Managers v. Leaders

If you were asked to imagine a manager, you might well conjure up someone comically boring, desk-bound and monotonal. Now do the same for a leader. You may well be picturing someone delivering a rousing speech. A horse may be involved. You almost certainly have different types in mind. There is indeed a distinction between managers and leaders, but it should not be overdone.

Various attempts have been made to pin down the differences between the two, but they boil down to the same thing. Managers, according to an influential article by Abraham Zaleznik in the Harvard Business Review in 1977, value order; leaders are tolerant of chaos. A later article in the same publication, by John Kotter, described management as a problem-solving discipline, in which planning and budgeting creates predictability. Leadership, in contrast, is about the embrace of change and inspiring people to brave the unknown. Warren Bennis, an American academic who made leadership studies respectable, reckoned that a manager administers and a leader innovates.

Some of these definitions might be a tad arbitrary but they can be useful, nonetheless. Too many organizations promote employees into leadership roles because that is the only way for them to advance in their careers. But some people are much more suited to the ethos of management. They are more focused on process; they like the idea of spreadsheets, orderliness and supporting others to do good work. Shopify, an e-commerce firm, has created separate career paths for managers and developers with these differences in motivation in mind.

The difference between managing and leading is not just a matter of semantics. Research by Oriana Bandiera of the London School of Economics and her co-authors looked at the diaries of 1,114 top public and business officials in six countries and categorized their behaviors into two types. On their definitions, “leaders” have more meetings with other top-level c-suite executives, and more interactions with multiple people inside and outside the company. “Managers” spend more time with employees involved in operational activities and have more one-to-one meetings. Leaders communicate and co-ordinate; managers drill downwards and focus on individuals. The research suggested that organizations that are run by leaders perform better than those run by managers.

But pointing to the differences between managers and leaders can also be unhelpful, for two reasons. The first is that being a leader seems so much sexier than being a manager. That is partly because leadership qualities are associated with seniority. As people climb the corporate ladder, they go to leadership courses, join leadership teams, and start sentences with phrases like “as a leader”. It is also because the two archetypes are not created equal. Would you rather be the person who likes to do budgeting or the one who holds others in thrall? The type that likes the status quo or the one that wants to change the world. “It takes neither genius nor heroism to be a manager,” wrote Zaleznik. No wonder there are many feted programs for young leaders but fewer for young managers.

The capacity to inspire others and to head into uncharted waters does become more salient the higher you rise. But management skill does not become less important. Dr Bandiera and colleagues concluded that although top officials who displayed the behavior of leaders were associated with better organizational performance overall, different organizations may require different types of bosses. Some would be better off with “manager” focused decision-makers at the top where performance is correlated with other things, including the quality and efficiency of an organization’s practices and processes.

The second unhelpful by-product of the debate about managers and leaders is that it tends to separate people into one camp or the other. In fact, bosses must combine the qualities of both. Just as it is hard to motivate people if you are highly efficient but have the inspirational qualities of feta cheese, so it is not much use laying out ambitious visions for the future if you don’t have a clue how to make them reality. You need to turn the dial back and forth—from strategy to execution, change to order, passion to process, leader to manager.