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This is the difference between leadership and management (answered once and for all)

two women in the workplace showcasing the difference between leadership and management

Nailing down the difference between leadership and management is a tricky endeavor, but one that will certainly make you a better leader.

To start, people are led and processes are managed. This is often overlooked. 

Think of how dehumanizing “managing” another person sounds. As though we are such simple beings that can be coerced or forced into doing whatever our superior’s deem fit. It is paternal, authoritarian, and short-sighted to think that we can manage people. But, that doesn’t mean managing is wrong, bad, or should be avoided. 

Simply, we should manage things that can be managed: projects, processes, time, supply chains, etc. And, a great manager is extremely valuable. There is no objective hierarchy that puts a leader above a manager.

I like to think of it as a leader is internal and a manager is external.

  • Leaders help cultivate the stuff we need to want to do things; confidence, drive, motivation, a clear vision, a sense of purpose, a willingness to fail.
  • Managers help to cultivate stuff that we need to actually do those things: clear timelines, ensuring you have the tools you need, removing roadblocks, and enabling you every step of the way.

There is a lot of crossover between being a good manager and being a good leader but there’s no guarantee that a good leader is a good manager or that a good manager is a good leader.

Some A’s are B’s and some B’s are A’s, but not all A’s are B’s. 

Some examples of a good leader vs. a good manager are:

  • A good leader makes you want to do things and a good manager makes sure you have the tools and resources to do them. 
  • A good leader inspires you to want to become your best self and a good manager makes sure you stay accountable, set realistic goals and realistic timelines.
  • A good leader has a clear vision and a good manager has a clearly detailed plan to execute that vision.  

The best leaders will either be a combination of the two or be able to delegate the managing parts to someone that is better suited to the task. 

Now that you understand the difference between leadership and management, we’re going to focus on actionable tips to become a better leader, and what a manager can do to support that.

Table of contents

Why do you want to be a leader?

The good, the bad, the ugly.

Let’s take a page from Simon Sinek here and start with why. You should understand, or at least have an inkling about your underlying motivations to become a leader. So, let’s look at some of the things that can motivate people to become leaders.

The Good.

  • helping and serving others
  • making the world a better place
  • personal growth
  • enjoyment of working with people
  • a clear vision
  • seeing others win
  • stopping things that seem dangerous

The Bad.

  • controlling others
  • having your way all the time
  • others are “stupid” and “incompetent”
  • hate doing things for others

The Ugly.

  • glamour
  • fame
  • notoriety
  • pride
  • self-importance
  • status

Motivations can be self-centered, people-centered or mission-centered and it’ll usually be a combination of the three. But, if most of your motivation falls into the last two categories, now might be a good time to take a good look inside and do some soul searching.

Real leadership is about helping people grow and it’s a lot of work. If you don’t start off with the right motivations, then you’re going to have a really hard time succeeding because people can see right through it. You can learn more about common characteristics of leaders here.

Managers can support this by: making sure things like one-to-ones are easy to schedule, creating detailed career path flows,  making it easy for employees to use their benefits

What emotions might come up when you’re trying to be a good leader (rather than a good manager)?

Tons. Tons of emotions, that’s the answer. On the path toward becoming a leader, our biggest challenge can be ourselves. The way we get in our own way will be different for all of us but rest assured - your shit will surface.

When I was 18, I started an online personal development community called It’s Just For Today and within 3 months I had over 1500 from all over the world listening to me and following my advice. It was harrowing.

At first, I thought it was cool that I was impacting all these people and they were making big changes in their lives and relationships. And then the reality set in: I was impacting all of these people and they were making big changes in their lives and relationships.

I was suffering from a huge case of imposter syndrome — I couldn’t handle the stress of people looking up to me, and eventually I quit. I just bailed. I stopped the group and moved to the woods.

The problem? I thought it was about ME. I thought these folks were following me, not the mission. It was about the mission though, people wanted to better their lives and I think, if I would have seen my work as a way of pushing forward that mission, I would have been able to continue. 

Because, it wasn’t about me, it was about them.

Part of what happens when you become a leader, is that people follow. That means action, it means that your actions impact others to a degree that was previously unknown. That stirs up the feels.

Ego check.

If you want to be a real leader, your mission needs to be about something bigger than you. Even charismatic cult leaders position themselves in service of a higher power.

Leadership theorist Bernard Bass, has shown that for leaders to be effective they need to role model to inspire and raise interest in projects and need to challenge followers to take greater ownership of their work. It’s about empowering others, not breeding minions.

Further, leaders are more effective when they create a collective identity and followers see them as “same as” not “other than”. His seeming so “of the people” could explain the incomprehensible success of Donald Trump.

On your path to understanding the difference between leadership and management remember to check your ego at the door and be in service of those you lead.

What then, makes a good leader?

Good leadership makes people want to follow, there’s the freedom to choose. There’s a lot of folk wisdom that suggests leadership is about a smart and charismatic person but research suggests  it’s got as much to do with the group being led as it does the person leading them.

Charisma shmarisma.

Leadership is about the relationship the person has with the group they are leading. Do you share values with the group? A silver-tongued hyper-animated person isn’t going to be a good leader at a monastery, but they may be for a sales team or better still, an improv troupe. 

You don’t need to be charismatic to be a leader. You need to create a shared identity and work tirelessly to support those you’re leading.

