It’s the perfect time in our world to vanquish the long-perpetuated and unproductive myth that leaders are somehow meaningfully different from managers. This distinction — perpetuated mainly by consultants and academics — puts the practice of leadership on a pedestal and relegates the work of managers to some lower rung on the professional evolutionary ladder. It’s time to stop viewing leaders and managers as different people with mutually exclusive skill sets and use a blended role that focuses on how we develop individuals to guide, coach and support others for personal, team and organizational success.
Grossly outdated thinking about “manager”
For too long, managing has been synonymous with a supervision mindset. The assumption that managers must watch people to ensure they do what they’re supposed to do is outdated. One step above that, we have different managers responsible for assigning work, monitoring their lower-level managers and evaluating their effectiveness, often with little basis for the reality of the work. Finally, we get to leaders, who are charged with thinking deep thoughts about vision and strategy and who act like they directly control change. They don’t.
If supervision and compliance are the focal points for the role of a manager in your organization, you’ve either got a broken business system, a horribly flawed view of the potential of managers and front-line workers to execute and create, or you’ve got the wrong people. This thinking still runs rampant through too many organizations. I see it weekly in my coaching and workshop programs, and it’s unhealthy. This style of management and the dichotomy between the work of leaders and managers is certainly a mega-contributor to the regularly reported dismal statistics for employee engagement.
Mistaken, elevated view of “leading,” “leaders”
The history of the leader-manager debate is filled with profound declarations about the work of leaders. “Vision” is regularly held up as the work of the enlightened leader, never the manager. Quotes galore cement the apparent difference between individuals in the roles.
John Kotter is often credited with initiating the difference between the two roles: “The central function of management is to provide order and consistency to organizations whereas the leadership is to produce change and movement.”
A more recent quote attributed to Simon Sinek: “Leaders focus on the why while managers emphasize the how.”
And the late Stephen Covey offered: “Effective leadership is putting first things first. Effective management is discipline, carrying it out.”
Do you hear the common themes?
ChatGPT’s view of difference between leaders, managers
For some fun, try using this query with ChatGPT: “What’s the difference between a leader and a manager?” You’ll get a familiar summary of every cliche statement you might imagine lumped into categories around time orientation, risk-taking, people versus tasks, daily focus, and influence and authority.
Clearly, from the corpus of knowledge that presently feeds ChatGPT, managers are unable to think long-term, identify and take risks, focus on people and cultivate influence. What I rankle at in the feedback from the ChatGPT query is the assumption that there’s a clear dichotomy between the two roles. Effectively, we are taught that leaders don’t manage and managers don’t lead.
The ChatGPT playback was disheartening until these final lines: “It’s important to note that these roles are not mutually exclusive, and many individuals fulfill both leadership and management functions to varying degrees. Successful organizations often require individuals who can effectively combine leadership qualities with managerial skills to achieve their objectives.”
There might be some intelligence in ChatGPT after all.
Organizations desperately need blended role
In an article I wrote for SmartBrief in 2022, “Let’s replace the manager model — the old one is broken,” I offered: “This emphasis on redefining the manager’s role … requires throwing away the supervisory mentality and introducing a coaching and sponsoring mentality.”
I went so far as to suggest a name change for the manager title to something reflecting what we really need from individuals in those roles. How about “Coacher” or even “Teacher” as more relevant labels for what we need from individuals in the position we formerly called manager?
A hallmark of this rethinking the role of manager and eliminating the ridiculous and unproductive view that managers don’t lead and leaders do something different is to imbue a refined role with the need for creativity, vision, the ability to shift time horizons and the expectation that these individuals own creating change. Inherent in this thinking is the expectation that individuals in our blended role are intelligent and capable of learning and adapting and adjusting based on changing market and customer conditions.
While this shift to a complete professional model has profound implications for the selection and development of the individuals in the blended role, that’s a problem within reach and one that should have been solved long ago.
Listen to the stories: Managers lead
I hear from hundreds of professionals yearly about their best managers. I explicitly use the label “manager,” knowing I will invariably hear about behaviors and attributes we wrongly allocate to just leaders. Here’s a short selection from a recent workshop:
- My best manager treated me like an individual.
- He was a teacher and a coach.
- She cared for me while pushing me to become myself at my best.
- This manager served us, and in return, we moved mountains.
- She kept our sights on a bright future and kept us motivated to create this future.
- We found a way forward by bringing market input to help transform and refine our strategy.
- When I was in a bad spot, this manager treated me like a human.
- I owe where I’m at today to this person’s support.
- Whenever something went wrong, my manager would look at us and ask what we learned that we’ll get correct from this point forward. She took the fear out, and this approach helped us focus on getting stronger and better.
- My manager was never too busy to stop and listen to my concerns.
- When we faced big challenges, his superpower was allowing us to think freely and experiment until we got it right.
- This manager made me happy to be at work every day.
Hmm. Do you see any difference between those managers and the cliched archetype of the leader?
I think not.
How we win by burying stereotypes
Our world is reshaping itself every couple of years and at an accelerating pace. While fresh from the pandemic and still wrestling with another overdone debate on the location of work that definitely ties into the supervisory mindset, we’re fresh into the hype cycle of emergent artificial intelligence and what we expect it to do.
In truth, no one knows how things will take shape. In the interim, I sure want those responsible for others — our teams, functions, and organizations — to embed and develop the best characteristics of both leaders and managers. We need more people at all levels with vision who can inspire, motivate, teach, coach and bring out the best in our people as the world and technology shift in front of us.
And, as some wise person once offered, “Do you really want a manager who can’t lead and a leader who can’t manage?”
Art Petty is an executive and emerging-leader coach, author, speaker and workshop presenter with experience guiding multiple software firms to positions of market leadership. Visit Petty’s Management Excellence blog and Leadership Caffeine articles.
Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.