Do I have what it takes to become a leader? Or am I really ‘just a manager’? – ProTem
09 / 6 / 2022

Do I have what it takes to become a leader? Or am I really ‘just a manager’?

by Jeremy Raymond a ProTem Expert

People wonder about this, especially in a crisis. Is the distinction real? Does it matter?

A boss says “go”. A leader says “Let’s go” 

Doris Lessing

Do you remember your first management job? The first meeting with your ‘team’ or the other people whose working life you were supposed to direct? Now you are head of a pack, even if it started as a ‘pack’ of one other person. It felt like quite a big transition from being one of the gang to something else, although the nature of the difference might not have been obvious at the start. 

Becoming a manager is a social transition, in some ways similar to other life transitions, such as becoming a parent for the first time; you know about it having read about it or witnessed it, but you haven’t experienced the role at first hand. For you the experience is unprecedented.

Management has a different history from leadership. It was really only articulated as a set of skills towards the end of the industrial revolution and specifically as an adjunct to mass production. Productivity experiments in the steelworks and paper mills of Philadelphia were carried out under the direction Frederick Winslow Taylor, who might reasonably be called the first management consultant. His ‘scientific’ approach starts with the belief that processes and people can be made more productive and efficient. Collect the data, sweat the production assets, including the humans — these are the underlying expectations of managers. 

Use structure, a variety of stimulus and consequence plus a dash of your previous experience and improve the productivity of assets, processes and people. Ryanair is a mini Taylorist management miracle.

Management, by Taylor’s definition, is the lessons of the past applied to a rigourously measured present. It applies to projects, production and service delivery, but in different ways. There are tools to address different issues, but they share a common assumptions based on this heritage; you can engineer improvement. Think of management consultant’s jargon; a lot of it sounds like engineer- speak.

‘Manager’ is a job title, but it is also a grade that comes with increased authority. On the organisation chart you get moved up a level, which is also like becoming a parent on the family tree — you are no longer with the kids at the bottom. 

How you use the hierarchy and the authority is down to you; you can be autocratic, democratic, diffident, collaborative, divisive. The measure of your success will be improvement in performance — better output, higher value outcomes, less resource input — while at the same time keeping things stable and the people engaged.

Although it is a long time since 1898 when Taylor first realised that there was more to supervision than watching, good managers still have to organise, schedule, instruct, supervise, explain, inform, plan, monitor, delegate, rationalise. They also have to hire, assess people’s performance, retain their talent, provide them with resources and raw materials, make people redundant or fire them.

Not everybody wants to be a manager, with its whiff of slave driver in the galley. (Taylor doesn’t shrink from the word ‘enforced’). You might not feel comfortable with the fundamental purpose of the job. You might have concerns about exercising authority. You might not want the loneliness of no longer being one of the gang, with a manager to complain about (although your new peer group will join you in complaining about the new boss you share). 

You might not want to be the representative of the organisation and have to promote the company line when you do not agree with it. You might not think you are worthy of this responsibility. You might not be motivated by power, status and promotion. (These are all issues people mention in coaching associated with the transition)

But nobody’s forcing you to become a manager. You can stay a happy foot soldier your whole working life, if you wish. It’s just that the organisation tends to reward managers more than foot soldiers, just as the generals get softer beds and a better diet.

Leadership sounds more interesting, perhaps?

We all ‘know’ about leadership not just from experience but also from history. Alexander the Great, Florence Nightingale, Napoleon, Marie Curie, Churchill, Marie Stopes — trailblazers, social revolutionaries, empire builders. Marvel heroes are the popular image of leaders; famous women and men who won battles and changed the world, and sometimes failed in the final attempt. 

Leadership has always been valued in tricky situations where people have to be persuaded to do things which are dangerous but important, so the ability to inspire others to take risks in pursuit of a laudable goal goes with the territory. There are less high profile versions of leadership too; the opinion leader in the staff canteen who gets people to do a sponsored charity run, the firebrand who upsets the boss but courageously confronts some unspoken grievance, the whistle-blower who decides that enough is enough and talks with the press.

Leading is vital in times of crisis and change. Leaders want to inspire and direct change to achieve goals. Leading requires influence, communication, empathy and advocacy. It responds to situations to shape them in line with a vision of an outcome. It is in principle open to all, although there is a common expectation that if you are senior you should be leading. 

Leading is relational and contextual and doesn’t come with a manual. Every leader is driven by a different motivation. When the situation allows, this motivation and agenda finds common cause with others. When they are unlucky their voice rings hollow and people turn away. They only have the moral authority of their values to work with and this will be tested and tested. Expect to use personal power, but don’t rely on your position.

Still want to be a leader? Or would you prefer the security of being a manager? Both risk unpopularity. Both need trust. Both will be judged by what they deliver. It’s just that their methods and the feelings they evoke are different.

