Leaders, Managers, and Everything In-Between

Whenever a conversation in which I’m involved turns to the topic of leadership, the question often arises of how it differs from management. As many of my readers will know, entire volumes have been written about this very topic, and there are copious podcasts, websites, resources, and professional workshops dedicated to answering this question.

But in this ubiquitousness lies a very practical problem: It is virtually impossible to summarize even the most salient scholarship or account for critical opinions on this issue in a conversation without going into excruciating detail on various leadership and management theories. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to outline the kind of mental construct I have been using in conversations on the topic of how leaders and managers differ.

An Initial Framework

I have long struggled with the issue of what makes a leader and how leaders differ from managers. And the more I have read and learned about leadership, the more unsure (and verbose) I became. However, the big-picture and systems-thinker in me eventually took the reins and led me to articulate the following response to this question:

Managers tell and – under the best of circumstances – demonstrate to us what to do and how to do it. Leaders, on the other hand, model and make us believe in why we do these things.

Visually depicted, this construct would look something like this:

Although I understand that this model and associated statements drastically simplify a tremendously complex matter, I also believe that they capture the essence of and difference between these two concepts. They also open the door to a range of interpretations and analyses, both in width and depth, that are comprehensible and meaningful to those not familiar with the literature on the topic. Another strength is the idea that leadership and management are not necessarily irreconcilable opposites but lie on a continuum.

Even though I will discuss the central caveat of this model and revise it below, I would like first to unpack this basic construct a little.

According to this definition, managers’ actions and decisions revolve around the what and the how of their organization – especially policies, procedures, and processes – which they establish, enforce, and (hopefully) demonstrate to front-line users. These individuals may have little knowledge or appreciation of their organization or institution’s goals and the broad vision of their leaders. Instead, they focus predominantly on the here and now, mitigate issues, inform lower-level employees of their duties and responsibilities, and largely ignore the relational side of doing business. 

On the other end of the spectrum, formal leaders are often concerned with the purpose, direction, and overall vision for their organization – but often without an understanding of the minutiae and day-to-day operations necessary to make these ideas a reality. Great leaders can certainly make us believe both in them and the organization as an embodiment of their beliefs, values, and vision. They can also make us want to emulate their example. However, most of our formal educational leaders are not nearly that charismatic or transformational. They set the agenda, devise mission statements and strategic plans, and then leave the implementation of these goals to others while focusing on more pressing issues such as fundraising, representation, and relationship-building with external stakeholders.

Problems arise when those in supervisory and leadership positions fall into the extremes of the continuum. The trickle-down effect of a single-minded focus on either minutiae or grand schemes is often detrimental and results in frustration, low morale, a sense of isolation, and eventually high turnover among those working on the front lines. Such leaders are often understood as setting unrealistic and poorly understood goals without grasping the real-life consequences of their decisions, and managers then pass down and enforce the resulting processes and changes while those actually in charge of implementation are struggling to make it all happen. In short, these kinds of universities may not be the best places for departmental staff and faculty to thrive personally and professionally, especially when organizational culture is punitive, reactive, and top-down, with little room for grassroots innovation. (I have addressed these issues in more detail here.)

Now, I must admit that although all this may, at least conceptually, be true, the very notion of a leadership-management dichotomy is inherently flawed. Why? Because it is rarely reflective of reality, and because it obscures what I consider to be the most important real-life organizational figures and change agents.

The Power In-Between

The idea that our ‘bosses’ are either pure leaders or consummate managers is problematic because those in charge rarely fall neatly into either of these categories. Neither the archetype of the perhaps brilliant and visionary, yet aloof and detached leader nor the cold-hearted, metrics and procedures-driven, policy-enforcing manager is reflective of most administrative staff in our colleges and universities, or most businesses, for that matter. (That said, most of us will invariably have come across such people – and likely regretted ever having had this experience.)

More importantly, however, talking about leaders versus (!) managers – although a concept easy to understand – not only assumes an irreconcilable difference but also denies the existence of the very individuals whom I consider pivotal to the success of any organization, especially immensely complex, siloed, and at times even fragmented ones like colleges and universities: individuals a surprisingly small number of others (including myself) like to call leader-managers and manager-leaders

Therefore, I would like to propose a revised model from the one presented above as follows:

In addition to introducing two additional functional categories (leader-managers and manager-leaders), the revised framework adds effective communication as a crucial competency and acknowledges that the overarching questions those in charge answer through their actions are not discrete but instead overlap while gradually shifting from what to why.

As shown above, the reality of being in a position of authority lies somewhere between the two extremes and along a gradual spectrum. I consider a leader-manager as an individual whose primary purpose, interest, and professional identity is anchored in processes, procedures, and keeping the proverbial trains on time. However, this individual also understands the greater purpose of why policies and procedures are in place and matter in fulfilling the mission of the organization. Optimally, they are also skilled at communicating that purpose and the big picture to their reports and front-line staff.

Manager-leaders are, as the term implies, leaders who have a solid managerial background and are intimately familiar with policies, procedures, and administrative processes. They often possess extensive professional experience as front-line staff and managers and have, in a sense, worked their way “up,” although they need not be in widely recognized formal leadership positions. Manager-leaders’ predominant focus, however, lies on the why, on mentorship, talent development, motivation, and the big picture, while also striving to keep the institution on course through organizational improvement and innovation. They are skilled not only at communicating and explaining the purpose of what we do but also at creating a sense of community and modeling behaviors that embody the values and beliefs that drive our actions and decisions.

I consider myself to belong to the latter category.

This framework – albeit still grossly simplified and hardly reflective of the myriad nuances present in those running our institutions of higher learning – has the tremendous advantage of being practical in that it can be used in conversation with interested laypeople. At the same time, it captures (or, at least, alludes to) the main questions and competencies salient to managing and leading in a complex 21st-century organization. I hope and wish that it may help some of my readers and perhaps spark further discussion.

This article was originally published on October 5, 2019, on LinkedIn.com, and may have been updated since its original publication.