Leader Vs Manager. When To Lead, When To Manage

 Profile image of Steve Lobley From Spring Leadership

Steve Lobley

I remember always being curious why business leaders and their businesses didn’t grow and develop as effectively as they could – and in line with their stated ambitions. It was a great puzzle – despite knowing exactly what to do, nine times out of ten they couldn’t make the changes needed or make the right decisions to truly achieve the step changes required. It led me to the mantra from the Chinese Proverb ‘it’s not the knowing that’s difficult, it’s the doing’ – because THAT is really what it’s all about after all…

And as a result I reshaped my career from business adviser and mentor to launch myself fully into the world of coaching. My 30+ years in business from a shift manager in a textile mill to MD of a £15M business in the corporate world allowed me a unique perspective on the challenges people were facing, and with loads of experience on how to address them. 

With the greatest leader above then, people barely know one exists.
Next comes one whom they love and praise.
Next comes one whom they fear.
Next comes one whom they despise and defy.

When a leader trusts no one, no one trusts him.

The great leader speaks little.
He never speaks carelessly.
He works without self-interest and leaves no trace.
When all is finished, the people say, “We did it ourselves.”

Lao Tzu

I’ve been doing a lot more research on the subject of leadership versus management lately and it’s been fascinating.

In all the coaching work I do with managers and leaders we nearly always have a very specific conversation about leading versus managing, and what the difference is.  A good leader needs to be able to manage AND lead. To succeed as Lao Tzu describes, takes a combination of both. But how do you do it?

Defining great leadership

When we get onto this subject, I try to help my coachees confidence by pointing at various books – Good to Great by Jim Collins for example. I discussed the concept of the Level 5 Leader in a previous blog on What Makes a Great Leader? And this goes some way to help define what leadership is all about. Rosalinde Torres, too, does a great Ted Talk about what makes a great leader.

She points to 3 key features of leaders:

  1. Great leaders are not head-down. They see around corners, shaping their future, not just reacting to it.
  2. Great leaders understand that having a more diverse network is a source of pattern identification at greater levels and also of solutions, because you are working with people that think differently to the way you do. This allows them to do number 1.
  3. Great leaders dare to be different. They don’t just talk about risk-taking; they actually do it. One of her leaders shared with her the fact that the most impactful development comes when you are able to build the emotional stamina to withstand people telling you that your new idea is naïve or reckless or just plain stupid.

Understanding these, she says, will determine your effectiveness as a 21st-century leader.

Leadership versus management: a framework for understanding

However, I’ve found these definitions are still just a little wide of the mark for those leaders or managers who are trying to make a difference in their day to day work. What we find in our sessions is the need for a framework they can use to identify the DIFFERENCE – i.e. when they’re doing it ‘right’. That is, identifying the need for leading versus managing and when they should do which. They’re looking for something to help them decide when they should use the different styles.

By clearly laying out the difference between the two, the choice to lead or to manage is made easier.

I found an answer with an old master, John Kotter, Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at Harvard Business School, which I have summarised in the diagram below. A number of my coachees have it laminated and taped up in their office!


Leader vs manager: a framework based on the ideas of John Kotter, Professor of Leadership at Harvard.


How does this work for you in your day to day management vs leadership challenge?

If you feel this is something you would like some support with contact us for a no obligation chat.