The words “leader” and “manager” are often used interchangeably, but they’re not the same thing. We’ll walk you through the differences.
I remember when I left active duty in the Marine Corps and started working in the private sector. Beyond the many obvious differences between these two worlds, nothing was as surprising as how the word “leader” was used.
In the Marine Corps, everyone – despite rank, role, or responsibility – was considered a leader and aspired to lead. Everyone was also taught the exact same USMC leadership principles, to ensure we all knew the fundamentals of leadership … even if the only person we were leading was ourselves. The leadership principles of the USMC were based on the core values of honor, courage, and commitment, and sought to develop ethical and moral behavior, mental and physical endurance, sound judgment, and teamwork.
In the private sector, the term “leader” was used more sparingly and, when it was, it referred to a small section of people in an organization – managers. “Leaders” were managers, and managers were leaders. These two words were used interchangeably, as if they meant the same thing.
If you’ve ever had a bad boss, then you understand that just because you hold a management job, doesn’t mean you can lead people.
To redeem these bad bosses for a second, let’s just say that often their lack of skill isn’t their fault. They’ve likely never been taught the fundamentals of leadership. They probably were solid individual contributors who got promoted into positions of influence and, suddenly, had to use different skills to both manage and lead. These skills were likely underdeveloped, which contributed to their struggle in this role.
If you’re a manager, or an aspiring manager, you want to avoid the “bad boss” label. The best way to do this is to make sure you’re clear on the differences between management and leadership, as well as the commensurate skills you need to build to succeed in both roles.
Management and Leadership: What’s the Difference?
Management and leadership are two entirely different concepts. Admiral Grace Hopper said it best:
“You manage things. You lead people.”
Management is a job title. It’s a place on an organization chart. It’s a role that’s responsible for things – processes, staffing, budgets, efficiencies, goal alignment, etc.
We need good managers in organizations. They’re the people who make the day-to-day things happen (the proverbial “on time, under budget” person). An individual with strong management skills is an important steward to any organization because they’re focused on results. Their management work ensures sustainable success.
Leadership is about people. An effective leader is able to do these two things well: inspire and motivate.
We also need great leaders in organizations. A leader focuses on the “people” side of the house. They recognize that those executing organizational strategy aren’t machines; they’re humans with emotions and, even those with the best intentions, are inconsistent. Leaders inspire people and cultivate an environment where everyone strives to achieve to their potential and contribute to a culture that’s positive, productive, and healthy.
You can be a manager and not be a leader; the reverse is true too. You can be a leader and not be a manager. Some of the leadership roles you might fill include parent, volunteer, committee member, employee, and the list goes on. Likewise, some of the best leaders in an organization aren’t people managers. They’re frontline individuals who set the right tone in their environment and are very effective at inspiring others to achieve at new levels.
Both managerial and leadership skills have value, but it’s important to understand that each demands different skill sets that contribute to your success in these two areas.
When you manage, the skills you need include:
- Attention to detail
- Process improvement
- Priority management
- Project management
- Task management
- Goal setting
Leading – influencing and inspiring – can be thought of in three different domains, with respective skills that support them:
- Self leadership
- Team leadership
- Organization leadership
There are respective skills within each of these domains that leaders can develop. Consider the list below:
- Personal motivation
- Learning agility
- Taking initiative
- People development
- Confronting problem employees
- Respect for difference
- Putting people at ease
- Delivering feedback
- Strategic perspective/a focus on the big picture
- Global perspective
- Change management
Building Managerial and Leadership Skills
No matter where you are on your career journey, it’s important to understand that there are always opportunities to build and grow. It starts with recognizing that you can improve, and then recognizing areas where development is needed. Without this type of awareness, you might be attempting to improve in areas where your return on your time investment might not be the best.
To gain clarity around development needs, there are tools like 360-degree assessments that can help you evaluate your managerial and leadership performance from your boss, your peers, your direct reports, and others within your sphere of influence. These types of assessments might not always be available to you, though, when you need them. They also often require a coach or facilitator to help make meaning of them, which might not be a possibility for you.
You can, though, conduct your own informal 360-degree assessment. Here’s a sample approach to do this:
- Email stakeholders to alert them of your informal 360. Reach out to your team members and others whose opinions would be valuable to you. Let them know that in the coming weeks you’ll be reaching out to them and asking them to give you constructive feedback on your performance. Share with them that you’d like to hear two areas where you’re doing well and two areas where you’d like to improve, as their insight would be valuable for your career development.
As you consider who to add as a stakeholder, think of those who surround you from a 360-degree perspective. Think of people whose opinions would expose you to blind spots that, if identified, could really help you grow.
- Schedule your 1:1’s. After your email, schedule your 1:1s with each respective stakeholder. Try to do this a week after you send your email; that will give people time to prepare their remarks.
- Prepare yourself for feedback. Since you’ve invited feedback into your world, your response to it is “thank you.” You shouldn’t get defensive about what you hear. Make sure your stakeholder feels safe to give you feedback. During your feedback session, take notes and ask clarifying questions. Try to understand the specific scenarios and situations where you can improve.
- Assess patterns. After you’ve collected feedback, seek to understand if there are patterns that exist among key stakeholder groups. Are there trends among your peers? What about trends among your direct reports?
- Understand skills to improve. After you’ve had a chance to take all your feedback in, try to understand what skills/competencies you can build to support your development in each respective area. This helps translate sometimes vague guidance into actions. Also, differentiate the management skills from the leadership skills so you can assess yourself in these two areas. You might discover that you’re a solid leader but need to improve on management (or vice versa).
- Create a learning roadmap. Try to prioritize the skills you need to build based on the need/urgency around building it. Some skills, like time management or organization, are relatively easier to build than others, like people development or developing a strategic perspective. As you create a learning roadmap, try to think of the easy “wins” you can claim for your development, as well as how you can begin developing some of the harder-to-build competencies that are valuable to have, but take a long-term approach to build.
Value the Adult Learning Process
Often as adults learn, we sometimes forget the important art of practicing. We can’t just know something and think we can do it. Think of learning like swimming or golf. You can’t read a book on either of these two sports and expect to be good at them. You have to hit the pool or go out on a course. And, like anything, with skill building there will be trial and error. Try not to be discouraged as you seek to improve. Setbacks can be signs of growth (even though they don’t always feel like it).
The best way to grow and develop your leadership style is through this model:
- Learning new knowledge
- Reflecting on what you’re learning
- Applying and practicing
In this model, there’s an emphasis on applying and practicing. It’s the most important element of this model. Good leaders recognize that small improvements, over time, lead to great results. Your commitment to getting better, followed with actions to support it, will pay off in ways you can’t predict. And as you get better, others around you get better, too. Leaders inspire others in their growth journeys.
Inspiring Growth and Development
Now that you understand and value the difference between managing and leading, and are aware of how to self-diagnose your skills and talents in these two areas, you’re well on your way to leading yourself to new levels of success. Best of luck to you on your journey!
We’d like to encourage you to stay connected to Lead Star as you continue to grow and develop. We’re committed to ensuring you reach your highest points of contribution by staying inspired and engaged throughout your process. Sign up for our Leadership Moments here – these are simple and inspiring ideas that kick start your Monday morning. No spam … just ideas that can help start your week off right.