The Best Managers Are Leaders — and Vice Versa

Most of the long-running debate over “leaders” vs. “managers” focuses on nouns when it should focus on verbs. Everyone needs both “leading” and “managing” in their work, and the best executives balance the two. Over the last 15 years, the author asked a thousand executives about the difference between leading and managing, recording their responses. The distinction remains interesting and important, but it’s healthier as a balance that every individual tries to strike instead of as two distinct skillsets or roles within an organization.

The difference between leaders and managers has long been debated. Classicists like Plato pondered about the various qualities of leaders and Niccolò Machiavelli wrote about how leaders and managers are different. Over his long career, organization guru Warren Bennis famously offered these observation:

The manager has his eye on the bottom line; the leader has his eye on the horizon.

The manager asks how and when; the leader asks what and why.

The manager has a short-range view; the leader has a long-range perspective.

This all suggests that leaders and managers are different people. That view is misguided. Instead, we should want everyone — executives and employees — to lead when the time is right and manage when the time is right. Often, one set of challenges requires us to display strong leadership skills to provide teams with direction, whereas another requires us to buckle down and focus on execution. Rather than companies hiring people to handle the big picture while others sweat the details, individuals need to balance both skillsets, thinking of them as verbs (lead and manage), not as nouns (leaders and managers). Achieving this balance is the most important thing an organization can do. Otherwise, “leaders” at the top of an organization set its direction with no sense of the operational details, and “managers” in the middle execute without inspiring, strategizing, or, when appropriate, pushing back.

To explore this idea further, over the last 15 years, I queried over 1,000 C-suite executives from 17 countries with a simple analogy, asking them to fill in the blanks: “Leadership is to ____ as management is to ____.”

Among the thousands of analogies produced, here is a small but typical sample organized into three categories. It illustrates the assumptions we often make about how one function interacts with the other:

  • Philosophy: subjective/objective; emotion/reason; soft/hard; values/facts; romantic/rational; poetry/prose; curvilinear/linear; romanticism/enlightenment; art/science; qualitative/quantitative; picture/colors.
  • Action: strategy/operations; change/stability; interpretation/analysis; purpose/plan; tomorrow/today; continuous/discrete; compose/conduct; initiate/momentum; kick/oxygen; patent/production; compass/GPS; architecture/contracting; landscaping/gardening; coaching/training.
  • Relationships: inspiration/motivation; disciples/employees; passion/pay; release/oversee; transform/perform; person/place; individual/situation; one/many; mentor/employee; lead/follow; sprint/pace; love/like.

It’s tempting to embrace these dichotomies and to adjust roles accordingly: Leaders are at the top of the org chart, and managers are in the middle. While I have no problem with the distinction between leadership and management that runs through the analogies, the problem comes from separating the two skills and styles into separate roles. CEOs need to manage, not just lead. Middle “managers” need the skills of leadership, too.

Bennis once said: Leaders “do the right thing;” managers “do the thing right.” The problem with the leader/manager distinction is right there in that quote: It is fine to make the distinction, but don’t pretend they are two different jobs. Doing the right thing is no good if you do it poorly, just as doing the right thing is no good if you do the wrong thing. Successful executives lead and manage — they don’t delegate one or the other.

To help executives shift from a leader/manager mindset to a lead/manage one and balance the two skillsets, here are a few suggestions:

  • Use every possible internal communication channel to express the idea of ​​balance between these two skillsets, including in mission and vision statements, company publications, firm-wide emails, public statements, and casual conversation. Use simple but effective language to describe how leadership and management overlap and the importance of balancing both. Express how leading and managing are equally honorable, how there are times for each, and that everyone should closely identify with both.
  • Create regular dialogue about the issue with C-suite executives and other officers. Close the fissures in skillsets through focused coaching, training, and other kinds of support. Executives often believe their job is exclusively to lead. They need to understand that managing a process may require surrendering leadership, allowing their reports to take the reins. That’s how employees are developed. It is not a sign of weakness to hand over control — it is an act of leading by trusting.
  • Make it part of the conversation at meetings and during performance appraisals. Ask for examples of when your team members suffered, and when they managed. Make these moments matter, emphasizing that the balance between leadership and management is fragile and requires constant vigilance at every level of the organization.
  • Offer cautionary professional stories that illustrate when either leadership or management was privileged above the other, and the consequences. Similarly, tell triumphant stories about success when the two were harmonized.
  • Promote the idea to shareholders and clients, pressing an opportunity to think creatively about the leadership-management equation and its value inside and outside the organization. Shareholders from Wall Street to Main Street need to understand that the organization is innovating through leadership but doing it thoughtfully through management.
  • Explain the functional distinction of leadership and management to the board, describing the critical elements and noting the need for vigilance to win its support. The board’s backing is crucial to making this part of the culture.

Southwest Airlines’ late CEO James Parker — who assumed the big shoes of founder Herb Kelleher in the wake of 9/11 — is a good example. Here’s how he responded to a question about what leadership is:

Defining and communicating the mission; providing guidance as to how it might be accomplished; equipping people with the proper tools (information, training, etc.); motivating and inspiring through selfless dedication and respect for others; providing both positive and negative feedback, including recognition for achievement; and, ultimately, getting out of the way and giving people the ability and authority to accomplish the mission, with the full confidence they will be supported.

That’s a great description that includes both the high-minded values ​​of leadership (inspiration, mission) and the nitty gritty of management (feedback, delegation, training). Successful CEOs strike this balance, and their firms and employees are better off because of it. The unattributed phrase that organizations are “over-managed and under-led” is true enough. But the answer isn’t for some people to rise above the details to the hallowed role of leader. It takes both leading and managing, charging and charged, to strike the balance.

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