There. Different. But are they really? Is there really a hard line between these two? We all have experiences to reflect on. Indulge me a bit further and let me share one of mine.

My first proper management job — deputy headteacher in a secondary school in London. At 31 years of age, I was in charge of the two upper years in the school ( 220 16–18 year olds) and had a team of seven teachers who provided pastoral care to this group and ran the General Studies programme. I managed the substitution process; when any number of the 70 teaching staff were unwell I arranged for other teachers to cover on their classes ( a guarantee of unpopularity). My wider job description also involved organising all the school and public exams, parents evenings and other whole school events, the school careers advice process. 

I had an office of my own which had a window (status!) and, like everybody in education, continued to teach for part of the week. Managers in education have to be good teachers too to have the credibility to organise their colleagues. Primus inter pares, (first among equals) as the Latin- teaching Head used to say. I attended school management meetings with the headteacher and the other two deputies every week. I ran staff meetings with all 70 teaching staff. The teaching and administrative staff recognised I had authority and decision-making power. Yes, I thought, I was now one of ‘them’.

When I arrived there were some things which didn’t work that well. My predecessor had died suddenly and was much loved by the staff and senior pupils. I never met him, but by reputation he was charismatic, charming and effective. He was however not always meticulous in his organization, but when people love you they forgive. He was seen as a leader, somebody with a very positive influence, and a tough act to follow. Like many new managers I didn’t realise that there was legacy here which I would have to deal with. “Mr M… would never had done that” people would say not-so-sotto-voce. I needed to become a leader too, but not like him. Comparisons aren’t good.

Leadership is about things which aren’t on your job description. Leading is ultimately a choice. You spot the need or opportunity, you set your own targets, you make your own plans, you find your own allies and they you get to work. Entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs have to be leaders. Sometimes it is a response to an obvious problem. Sometimes it takes guile and cunning. 

My target was the school reports which informed the students’ parents how well they were doing. They were awful and more to the point, they didn’t motivate parents of the underperforming students to come to the parents evening and have their ears burned by teacher after teacher complaining about Johnny. We were getting about 60% attendance at most parents meetings, as a direct consequence to the way teachers wrote reports and the way we distributed them. Of course it didn’t say on my job description “ In charge of school reports”. It was on somebody else’s, however.

The report production process was a nightmare. For each student in every subject class teachers completed a short report of their performance over the period. There was no quality control; some teachers spent hours doing the task, others (PE reports, I remember) would just write things like “We have been studying basketball this term and the class have learned to get the ball in the net better than before”. On every report for literally 100s of pupils. Teachers hated the process as they had to write so many at once, with quite tight deadlines. It was like marking; necessary, in the job description, but essentially a chore, especially if what you wrote (honestly) meant you didn’t get to see the parents you most needed to meet. 

Parents didn’t like it the bland comments and objected to more trenchant criticism. The students loathed it unless they got gold stars for every subject because of the consequences. 

It was so hated by the staff that the common room had an informal competition to write the most damning fantasy report they could come up with (catharsis, not for real). I remember the winner one term was the social studies teacher who suggested “Tina has had one idea this term. Sadly, it was wrong”.

Given all that. you’d think in wanting to change the reports I would be preaching to the choir, but no, there were vested interests in maintaining the status quo. One of my peers, another deputy headteacher, declared. “This is how we do reports in this school” and got his team, the pastoral heads of year group, to support him. I had youth and inexperience on my side and sought out the other younger, less traditional staff. 

To cut a long story short we invented a way of writing reports based on transferable competences and a balanced scorecard which the students reliably took home, and which produced a 90% turnout at the parents meeting. It became, for a while, the recommended school report model across all secondary schools in our part of London.

My purpose in telling this story is to pose the question about whether managing and leading are really separate or just different approaches to ‘doing the job’. Executives in all organisations are expected to be leaders (they often aren’t prepared for this, in my coaching experience). It wasn’t in my job description, but there was this expectation. Sometimes the best leaders aren’t burdened with the job of management; they just move in and seize the day.

Research into leadership at work, an offshoot of trying to predict who could be the best general in the army during the second world war, is big business. There’s a lot riding on leadership being something special, so the academics and journalists have got to work and made some pretty clear distinctions which subsequent research has modified, tested and modified again. The leadership development business is a factory, because who wants to be ‘just a manager’ ?

