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ATD Blog

Leading Versus Managing

Thursday, September 20, 2018

If you are a newly appointed leader, lead a very diverse team (not just demographically; even their job duties have a lot of variance), or are a task-oriented person, you must consider the balance necessary between leading and managing. I use the following definition of leadership: A relationship of influence (hopefully, positive influence). Management in the workplace can be defined as directing or administering things or affairs.

We have seen the comparisons made between the focus of managers and leaders:

Doing things right
Doing the right things
Bottom Line
Top Line
In the System
On the System

Managers focus on what and how tasks are accomplished, and the necessity of getting things done. They usually work from a perspective within the system or organization. Leaders focus on why things are being done, prioritizing resources and establishing expectations that support the purpose, and usually operate from the viewpoint of the entire system, from product to employee to end user. These distinctions range from subtle to drastic mindset shifts that a leader needs to be aware of when developing and empowering a team. Although leadership and management may not be mutually exclusive, certain circumstances or employees require certain application. How much time are you spending in each sphere? Is that appropriate? Why? A rule of thumb is the more levels of positions below you, the more leadership required of you.

Managers are more concerned with process; leaders are concerned with impact. This affects individual assignments for employees and the vision and direction of your team. For the individual, over-management could be interpreted as micromanagement. For the team, it may feel disorganized and removed. Nonetheless, the answer is the same for both. Give your people a task and a purpose for every assignment. They need direction, and you need their buy-in. As a leader, you may implement an awesome idea like one-on-ones in your department. However, without the purpose behind that great idea, employees are reluctant, uncommitted, and annoyed. Conversely, you can offer a compelling purpose, such as, “Let us be awesome as a team and create the most awesome experiences for our consumers!” However, without tasking assignments, employees are not given enough tools to meet your performance expectations. A clearly defined task and purpose eliminates confusion, naturally leads to prioritization, and allows employees to innovate while moving toward accomplishment.


A few questions to self-evaluate and determine your mindset:

  • How involved are your employees in decision making that affects their assignments?
  • How much autonomy are they given in their sphere of influence?
  • How much support do you offer toward their ideas and goals?
  • How often do you reiterate the purpose and intent of your mission, decisions, and vision?
  • How have you outlined professional development for your team and individual employees?

A manager can describe what their employees are—job titles, compensation, years in the job, and so forth. A leader can describe who their employees are—what motivates them, their strengths, their interests, their concerns. Leaders are constantly employing themselves to figure out how to get the best out of their employees. They are engaged in intentional conversations that take place formally and informally, in and out of the workspace. Both leaders and managers can be great communicators; however, managers use language to talk and tell, while leaders use language to listen and learn. Leaders own the failures of the team and learn from the process to transform the team’s influence. Managers identify problems, employ temporary solutions to meet an end, and use power and status to appeal to the team’s passions.

Managers demand excellence, yet do not have the built-in human capital necessary for employees to move with conviction. Leaders inspire excellence because they provide the necessary support for the collective competence, confidence, and compassion that drives the team toward action and commitment. Managers are necessary; leaders are indispensable.

About the Author

Drexel King is the manager of learning and Development at Baylor University. Years of service as a Naval Academy graduate and infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps provide him with more than 10 years of experience in leadership and performance management. He was a platoon commander in Afghanistan, a leadership consultant for 150 officer candidates, and the training officer for 1,200 incoming freshmen at the U.S. Naval Academy. He has earned several distinct honors and awards for his military service. As a transitioned veteran, Drexel continues to be a student of leadership development with a strong desire to impact lives, learn from others, and make connections.

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Drexel, Thank you for this article.
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Excellent articulation of the differences between leadership and management. Probably the best I've seen. Thank you, Mr. King.
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