Team Management

Do You Need a Manager or a Leader? What’s the Difference?

Jeff Haden Inc. columnist and small business management expert 
a man and a woman talking to each other in front of a computer.

(Hint: No matter what management position you need to fill, you need a leader.)

When I was a machine operator, the next logical step up the ladder—especially for someone like me who eventually wanted to run a manufacturing facility—was to get promoted to a management position. So, under the premise of “Don’t ask, don’t get,” I shared my ambition with my boss.

“I want to be a supervisor,” I said.

“No, you don’t,” he said. “You want to be a leader.”

At first, I was puzzled. Supervisor, manager, leader… same thing.

“Not in the slightest,” he said. “Anyone can oversee and monitor a process. Anyone can enforce policies and guidelines. Anyone can track results and report outcomes.”

He paused. “Managers think they have the authority to manage processes,” he said. “Leaders believe they have the privilege of working with people.” 

While that sounds like a platitude, over time, I realized he was right. Every job involves things that need to be done. A manager focuses on how and when those things get done by the people they oversee. 

Leaders flip the equation. For leaders, people come first, because they know that every great outcome always starts with people. People they inspire and motivate. People they develop and to whom they delegate. People they empower and trust. 

Good leaders work with and for the people who (technically) work for them.

As Robert Greenleaf, coiner of the term “servant leadership,” wrote, “While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the ‘top of the pyramid,’ servant leadership is different. The servant leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

The last sentence is critical. Leaders share power. They develop people. They help them grow  and perform at their highest levels. By focusing on people, by fostering a shared sense of genuine purpose and meaning, desired outcomes almost always take care of themselves.

This is a high-level view of the difference between managers and leaders. Keep reading for a few more specific examples.

Managers manage presence. Leaders manage outcomes.

In the early days of Microsoft, Bill Gates relied on an unusual method to determine whether certain employees worked late. “I knew everyone’s license plates,” Gates said, “so I could look out in the parking lot and see when did people come in, when they were leaving.”

Later, Gates realized that presence—or, less elegantly, “butts in seats”— is a terrible proxy for performance. Hours worked? Interesting, but in some ways irrelevant. What truly matters are results.

That’s why leaders establish expectations. They set targets and create meaningful goals. Then they support the people who are reaching those targets by identifying what’s needed to set them up for success. They are likely to proactively provide additional resources and training, for example.  

We are, in large part, what we measure. A leader will measure specific outcomes without micromanaging things like hours (or butts in seats). 

Managers possess hard skills. Leaders possess hard and soft skills.

Starting in 2008, a team of Google researchers spent years working to determine what makes a manager great. The result is a list of ten attributes: 

  1. Coaches team members
  2. Empowers others; does not micromanage
  3. Values inclusivity and the well-being of team members
  4. Is results-oriented
  5. Demonstrates well-rounded communication skills; listens and shares information appropriately
  6. Supports career development
  7. Develops and communicates a clear vision and strategy
  8. Has the necessary technical skills to advise team members 
  9. Collaborates across the company
  10. Is a strong decision maker

Only one attribute involves technical skills. Technical skills are a given; they make a manager competent. 

According to the Google researchers, higher management scores (per the 10 attributes above) correlate to a higher likelihood that team members will stay at the company, are satisfied with their jobs, and are above average performers.

The soft skills are what differentiate a competent manager from a leader. 

Managers implement. Leaders help employees to create and innovate.

Back to my old boss. Walking into our first team meeting, I expected the same old stuff. Reports and results, followed by (sometimes genuine, usually feigned) scowls of disappointment. I thought he would tell us that we needed to be more productive by 2 percent this month. Maybe 3 percent. Then he’d tell us, “Go get ‘em. Meeting adjourned.”

Instead, he led the meeting by saying, “I want us to be the most productive team in the plant.” And I want us to be the team no one wants to leave, and everyone wants to join.”

Interesting, I thought. How are we supposed to do both? Over the next twenty minutes, as I listened to ideas shared by members of my new team, I found out. 

He suggested more cross-training, so we had a better understanding of the other equipment on the line—and more practically, how to help each other. There would be more training of people at lower-level positions so they could provide vacation release, and more importantly for them, be better candidates for promotion. He proposed creating project teams to improve upstream job scheduling and downstream work-in-progress flow—and give us something interesting to do when the line was running well. 

Each initiative would result in a positive business outcome and a positive professional and personal outcome for the team members involved. “Win-win”  was a ground rule. If an idea was “company only,” we wouldn’t pursue it. If an idea was “employee only,” we also wouldn’t pursue it.

Because we helped create those goals (and because achieving those goals would also benefit us), you can imagine how enthusiastic and committed we were. We wanted to be the best team in terms of numbers, skills, and camaraderie.

Those are goals almost everyone will support and will work hard to achieve. And that’s the biggest difference between managers and leaders. Managers control. Leaders inspire, motivate, and provide the tools… and get out of the way.

That’s why you need leaders.

Updated: January 18, 2022

Jeff Haden
Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.

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