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The symbiosis between leaders and managers

By Susan Lahey

Published September 15, 2020
Last updated September 15, 2020

The conventional understanding of the difference between leaders and managers held that a leader is a magnetic visionary who sets direction and inspires the best from people, while managers make sure everybody shows up on time, does their tasks, meets their deadlines, and follows the rules. Such narratives paint a leader as a superhero—Steve Jobs, Satya Nadella—and managers as gray functionaries; Dilbert’s boss. As Solu Nwanze, a leadership coach at Expanded Impact and senior director of the office of the president, GTM at Zendesk, said: People think of managers as dealing with tasks, and leaders as dealing with people.

But these ideas hearken from an anachronistic work culture, when people showed up as their “work selves” and fulfilled occupational roles. Today, with COVID-19, employees are “bringing their whole selves to work” at an unprecedented level. Managers are charged with facilitating team discussions on issues like diversity, sexism, mental health, and personal meaning. They’re expected to engage with employees in a much deeper, more holistic way. In fact, when they do their jobs well, managers can end up doing a lot of things that leaders do, which makes them much better managers.

The definition of leadership, at any level, is changing

Managers don’t always receive the kind of leadership training that corporate leaders often receive. But many of the principles taught in leadership programs would really help, especially since a lot of employees leave a company because of bad managers. For example, Nwanze noted, managers who really understand what makes their employees tick get better results and keep their teams around longer, since having a manager in your corner greatly improves the employee experience.

Nwanze trained as a leadership coach at Co-Active Training Institute (CTI), an organization that believes everyone is, or can be, a leader—and also that there’s more than one leadership style. But one of the most important skills taught to leaders is the ability to see your own strengths and weaknesses, and to self-reflect, she said. Without that, people tend to unconsciously foist their biases, triggers, and habits on others, potentially threatening the team’s sense of psychological safety.

In fact, when they do their jobs well, managers can end up doing a lot of things that leaders do, which makes them much better managers.

Another key leadership skill managers need, Nwanze said, is the ability to approach situations with curiosity rather than assumptions. “It’s about being vulnerable, being grateful, having appreciation or gratitude for each other and also for ourselves. I always tell people ‘Be generous with yourself and with others....’ It’s about appreciating the journey.”

[Related read: Inclusive leadership has never been more imperative]

3 key qualities of a leader

Leaders aren’t necessarily born—many of us can grow into positions of leadership and thrive. Here are a few key behaviors of good leaders.

  • Recognize your strengths, and your weaknesses. Self-reflection allows leaders to catch biases and triggers or bad habits that may negatively affect or influence others.
  • Leave your assumptions at the door. Unless, of course, you’re assuming positive intent. Be open to learning and questioning what others think or how something came to be. There can often be many ways to arrive at a particular goal or destination.
  • Advocate for and empower your team. The role of a leader is to listen and recognize how to lift those around them to achieve both shared and personal goals.

“Leaders know their team and are able to advocate on behalf of the team,” Nwanze said. They see the individuals and know their dreams. And they empower their employees to do what is needed to achieve those dreams. “Everyone wants to feel empowered,” she said. “Everyone is creative, resourceful, and whole, though we don’t always see each other that way.”

[Related read: 8 cognitive biases that affect how you manage your team]

A leader is a person, not a position

For some leaders, the learning curve may be shorter than for others. Some people innately embody many of the skills and qualities required from a leader. For James Kerr, author, speaker, and founder of Indispensable Consulting, leadership often reveals itself in a person’s thought process. Leaders see and make connections others miss, he said in an interview, and possess a natural curiosity.

“There’s an assumption that leadership only happens at the senior level,” he said. “That’s not the case. It happens in the whole lifecycle of one’s career.” A leader is a person who can take disparate parts of a problem or process and combine them in new ways, possibly to take things in a new direction through breakthrough thinking and disruption. The leaders are the ones who—at every level—get others to participate and offer their best ideas. When looking for people to groom for leadership, it’s those things, not the titles that count, Kerr said.

For example, Nwanze noted, managers who really understand what makes their employees tick get better results and keep their teams around longer, since having a manager in your corner greatly improves the employee experience.

The ability to manage and the ability to lead require both certain innate skills or temperaments and specific training. Unfortunately, management is often treated as the default path forward for employees, so people who are stellar individual contributors are moved into management positions even if that’s not their area of strength. For those people, there should be some parallel course of advancement. But management and leadership should be left to those for whom helping others grow is a key strength.

[Related read: Build a strong company culture by leading with EQ]

5 differences between leaders and managers—and how together they make it work

A few years ago, Kerr wrote an article listing some of the more nuanced differences between the roles of leader and manager. While managers must be leaders within their own right, his list (both quoted directly and sometimes paraphrased) helps break down some of the hierarchical goals and tasks that are often in place—and makes clear why leaders need great managers, and vice versa.

1. Leadership inspires change, management manages transformation. Leaders choose the next direction for evolution but managers have to help everyone on the team make the necessary adjustments.

2. Leadership requires abstract thinking, management requires concrete data.
“Abstract thinking,” Kerr wrote, “enables a person to make connections among, and see patterns within, seemingly unrelated information.” The leader sees those connections and the manager uses concrete data to achieve optimal results moving toward the perceived goal.

A leader is a person who can take disparate parts of a problem or process and combine them in new ways, possibly to take things in a new direction through breakthrough thinking and disruption.

3. Leadership requires ability to articulate, management requires ability to interpret.
“A good leader can describe their vision in vivid detail… a good manager must interpret that stated vision and recast it in terms that their teams can understand and embrace.”

4. Leadership requires an aptitude to sell, management requires an aptitude to teach. “A leader must…convince all concerned parties that what is envisioned is achievable and provides greater value than what is created by the business today. A manager must be able to teach their teams what must be learned and adapted to attain the stated vision.”

[Related read: Informal leadership: Be the person at work that others look up to]

5. Leadership requires understanding of the external environment, management requires understanding of how work gets done inside the organization. Leaders at the most senior level must understand the business environment in which the enterprise operates so as to better anticipate opportunities and evade misfortune, while a manager must figure out how to get things done using the resources available to the business.

Not every manager may aspire toward the highest levels of leadership, yet that doesn’t preclude them from becoming great leaders—for themselves, for their team, and for the business. As the world changes, so too may our ideas about leadership—perhaps revealing why cultivating leadership at every level of a company is what it takes to achieve the best results.