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Essay: Manager versus Leader – Leader Manager?

Posted by on January 24, 2018

Manager Versus Leader

When does the Manager become a Leader?

Consider this scenario. You are a manager. That’s it. That’s the scenario. It’s your job to complete all of the wonderful expectations of management – those competencies that we see all too often describing the vanilla role of management. What comes to mind are the “Problem solving”, “Driving for Success”, “Planning and Organising” standard responses. And, in relation to these kinds of managerial qualities, you excel! You are very good at making sure that your team completes their work, meets timelines, deals with unforeseen hurdles, and generally keeps the clients happy.

But then, the organisation throws you a curve ball. “You are not just a manager!” – they say. “You are a leader!”

A what? How the hell did this happen? Where did you blindly skip by the T’s and C’s that stipulated this additional job requirement? Aren’t leaders meant to be liked? You’re a manager, for heaven’s sake! No one likes you – they fear you and regard you as their boss and you’re the one that tells them “good job” and gives them something akin to school demerits when they do badly so that it reflects on their performance management sheet later on in the year!

So now you have a problem. The organisation is referring to you as a leader! And at first, this “leadership” stuff really kicks in. You get sent on leadership workshops, you do assessments that show your natural leadership style, you finish a six-week leadership course, leadership responsibilities get added to your KPI’s…and then, a few months down the line, you sit in front of your boss, one afternoon for your quick 30-minute check-up, and you realise that you’re still just a manager.

So what’s the problem with this scenario? Where did everything go wrong? Surely the organisation did what most organisations do? They sent their top managers, picked because of their potential to influence and impact subordinates, on a leadership course and additional training. They reviewed job descriptions and included expected outcomes as a part of this leadership initiative. They even threw in two new competencies that reflect the leadership-need.

The question is, was it legitimately carried through? You can’t just announce yourself as a leader. There is this exceptionally short-sighted lie told to children that “everyone is a leader!” No! They are quite wrong in my humble opinion. Everyone is not a leader. Everyone can be a leader, however. Depending on the need of the followers at that point in time. This is what turns forced-based leadership into legitimate leadership. When the followers choose you to be a leader because you represent the qualities that they so dearly require at that point in time. In other words, you cannot lead a person who does not consent to being led by you.

Turning the title of “manager” into “leader” is an incredibly difficult goal set by an organisation. Basically what you are saying to your managers is, “you know all those things that you were doing because you had position-based power? Well, we want you to change that to personal-based power, because you’re not achieving the outcomes we expected of you as you are now”. Is this because the role of the manager is obsolete? Or is it because the role of the leader is so much more profound?

In a way, a lot of the expectations of a leader at work can be filtered into the umbrella category of manager roles. You need to listen to your employees. You need to know what they need in order to meet those needs. You need to learn how to filter out the feedback so that the substance of the content is clearly understood; especially in cases where you have to read between the lines and really tap into the emotions of the team. You need to act on what you have heard – otherwise your employees may feel like talking to a wall would work just as well. And in your actions, you need to have inclusion, so that employees know what has been done and can see that you are representing the needs that they boldly and bravely communicated to you.

That sounds like a good leader to me. But in fact, it sounds like a good manager to me too! It seems that it is easy to label a good manager with the title “leader” simply because they are doing what good managers do. So in a way, the movement towards “managers” turning into “leaders” is actually a movement against “bad managers”. It is a way of holding managers responsible for the wellbeing of their teams, and ensuring some kind of accountability on the part of the manager for the continuous performance of the team.

You often get good teams – which are run by a manager who cares very little. Slap the title of “leader” onto him, and you allow the team-members a route to explain why the manager is not doing what they should be doing. Why the manager is a bad manager. Without the title of “leader”, managers can easily fall off the edge, and forget the reason for their presence. It’s not just to deal with the unpleasantries of performance management, policy-following, time-line driven kind of policing. Managers sometimes get so bogged down by the people-business of managing that they choose to disengage and freeze-over some of the important human-responses necessary to run a good team.

Being a manager means you already have the positional power necessary to make decisions and implement actions that influence the people around you. But being a leader on-top of that? That’s when you enter a whole new level of power – when you have the power of your team supporting you, simply because you use your abstract-gifted-organisation-based position to support them…that’s what turns you from a simply manager into a Leading Manager.

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Leadership is always a touchy topic, and my life-experiences and South African background have moulded a very different perception of leadership. Drop me a message and we can talk theories!

Wonderwhiterabbit hopping off…

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