Managers versus Leaders
By James Colvard
July 1, 2003
We often talk of management and leadership as if they are the same thing. They are not. The two are related, but their central functions are different. Managers provide leadership, and leaders perform management functions. But managers don’t perform the unique functions of leaders.
Here are some key differences:
- A manager takes care of where you are; a leader takes you to a new place.
- A manager deals with complexity; a leader deals with uncertainty.
- A manager is concerned with finding the facts; a leader makes decisions.
- A manager is concerned with doing things right; a leader is concerned with doing the right things.
- A manager’s critical concern is efficiency; a leader focuses on effectiveness.
- A manager creates policies; a leader establishes principles.
- A manager sees and hears what is going on; a leader hears when there is no sound and sees when there is no light.
- A manager finds answers and solutions; a leader formulates the questions and identifies the problems.
- A manager looks for similarities between current and previous problems; a leader looks for differences.
- A manager thinks that a successful solution to a management problem can be used again; a leader wonders whether the problem in a new environment might require a different solution.
Multiple functions, limited resources and conflicting demands for time and resources, require management. It involves setting priorities, establishing processes, overseeing the execution of tasks and measuring progress against expectations. Management is focused on the short term, ensuring that resources are expended and progress is made within time frames of days, weeks and months. Leadership, which deals with uncertainty, is focused on the long term. The effects of a policy decision to invest in staff development, for example, might never be objectively determined or, at best, might only be seen after many years.
Management involves looking at the facts and assessing status, which can be aided by technical tools, such as spreadsheets, PERT (program evaluation and review technique) charts, and the like. Leadership involves looking at inadequate or nonexistent information and then making a decision. Leaders must have the courage to act and the humility to listen. They must be open to new data, but at some point act with the data available.
Management’s concern with efficiency means doing things right to conserve resources. Leadership is focused on effectiveness-doing the right thing. For example, the military must manage its resources well to maximize efficiency. But in waging war, the military’s critical responsibility is to be effective and win the war regardless of the resources required. Getting a bargain does not reflect effective leadership if it means losing the war. Good management is important, but good leadership is essential.
The public sector develops a lot of good managers, but very few leaders. Government focuses too much on abstract or formal education, rather than experience. The Senior Executive Service has provisions for mobility and development through experience, but they are rarely used.
Developing managers and leaders involves stages of understanding, not prescriptively, but conceptually.
- Phase 1 is higher education or academic training that focuses on abstract learning, in which solutions to problems are provided in textbooks.
- Phase 2 applies that abstract process to the actual workplace, in which there are often no right or wrong answers. This is the critical phase in which a future manager or leader develops the confidence to make decisions without knowing the right answers. This requires attempting tasks that are challenging, so that success will demonstrate competence.
- Phase 3 involves social and political dimensions, as a performer moves from working independently to working with others as a supervisor or member of a product or process team. It is no longer enough to simply know the facts, since the process now includes others and involves subjectivity.
- Phase 4 replaces simpler tasks that involve teams or small groups with complex tasks that involve independent, but often interrelated, large groups. In this pivotal stage, managers accept responsibility for things outside their expertise and rely on someone else to provide the facts. The manager may have more authority, but has become more dependent upon others. This might be the time to get more formal training, such as seminars or academic programs in management, to develop skills that weren’t addressed in earlier education. There is no turning back after this transition from performing objective tasks to subjective decision-making and problem solving.
- Phase 5 separates leaders from managers. The management role changes from maintaining an organization’s values to creating them. Leaders establish the principles upon which their subordinates formulate policies.
BUILDING ON STRENGTHS
Becoming a leader requires understanding oneself. There are many tools available, such as the Meyers Briggs profile, to help with that assessment. Recognizing personal characteristics is important in learning how to deal with others, recognizing strengths and weaknesses, and adopting an appropriate leadership style. An extrovert must learn to listen more and talk less. An introvert must speak up more and get heard. A manager who is more comfortable knowing all the details and giving explicit orders should not adopt a participative management style, but rather recognize the limitations of an authoritative style. Adopting a style that is inconsistent with one’s personality not only creates stress but it often leads to failure.
Leaders also must understand their professional traits. One useful tool is the 360-degree feedback survey, which allows managers to get the perspectives of their bosses, peers and subordinates. Such a total view is valuable because managers tend to assess their behavior in terms of their intent, not the effect.
Today the federal system, both its structure and processes, is changing. New agencies, such as the Homeland Security Department, are being formed. The federal personnel system is being modified significantly. Outsourcing has become a household word in the government. Civil servants are going to a new place, and it will take leaders-not just managers-to get them there.
James Colvard, deputy director of the Office of Personnel Management under President Reagan, later was associate director of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. He teaches at Indiana University.