Print from personal collection by Hugh MacLeod available at qapingvoid
You don’t like this question… and you are right!
You do not want to come across as arrogant by calling yourself a “leader,” or too pedestrian by saying that you are [only] a manager. You feel trapped in a bad dichotomy and you are right…
— Being a leader refers to an attitude and an inspiring style that enables you to rally people around a vision.
— Being a manager refers to a functional position where the goal is to execute a project and direct employers to do so.
Being a leader and being a manager are not mutually exclusive. The same person can be both and probably should in many circumstances. Look at it this way: What is a leader with no management or execution skills? A hot-air blower out of touch with reality? A sloppy organizer? A dreamer? What is a manager with no leadership qualities? A short-sighted bureaucrat? A rank-and-file pen pusher? A great leader must be a manager. A great manager must be leader.
What if people define you using this dichotomy?
How do you take these statements?
— “You are a leader and not a manager.”
— “You are a manager, not a leader.”
If you believe these statements are truly descriptive of you, it’s OK. Sometimes, however, you may not want others to define you through clichés and even if you are not afraid of this, it may be useful to contextualize such statements and assess their exact purpose.
“You are a leader and not a manager”
There is such a premium attached to the statement of “being a leader” that the tendency is to value the first part of the sentence and discount the second part of it. Make sure, however, that it’s not a poisonous compliment…
You are being told that you are a guiding force, but that you fail at actually directing people or following through on projects. Are you a leader, then?
Your reality may be this: Your superiors may resent your leadership and the management skills that come with leadership (cross-domain skills, fast problem solving capabilities and extensive processing capabilities that enable you to understand situations and learn quickly…. including the ability to see through this superior). Chances are that their statement is a rhetorical scheme to demote you and put you into some “strategic” function where you will have no power, no voice, no decision-making or follow-through capabilities, and less access to information. In short, these superiors are removing what fuels your leadership to strengthen their own power and are taking this opportunity to micro-manage in order to keep control.
It can be the honest reproach of subordinates that you do not assist them as much as they expect – and it’s true that for fast-thinkers, it can be exasperating to baby-sit subordinates that don’t get it. There is another case, though… when subordinates tell you that to make sure that you won’t look too closely into what they actually do in order to be perceived as indispensable. That’s their way of maintaining their little kingdom. You may not want to accept this so-called compliment…
Whether the statement is coming from superiors or subordinates, chances are that you are facing a fairly common strategy of B players destined to box you in the place where they want you to be to protect their power.
“You are a manager, not a leader.”
Maybe it’s true and maybe you do not want to lead… If this is not the case, also look at where this statement comes from. Again, who is telling you that?
Chances are that your management skills and your potential, threaten your superior. That’s their only way to affirm their authority and maintain their own power, real or perceived. In other words, they don’t want you to grow in your job, let alone further your career. This person is definitely not going to help you and will crush your initiatives at all costs.
It can be the reproach from a subordinate who expects more from you… So show your leadership skills and allow your subordinate to grow and thrive.
Conclusion: Be a linchpin
Great leaders manage up, not down. Great managers must also be inspiring leaders. The distinction may work in dull hierarchical environments where people are boring, unimaginative and all about protecting their turf or where bosses are all about managing their egos and looking for cogs. BUT not in the energetic companies where people are happy to work because they know that they are linchpins whatever they do or are asked to do. It’s always good to reread Seth Godin’s books, especially Linchpin, a great manifesto for individual development and a call for a new workplace which I discussed a while back.