Leader or manager?

Oct 21 2009 by Charles Helliwell Print This Article

Too many people still confuse strong leadership with good management and vice versa. So I thought I would provide some simple guidelines and examples to differentiate between the two and determine whether an individual is either or both.

Wikipedia cites 12 clear distinctions between good managers and strong leaders, but I'd just like to concentrate on four of them and put those into some kind of context.

  • Leaders focus on people, whilst managers focus on systems.
  • Leaders do the right thing, whilst managers do things right.
  • Leaders inspire trust, whilst managers rely on controls.
  • Leaders originate, whilst managers imitate.

We can all cite examples of strong leaders, but how many of us can do the same for good managers?

Leaders and managers don't necessarily come out of the same bucket, and yet in business and commerce it is often taken as given that good leaders and strong managers are one and the same.

But did Alexander The Great develop and execute military campaigns which are still considered mandatory reading by the military strategists of today, by concentrating on systems, imitating others and doing things right? Did Ernest Shackleton give considered thought to his chances of survival in sailing 800 miles in an open boat in the Southern Ocean, from Elephant Island to South Georgia?

In 1945, Winston Churchill was beaten comprehensively by Clement Atlee in the UK general election because the country wanted a manager, not an inspirational leader. And what was it that drove Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela to pursue similar goals which, at the time, were deemed impossible to achieve?

If these men are considered amongst the great leaders of our time, then what makes them so and do they also qualify as good managers? I suspect that the answer is probably not, because inspiration and originality and organisation and planning are strange bedfellows.

For example, Alexander's legacy was not the longevity of his empire, but the cultural influences which remained as a result of his conquests. Had he planned this? If Ernest Shackleton had been a better planner and organiser, would the Endurance have been crushed in the ice and the survivors stranded; prompting his heroic rescue?

Had Winston Churchill, an inspirational but disorganised leader, not replaced Neville Chamberlain, a capable manager and skilled organiser, at the start of the World War II, would Britain have been defeated by Germany?

And what of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela? Did either of them conclude that campaigns of violence and terrorism would have been less successful than the campaigns of non-cooperation and non-violence they opted for? And was this inspired and original thinking, executed with organisation and planning, or was this just a case of doing the right thing at the right time?

The answer, I suspect, is that it is a little bit of both. Being a good leader isn't something that you take out of a textbook or a training manual. Becoming a good leader, in whatever circumstances, is ingrained within us, should we choose to look for it and release it. It's just that, more often than not, our employers and superiors would prefer us to act more as capable managers than inspirational leaders, because leaders tend to challenge the status quo.

Managers, after all, are there to manage - and it's always easier to recognise, assess and evaluate those who manage versus those who lead. As Paul Birch, in his book 'Instant Leadership' suggests, managers concern themselves with tasks, whilst leaders concern themselves with people.

And yet history will again prove that in turbulent times and periods of uncertainty, people everywhere will look towards those who lead, as opposed to those who manage, for their own inspiration.

About The Author

Charles Helliwell
Charles Helliwell

For almost 20 years, Charles Helliwell has been enjoying a lifestyle and making a living as a behavioural and relationship mentor specialising in the personal and professional development of individuals and teams in the workplace.