Controlling systems vs. influencing people: The difference between managers and leaders

This is an often argued point, and for good reason! There are some big differences between the archetypal process-driven manager and iconic visionary leader. Even the Oxford University Press dictionary highlights the differences:

Manager: A person controlling or administering a business.

Leader: A person who causes others to go with him, by guiding and showing the way; guides by persuasion and argument.

However, the biggest difference is not one of practice but priorities. Leaders and managers often cover the same ground – it’s just that they have very different starting points.

When it comes to one’s raison d ‘etre: the ‘why’ of the role, the differences are clear. The manager starts with the mission: “give me a mission and I will achieve my meaning from being by its accomplishment”. Ever ‘on-task’ the manager achieves meaning by doing.

The leader, however, starts asking questions before finding answers. Leaders are into mission accomplishment – they get there – they just don’t start there. Why do we as an organisation exist? Who are our customers and our stakeholders? What is our reason for existing? These are the mquestions that leaders foundationally ask. Before stepping into the mission they on occasion step back to view the landscape. It is then that they move from meaning to mission.

It is similar when it comes to the ‘what we do’. The managers begin with task – and will even recruit the team based on the task. They are truly task-driven rather than the leader who is people-centred. To the leader task matters – but it is accomplished with the team rather than through the team. Leaders talk ‘people’ and ‘teams’ rather than ‘human resources’ and ‘talent’. With a longer view of their role they train and inspire their people to achieve and accomplish tasks – and not the other way around.

And how do they do it? Leaders rely on EQ – not their IQ. It’s about relational skills not positional ranks.

For them the structures are secondary to the teams and the dynamics. The outcomes of the leader are more long term: people follow them because people trust and respect them. Rank is secondary to the relationship. In the pragmatic words of leadership expert John Maxwell: “If you’re leading and no one’s following – you’re just out for a walk”.

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