Here are some well-rehearsed differences

  • Management aspires to quality, consistency, not late
  • Leadership inspires to dream, so people innovate
  • Management’s pragmatic, a concrete compromise
  • Leadership’s the promised path to where the future lies
  • Managers must all believe performance is essential
  • This lets leaders look ahead and focus on potential
  • How to shape a team’s approach, their culture, style and fashion?
  • Managers use processes while leaders leverage passion
  • Managers say “Do it right”, no ambiguity
  • Leadership embraces change, the heady chance to be
  • Management’s a job, leadership’s a choice
  • Managers find things to do, leaders find their voice

with thanks to Kate Ng

As with popular music genres, so with knowledge; it makes ‘progress’ by increasingly refined taxonomies. But there is a danger that we end up splitting hairs about distinctions, although, as a teacher of both management and leadership, I find the debate helpful as a way to get people to focus on the different approaches to developing both sets of capability. If I want you to focus on developing your leadership, we need to agree what we will not be focusing on — and vice versa.

The approach to developing both facets of working with others in organisations has evolved in different directions, and it is worth considering as it throws light on what might be real, hard differences between the two

Management can be taught. Based on the best of the past, there are tools, processes and structures which help managers to improve others’ performance. We can codify them. For example, the skill of setting clear, stretch performance objectives to somebody in your team. (How you are taught this will be for another day, but there are techniques and forms of words which work for almost all performance management systems). There are management models and approaches which are not just for reflection but also for application. You can learn how to negotiate, to delegate, to pontificate.

Line management is rather out of fashion as the reason to go on a course these days — partly because organisations have been moving away from hierarchy for decades and technology makes it easy — but project management has a huge literature and loads of software. If you make something into a tool others can learn to operate it. 

You can master management, rather like you can master carpentry or plumbing. There are nostrums in both; “measure twice, cut once” is not that different from “what gets measured gets done”. There are tasks and situations which repeat and for which the wisdom of previous managers can be put to good use. You can get qualifications in managing, although, like driving, you will probably only really learn what is involved once you have passed your test.

But how do you develop leadership ability? If you believe in the distinction, management is about cooking but leadership is about appetite, inspiring others to commit and persevere. Can you be taught how to make people feel hungry? Can the new conductor of the orchestra be taughte to make his players love his preferred repertoire, and elevate their playing above the routine and lacklustre?

Some would argue that you cannot teach leadership, but you can encourage people to learn it. But they will only learn it if they want to, because it comes with risks. Professors cannot de-risk leading. Both leading and managing provide scope for failure of course, but the failure of leading is personal where the failure of managing is often more systemic; there will be others involved. Process, policy and tools you can blame.

You learn leadership when you want to make a change or when there is a crisis. Leading can sometimes ‘choose’ you whereas you tend to decide to be a manager. So if you want to improve your leadership ability (we all start with some skill, as leading is social) you will need to reflect on your values, subject yourself to some uncomfortable moments, and take on challenges. Not necessarily abseiling down a rock face with an ex -marine bellowing in your ear, but undertaking something where the chances of success are perhaps unknown. Whether in a group or alone, you learn leading by leading, and the way you improve is a combination of self -awareness, feedback on your impact and a focus on building resilience, energizing others and communication skills. Each person will be different as will their situation, which is why coaching is as important to developing leadership ability as teaching.

So, let’s go back to the initial question. Are the differences real? Are you perhaps already leading?

After thirty years of teaching management and facilitating leadership programmes, I’ve come to see each as different ends of the same scale. People slide up and down the scale towards managing or towards leading depending on the situation and what they want to achieve. In some organisations you can get a lot done as a manager. In others you will fail unless you can lead. But in most places you need an understanding of both and a flexible approach. It isn’t a competition between the two ideas.

With hindsight I can see my experience in the school of changing the report production process required both. Leadership to raise the opportunity and find the support for the project. Management to create an initial system based on what we knew worked, that people would use. Leadership to persuade people to use it. Management to ensure that they did so on time. Leadership to keep them motivated when it didn’t work initially as we had planned. Management to redesign it to work better. Leadership to…. And so on.

The current crisis means managers are struggling, but leaders potentially have an opportunity. They may be provoked into tackling an issue, or the issue simply won’t respond to the tools, systems and processes of the past. ( It is ‘unprecedented’).

But actually, there’s no such thing as ‘just a manager’. You can’t be effective in management if you are disorganised, just as you can’t be effective in leadership unless you have conviction. 

But you can write those sentences the other way around. They still make sense. Whether your aim is change or the maintenance of efficient operations you will need both. Whether you are in crisis or not.

The rivers and seas are able to receive the homage and tribute of all the valley streams; their skill lies in being lower than their tributaries. It is thus that they are greater than them all. So it is that the leader, wishing to be above others, puts himself, by his words, below them, and, wishing to be before them, places his person behind them. In this way, though he has his place above them, people do not feel his weight; nor, though he has his place before them, the people do not resent it. Therefore all the world delights to raise him up and do not weary of him

Lao Tse (600BC)

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