Manager vs Leader

When I taught Strategic Leadership, the students had to read John Kotter’s 1990 article on “What Leaders Really Do.”  Kotter was very effective in setting out different functions for leaders and managers such as leaders align people as opposed to managers who organize and staff.

Over the years, there has been debate on whether one can perform both roles as though they are two distinct types of people.  According to Kotter, the essence of the difference is managers deal with complexity whereas leaders focus on change.

On this basis, one might think leaders and managers are different.   Over time, managers seem to have lost their gravitas as we deal in a world of accelerating change.

Recently, the New Cambridge Advanced Dictionary defines a leader as “a person in control of a group, country, or situation”.  

Control is a rather funny word to use for leaders. Control is really more of a managerial notion on controlling resources including staff and not per se the foundation of leadership.

We seem to be running amok on intermingling the concept of managers and leaders without a clear understanding of their similarities and differences.

In my opinion, the concept of management and leaders are clearly different, but there is opportunity for significant overlap. This overlap corresponds to  some of the basic thinking of John Gardner outlined in his article 1990 “The Nature and Tasks of Leadership.” 

He has a very thoughtful delineation of leaders and managers and truly worth a read with rather sophisticated analysis that I largely agree with.

For me, the key is that managers are derived from organizations.  They are given a distinct role with certain responsibility and authority. 

Leaders have followers.  People follow because they are inspired by the leader’s vision and direction, which supports their needs in some meaningful way.

senior leaders

Managers are given the authority and responsibility to achieve organizational objectives.  Likewise, people follow leaders to achieve envisioned results.  A manager can be a leader and vice versa a leader can be a manager.  If a manager in an organization has people following them because they are inspired by the direction, leadership is being demonstrated. 

Likewise, if a leader exists in an organization, by definition followers have been inspired to pursue a course of action. Of course, a leader does not have to be part of an organization’s hierarchy to have followers.  And a manager in an organization may not be exhibiting leadership skills.

In today’s dynamically changing world, to achieve great results, it is critical that managers be great leaders.  It is also critical that those not in positions with managerial authority also exhibit leadership.  Thus, I think focusing on leadership is a strong agenda for organizations seeking high performance.

In previous blogs, I have outlined the construct of a leader’s outer world with the 3 Ps of Leadership: People, Planning, and Performance.  Traditional leadership characteristics play a significant role on the People and Planning side.  A leader must understand the needs of potential followers and set out a direction and vision that reaches critical needs. 

Of course, management functions also play a role in people and planning, but a real key to management is the execution of the plan that leads to achieving the vision.  Thus, leadership and management occur simultaneously in these different phases with emphasis varying depending on the phase. 

While there are meaningful differences in functions, activities, and perspectives between the manager and leader role, achieving great results requires an orchestrated intermingling in a business setting. 

The 3 Ps provide a highly useful framework that facilitates understanding of this interaction of leader and manager roles.  Much more could be described on how on this interaction, but let’s leave some of that for you to explore.

Contributed by Lane Sloan, former Shell CFO and Silver Fox Advisor.