Are You A Manager Or A Leader?

Managers seek compliance, leaders inspire the pursuit of excellence.

Managers and leaders apply different approaches in pursuit of different outcomes.


Use these five scenarios to see for yourself.

“Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

That’s how Peter Drucker, the iconic father of modern management, characterized the difference between management and leadership. And as someone who has long studied the connection between innovation and leadership, I couldn’t agree more. Why? Because the behaviors that make someone an effective manager are often in conflict with those required for innovation.

Many people assume that if you are a manager, then by default, you are also a leader. But that isn’t true. Someone else can make you a manager. Only you, however, can make yourself a leader. What’s more, there are very few people who are good at both managing and leading.

Successful organizations are built on a combination of great leaders and effective managers, and more importantly, they ensure those skills are matched to the appropriate problem.

The differences

Functionally, managers and leaders apply different approaches in pursuit of different outcomes. 

Managers get people to follow rules and procedures in an effort to reduce risk and deliver predictable outcomes. This is what is required to maintain or incrementally improve upon the status quo. Managers view variability as a threat to be reduced as much as possible. To measure success, they evaluate how well each person abides by the process and produces the expected results.

Leaders, on the other hand, rouse others to take risks and challenge the status quo in an effort to achieve something new and better. This is what is required in the pursuit of innovation. Leaders view variability as an opportunity to achieve results that others think are impossible. To measure success, they look at both what the team achieves and what the team is learning.

So while managers seek compliance, leaders seek to inspire the pursuit of excellence.

Are you a manager—or a leader?

There’s no black-and-white litmus test to determine whether someone is a manager or a leader. Still, if you want to get a sense of where your strengths are, ask yourself how you’d respond to each one of these five scenarios.

1. Titles

Imagine that you’re spending the day interviewing to be the head of marketing for a budding entrepreneurial enterprise. Things are going really well, and you’re feeling like you do want to work there. Then, during the last interview of the day—with the founder and CEO—you learn that the company is still deciding if the position will be titled vice president or director. Either way, however, the compensation and job responsibilities would be the same.

Question: Do you make it clear that a VP title is important to you so that everyone recognizes that you’re in charge of the entire marketing operation? Or do you assure the CEO that your job title is inconsequential—that what you really want is the opportunity and resources to help the team innovate and succeed?

A manager uses their title to be empowered. A leader empowers themself through their ability to convince others to do what is needed.

 2. Roles

Imagine that you’re attending a sales conference with colleagues from other companies in your industry. In a breakout session, the facilitator asks you to define your current role to the group.

Question: Do you tell the group, “I oversee a 17-person global sales force with a $50 million budget”? Or do you respond, “I lead a group of talented people that are working to grow twice as fast as the market.”?

A manager defines their role based on who and what they are responsible for. A leader defines their role based on what they are trying to accomplish.  

3. Accountability

Imagine that your team has devoted the last few months working toward a major deadline on a critical project. Regrettably, one person on the team comes up short—meaning that, as a team, you’ll miss the goal. The next day, you have to face the facts and tell your boss in front of your peers at the weekly staff meeting.

Question: Do you explain why the miss was out of your control and who on the team was to blame? Or do you take responsibility for the miss, acknowledge that the buck stops with you, and explain what you will do differently the next time?

A manager is accountable for doing what they said they would do. A leader is accountable for the outcome.

 4. Resources 

Imagine that you’re in a company meeting to go over quarterly targets. Someone explains that their team is likely to miss their goal and needs more resources to finish their work in time. The company’s president chimes in, asking who else can help them close the gap.

Question: Do you stay mum to safeguard your own team’s workload and goals? Or do you volunteer to share a couple of your people even though it’ll mean extra work for the rest of the team?

A manager views resources as their own and something to protect. A leader views resource as ours and to be used to serve the greatest need for the organization.

5. Priorities

Imagine that your organization is in a slump, struggling with slowing sales. To get your annual bonus, the executive team is requiring that you commit to a 5% growth target. The thing is, you believe that if your team were to push harder, you could potentially hit 10% growth instead.

Question: Do you do what was asked and commit to the 5% target? Or—to help the company in hard times and perhaps incite others to follow suit—do you up the ante and pledge 10% despite putting your bonus at risk?

A manager’s first priority is to meet their own goals. A leader’s first priority is to achieve the best possible outcome.

A good organization needs both effective managers and effective leaders. The key is to match the skillset with the business need. One is not better than the other; instead, they are good at different things.  And when it comes to innovation, you need leaders.

No doubt, for you and your company to really prosper, it’s critical to put yourself in a role that compliments your strengths. So which one are you—a manager or a leader?

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