It’s all about context.

“Recent theoretical developments have argued that in order to mobilize and direct followers' energies, leaders need not only to ‘be one of us’…, but also to:

  • ‘do it for us’
  • to ‘craft a sense of us'
  • and to ‘embed a sense of us’

You’ll note the use of “us” and the shocking lack of “I”, “me” or “your awesomeness”.

Leadership is relational and it’s always about supporting others. Let’s go through one mental model for each of those. Also let’s just take a big breath in, hold it for a second, and exhale with a sigh - being a leader is a lot of work. Onto the work:

Be one of us. 

Effective leaders are perceived by their followers as prototypical of the group they’re leading. Define what makes the group special and live that to its fullest through action. Become the “ideal” of what it means to be a part of the group you’re leading.

Think: “Do as I do, not as I say”.

Do it for us. 

Direct your actions toward advancing what is good for the group, not what is good for you. Note: masking huge personal benefit as group benefit can result in a coup. Make choices that benefit the collective and you win in the long run. Remember, promoting the well being of your group doesn’t mean derogating other groups. Think: “A rising tide lifts all ships”

Craft a sense of us

As individuals everyone is unique, but they come together to become a part of this group. Promote the collective. Talk about what it means to be a part of X, how X is different from Y and be sure to tie it back to actionable examples. 

Values based on abstract concepts mean very little when they’re not tied back to something highly actionable. Be an identity entrepreneur.

Think: “How is this group is different and why does that make it awesome.”

Make us matter.

This is where having high motivation on initiation comes in. You need to deliver concrete, positive outcomes for the group. It can be creating events or activities that make the group matter by making it visible not just to the members, but to the world at large. 

These events and activities let members live out their shared values show the world how they’re different AND a part of something. Think: “How can I show the world how awesome WE are?”

Follow these principles and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a leader.

Managers can support this by: creating onboarding processes that help new employees feel like they’re part of something, developing systems that visibly give credit to team members, codifying values into work flows

The risks and rewards of leadership

To understand the difference between leadership and management you’ve got to become okay with taking some risks. The thing with leading is that you’ll be making a lot of choices. Whenever we make choices wherein the outcome is uncertain, there’s a lot of risk. We can trend toward asking ourselves, “what if it doesn’t go well?”

That voice is persistent and here’s some help on how to work with it.

  • Acknowledge the risk: what is the worst-case scenario, and how likely is it?
  • Hope for the best, plan for the worst: what will you do if the worst-case happens?

In behavioural economics there’s a thing called loss aversion bias. Basically, we’re more likely to prevent loss than we are to promote gain which makes it natural to ask “what if it doesn’t go well”. As a leader and a proponent of change, you’ve got to challenge that nature and start asking yourself, “what happens if it does go well?”

Leaders take risks daily, it can be business or interpersonal risks, but as a leader, you’re challenging the status quo and that means being different. And being different is a risk. But with great risk comes great reward.

Managers can support this by: formalizing a system that rewards smart risk-taking

How do I embrace (and live) the difference between leadership and management?

Practice, practice, practice.

Understanding the difference between leadership and management is the first step, but it won't take you very far if you don't walk the walk.

My advice: start small. Take small risks and buildup to bigger ones. When it goes well, you’ll get hit with a dopamine boost which will keep you coming back for more. And, if it doesn’t go well, who cares? It was small. Try something else. Starting small helps you build up your resiliency muscle.

The more you practice the more comfortable you’ll become with taking risks and navigating the emotions associated with it. Leading isn’t about never falling, it’s about always getting back up.

Know your team (and what makes them tick)

Taking risks alone won’t make you a good leader. The risks need to be related to what we touched on earlier, be one of us, do it for us, craft a sense of us, and make us matter.  As a leader you define what it means to be a part of the group and it is up to you to stand out in ways that reflect that definition.

You need to stand-up for your group and against the status-quo to show them that you put the group and their values ahead of fitting in. Your actions are what position you as a leader within the group and those actions must reflect the shared values and beliefs.

Put those values in practice.

It’s not about words on a wall. Let me repeat, it’s not about words on a wall. Values are guiding principles that should inform all your actions. Actions speak louder than words and a truer statement about values could not be made. If you want to become a leader, the most effective ones act in a way that is representative of the shared beliefs of the group.

A good way to know what your values actually mean go through an exercise of assigning actions to each principle, run through scenarios and reactions that would be in-line with the values of the group. When decisions arise, always refer back to the values and make decisions informed by them.

Closing thoughts on the difference between leadership and management:

Processes are managed, and people are led. If you want to become a leader make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, and get ready for a rocky road with a lot of uncertainty, tough choices and a whole lot of satisfaction.

Leading is about truly being a part of the group you’re leading and striving to be the best possible version of that group. You’ll have to take risks, deal with uncertainty, and challenge the status-quo. But it’ll be worth it because in the end, you’re making a positive impact on people’s lives and giving people something to believe in.

The road is long but the journey is very interesting. Happy travels.

F4S can help you embody the difference between leadership and management by helping you identify your unique leadership style. Join for free today.

Michaud Garneau is the founder of Weird Is Nrml, a modern training and development organization. The team at Weird Is Nrml acknowledge the feels that adults get when we learn (aka the weird and scaries) and build the capacity required to sit comfortably in that discomfort. Learn more at weirdisnrml.com.

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