leadership.  A great leader can avert disaster and lead the team to safety, but without a strong managerial system, the group will lurch from crisis to crisis.  Great organizations need effective managers and inspired leaders to grow Joy at Work.

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Are you aware of your leadership philosophy? Does your team know your philosophy of leadership and how that guides your words and actions?

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