Column: Managers Are Not Leaders

Coulumn by Elena Yang

I contend that by first denying managers can be leaders, we may actually begin to explore some links between these two roles.

There must be thousands of research articles on leadership alone, and only slightly fewer on comparing leaders and managers. 

Leadership was one of my least favorite topics when I was taking courses for my PhD. It’s interesting to talk about, but mind-boggling to read through.

To me, leadership is one of those moving targets whose full nature you can never really pin down. As for equating managers with leaders? I think this is another one of those business schools’ cynical calculations, allowing  managers to further inflate their already sizable egos. 

Even without research (do we need to spend another $50K to confirm this intuition?), most of us would probably prefer to be considered as “leader” rather than as “manager.”  Now, why is that?!

One of the reasons why the definition of leadership is a moving target is that no sooner is one definition espoused, we are reminded of other qualities of exceptional people around us. 

This makes me think that intrinsically, most of us can take on the leader’s role at some point, depending on the situation or the circumstances.

Sometimes, it’s the one with most knowledge, and other times it can be the person with most experience, or imagination. I don’t know for sure if “leader” and “leadership” are largely Americans’ obsession or if it’s also heavily emphasized in other cultures, but I suspect that other cultures may look at these concepts differently. 

In American’s heavily individualistic psyche, we rarely read about  followership in discussing “leadership.” But how can anyone try to lead if there aren’t followers? 

So, to begin with, all those managers out there who desire to be considered “leaders,” just ask yourselves, “do I actually have anyone following me, and following me willingly?”

For example, one top executive in a big organization was unceremoniously “demoted.” (No one came right out to say it, but in essence that’s what it was.) 

She was ambitious for her directory of about 800 people, and when she started in this role she did have a clear vision. However, she was impatient to get to her vision, and watching her from a distance,

I would say that because she was impatient, she overly micro-managed her people. By resorting to micromanagement in lieu of leadership she failed to inspire enough people to work with her, and ultimately did not succeed in conveying her own ideas. 

In a very broad sense, leaders possess vision, which by itself means little until the leaders can convey this vision clearly. 

Then others who resonate with this vision may decide to follow and become the ones who fulfill this vision. Generally, leaders have strong emotional connections with their followers. 

Managers certainly can have vision as well, but need to be mindful of making sure the vision aligns with overall organization’s mission. 

Managers’ task needs methodical and deliberate execution; they are generally problem solvers. Managers’ people don’t always have to agree with managers’ vision, and which may not always be present.  Managers and their people “just” have jobs to hold and work to accomplish. 

Most likely, people’s emotional attachment to their managers is much more tenuous than followers with their leaders; however, I argue that the more successful managers tend to evoke strong positive emotions in their subordinates. 

The less successful managers, or the ones who are downright dreadful, do manage to bring out negative feelings in people, sometimes very strongly. 

In other words, whether to lead or to manage, it behooves the person holding these positions to pay attention to their subordinates: 

What is their mood? What gets them excited? What do they do well? What do they enjoy? What are the perpetual stumbling blocks that prevent work being done? What can managers do about these stumbling blocks (instead of being ones themselves)? 

We’ve all seen enough of insecure managers who actually compete with their own people for credit! It’d never occur to these managers that allowing people to do their best is actually going to make the manager look good; of course, even though “looking good” shouldn’t be any manager’s purpose or goal, it’s the logic that seems to elude them. 

One of the best ways to be in touch with the people is to actually talk to them; how often do we see CEOs actually talk to the people at the lowest level?

I learned something new recently, from an old book with a great title, “Up the Organization,” by Robert Townsend. What I learned is “you can’t motivate people.” (italics mine)

Probably not even leaders can, although they can excite their followers. But for both managers and leaders, to get people to accomplish, they must create an environment, or a climate, in which people’s self-motivation gets the job done, and helps the organization reach its goals. 

This is in accordance with Dan Pink’s brilliant TED presentation on motivation I wrote about a few weeks ago.

In next week’s space, I will highlight what effective managers (and true leaders) do. Till then,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.



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