What is the difference between being a manager and being a leader? This is a question that comes up from time to time in my coaching sessions with senior managers. For a long time I wasn’t even sure myself on exactly how to define the difference. However, some recent experiences have made the distinction much clearer.
When I co-facilitate a certain two-day workshop to introduce coaching skills to middle managers, we do an exercise the outcome of which I can predict with 100% accuracy. I split the group nof 20-26 participants, into four groups. I send each group to a flip chart and give them fifteen minutes to write up the attributes of the best leader they ever worked under. At the end of the fifteen minutes I scan the results and these are the words I see on the flip charts every time I conduct the exercise:
As the participants walk around and view each others’ flip charts the themes running through the output quickly become apparent. They notice that there are no words related to “task driven” or “KPI focussed”. That is not to say that leaders are dismissive of KPI’s, deadlines or getting tasks done. What the flip charts suggest is that true leaders are more person focussed than task focussed. In other words they devote a large chunk of their time understanding the talents, hopes, fears, anxieties and aspirations of their direct reports in order to know how to effectively motivate and inspire them.
When we ask the workshop participants what they notice about the flip charts there is much looking down at the floor and shuffling of feet as they realise they are not actually doing much of what they describe as good leadership. The usual excuse is, “I don’t have enough time”. The truth is a manager will never have time. He or she can only make time for the important work of leading and developing people to their full potential.
Many of the managers I work with spend little or no time being a leader because they are too busy managing KPIs and tasks. They fall into this trap for a number of reasons:
- They have not figured out that their job is to achieve results through others and they continue dabbling in the detail themselves.
- Fear of not being recognised if they are not personally involved in completing tasks.
- Failing to trust his or her people and therefore not delegating enough work as a result.
- Wanting to be deeply involved in the technicalities of the work in which they are a specialist.
- The person to person aspects of leadership are not in their comfort zone.
This list is just a sample and by no means exhaustive but typifies some of the reasons for not attending to the business of leadership.
Simply put, what emerges from this exercise is that the difference between managing and leading is the difference between the head and the heart. It is clear from this workshop exercise, as well as plentiful literature on the topic, that the key to effective leadership is an ability to relate to people on a person-to-person basis as well as role-to-role. The mistake some of my clients make when considering their shortcomings in their person-to-person skills is that they believe it is about being their direct reports’ “friend”.
Particularly in the Asian context there is a belief that work is work, social is social and never the twain shall meet. In parallel with this is the mistaken belief that showing an interest in a staff member as a human being means having to be their “friend”. Friend is defined by the client as being someone with whom you socialise regularly outside of work and attend their family weddings and funerals. However, the truth lies somewhere between “friend” and “subordinate”. Using person-to-person leadership skills is about knowing what makes a fellow human being tick in order to get the maximum productivity from them, not about being their best friend.
When a manager knows the person behind the job title he is in a much better position to understand the behaviour of staff, able to fully appreciate and exploit their strengths and weaknesses, knows what kind of work inspires and what demotivates. It is this knowledge that enables a manager to be an effective leader and not merely a task master.