Manager or Leader – Your Choice

This is a guest article to our site.

Most people wouldn’t think that there is a distinction between the role of a manager and that of a leader. It’s easy to understand why, as many of the best professionals can be both, assuming the scope of their managerial role allows it.


So, what exactly is the difference between a manager and a leader?


As many key thinkers in business have pointed out, the distinction is actually a rather large one, and it’s all to do with timeframes.


The key responsibilities of a manager


A manager, generally, is someone who is in charge of making the absolute most out of the short term. That’s what a good manager does: keep everything regarding the essential operations of a business running smoothly. This is an absolutely vital role, as without someone there to conduct the orchestra, very little music is going to get played.


The focus of someone in this role should revolve around the delivery of the short-term – those immediate goals, targets and tasks – as well as resolving problems and enforcing policies. They are the day-to-day delegators, and without things going well in the short term, there is no chance of anything working in the long term.


One way to understand the duties of a manager is to think of a kitchen. The last person on the line would usually spend their time assigning tasks, keeping everyone on time and ultimately, making sure that the end product leaving the window meets their standards. That’s a lot like the responsibility of a manger. They are overseeing the rest of the work that is being done to ensure it is all executed correctly and well, meeting the right goals and to the right policies.


However, just as the man at the end of the kitchen line might not have necessarily produced the menu, the manager may not necessarily have set the goals. This, of course, all depends on the individual set-up of that business. Generally speaking though, while a manager can be a leader, they are unlikely to also adopt this role.


The key responsibilities of a leader


While a manager generally looks over the short term, a leader oversees the long term. They are the people who set the vision for a company to follow for years to come. In other words, they write the menu.


In some businesses, as we’ve mentioned, there’s crossover. Often this is the case in smaller companies, where it is possible for one individual to be responsible for both the short- and long-term operations. However, as an organisation grows, the reality is that overseeing both the day-to-day ongoing and future strategies of a business simply becomes too much for one employee to undertake. Therefore, having separation in these roles is much more efficient.


That being said, many of the skills employed in both roles are very similar. Things like organisation, emotional intelligence, curiosity and a respect for the views of others are all vital for great managers and great leaders alike.


Criticisms of the role of managers can be common


Many seem to be confused and are in fact rather disparaging about the role of the manager. This usually stems from the fact that the differences between these two roles are largely debated. Some do appreciate the need for managers alongside leaders, such as Halelly Azulay, author of Employee Development on a Shoestring, whose thoughts on business leaders are expressed in an Me Learning article exploring communication and negotiation.


Others though – including many business journalists such as William Arruda, careers writer at Forbes and Natalie Walters of Business Insider – imply that being a manager is simply a failure in being good leader. To them, the title of manager seems to mean someone in charge who is not doing a very good job, or could be doing a better one. For example, in Arruda’s Forbes article, he says that “leaders are unique, managers copy”.


While being a leader may require more creativity and imaginative scope, to say that managers copy is a rather blunt way of looking at a difficult job. Besides, great managers are often very innovative. The fact that they are innovative in a rather more day-to-day manner – as opposed to being innovative in the sense of imagining and working towards a more distant goal – should not mean that their creative contributions are completely overlooked.


Walters of Business Insider has a similarly downward view on managers, stating that they see a problem, while leaders see an opportunity. In reality, some things are problems and others are opportunities: good managers and good leaders should be capable of recognising both.


However, despite these criticisms of managers, most agree that the main distinctions between the roles are their focuses on either the short or long term.


Understanding and appreciating the roles of both managers and leaders


There are two key reasons why the time distinction is the most useful lens to view these labels through. It seems to be the one commonality across people’s views on managers and leaders, and is also the one which is most in line with the reality of what most managers actually do.


A manager – at least in the case of most companies – doesn’t make the long-term decisions, and instead is the head of an office branch, as an example. While we appreciate that there is some fluidity in the meaning of these words, there doesn’t seem to be much value in simply talking down a role while it remains so vitally important throughout so many companies.


When it comes down to it, the work of managers and leaders need to complement one another. To say a manager is simply a bad leader is to fundamentally misinterpret their contribution to business. Showing respect to the authoritative positions in a company which fall below the senior level – which is generally where a manager’s role is considered to be – is something that can have a great deal of benefit for companies.


The Global Leadership Forecast, published by DDI, The Conference Board, and the EY has two conclusions very relevant to this discussion. Firstly, they show that organisations which extend development of high potential talent below the top positions are 4.2 times more likely to financially outperform those who don’t. To reiterate this importance, four out of ten tech leaders are failing the higher rate of any industry, with the high failure rate being believed to be hugely influenced by the fact that so little effort is put into leadership development.


At all levels, companies need to make more of an effort to develop leaders. Looking down on managers, who perform just as vital a role in the success of any company, is not only unhelpful, but a potentially costly mistake. Whether you want to be a manager, leader or both is your choice, but each has a vital role to play.


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