Management or leadership?

17 12 2009

In my current assignment, I was led to reflect again on the very differences between managers and leaders and how they can impact the execution of a project. Literature is pretty dense about the matter (read the references at the end of this post) but I could not unveil to date any findings of the effects on projects and people. Therefore, my 2 cents (or so I hope…).

Differences and similarities between Manager and Leaders

Managers have subordinates, they have a position of authority and use transactional style. Managers are paid to get things done (efficiency) and seek comfort (lower risk & avoid conflicts). He or she will ensure proper execution of any project and to this regard, he or she can be trained adequately (PMP, ITIL…) in preparation to it. In comparison, leaders need to show the way, to define the strategy (or to actively participate to its definition). Leaders have followers, they are Charismatic and use transformational style. They pay high attention to people achievements and are ready to take risks. In contrast to the manager, you cannot get trained to be a leader. So Managers push where Leaders pull. There is (I believe) a good article on this at (1) and a nice comparison table at (2). Now, it is generally accepted that both embrace the business stakes yet not in the same way nor to the same extent…

Can a Manager be a Leader and a Leader be a Manager?

In a way, it is possible to answer positively to this question. The skills to be a leader or a manager do not necessary exclude each other. A pure leader would usually be less focused on daily projects follow-up, hence possibly less effective than a manager to control and report progress for the good of the company and also employees (teams also need managers to feel confident in the management to progress at the right pace). On the other hand, a manager spending his/her time merely on (MS Excel?) reports without showing any lead cannot expect true commitment of his/her subordinates.

Most of the time though, leaders tend to learn some basic management tricks where managers seek to be inspired by leaders. They usually work better in coordination and with some overlap in their participation to projects. Even better when a leader works directly with an assisting manager. In my experience, this setup tends to work very well, provided you have the means to obtain the suggested assistant. In a recent project, I had to build a complete team from zero, interview and select all members, then design and promote the strategy, report to higher management of the progress, provide a long-term vision, set the directions, meanwhile I had to practicaly sell all moves and ideas, search new roads to completion, always trying to understand and identify what was right for the project. Sounds familiar, right ? At a certain point in time, it became obvious I was not able to cope with weekly strategic meetings that would last for 1 and a half day, meanwhile thinking about innovative ways of improving the quality of delivery, managing cultural differences of about 13 nationalities, providing advice to the global structure… and managing the delivery. That was it: I could not *manage* my teams. Because I truly *love* to be in C-level discussions (tends to be one of my weaknesses :)), I worked things out to get an assistant. She did a fantastic job, allowing me to focus on longer term actions as I trusted her to get things done in an efficient and timely manner. Certainly though, it worked fine also because she showed some leadership skills.

So can you be a Manager without leading or being a Leader without managing ?

So it seems that people can show leadership without having to be in management roles, and this can be beneficial to projects and teams. But you can also see pitfalls in this rational. As a matter of fact, some managers would like to see themselves – or to be perceived? – as leaders for some reason. Is this because they see the leader to be more emblematic, with a better image ? From what I have seen, a situation exists when managers develop a sense of frustration not being the leader but having to deal with getting things done. In other words, they’re kind of getting jealous of the leaders for – in their opinion – they are getting all the glory on the managers’ hard work and reporting. Very often these are the very same persons who would love to be entrepreneurs but could just not. [By the way, there is a brilliant video of Professor John John on the path from entrepreneur to leader on youtube (3)]. More often than not, this is also related to the fact that these persons know only one way of doing things, when leaders propose new solutions and want to persuade other people (followers) that they know a better way of doing things.

Managers and Leaders are two dinstinct personnality types. You can hardly be a ‘pure’ manager or a ‘pure’ leader. Depending on the project or on your role, you can possibly foster one side but the other, and you may have to work with someone with the complementary role. But you cannot be a good Manager and a real Leader at same time, and the most important thing is to understand where you are good at, to accept it and to use it.

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