When Managers Don’t Lead

Few things in business are more costly than a manager in a leadership position. – Steve Keating

Just so we’re clear about this, I have nothing but respect for great managers. They are the essential clue that hold organizations together. They keep things running smoothly, they execute strategies and tactics. Without sound management no organization can survive. 

But… yes you knew there had to be a but… but, simply putting a great manager into a leadership position does not make them a leader. A manager can be a leader and a leader can be a manager but very often a manager is not a leader and sometimes a great leader is not a good manager. 

Managing and leading are two entirely different things. We’re not talking semantics here, we are talking about a difference as large as night and day.

Managers use a microscope and leaders use a telescope. Managers examine the details, vital details yes, but details all the same. A leader not only sees the details they also see the much bigger picture, they see the wide angle view. While a manager sees what is, a leader sees what could be…and what should be.

Managing is about stuff, budgets, inventories, processes, etc. Leadership is about people and it’s only about people. Better management helps a organization survive, better leadership helps an organization grow. 

Successful organizations need both leaders and managers. Which one, managers or leaders, are more important is like arguing which came first, the chicken or the egg. (Just an aside, if you really want to know which one came first read Genesis in The Bible, it’s abundantly clear that the chicken came first.)

When managers occupy a leadership position without actually leading progress slows down. It can slow down so much that it actually stops. Whenever I see a business that is not growing I almost always see a manager in a position of leadership. 

Good managers can learn to lead after moving into a leadership position. The longer they try to manage when they should be leading the less likely they are to ever truly lead. The most successful leaders were leaders before they had a true leadership position. They understood that leadership was more about their disposition than it was about any position they may one day achieve. 

Some leaders have other leadership positions reporting to them. They must be certain that  leaders occupy those positions. 

Putting managers into leadership positions is a common mistake. It a mistake that produces common results rather then the uncommon results that the most successful organizations use to succeed again and again.

That makes it an incredibly costly mistake.


59 thoughts on “When Managers Don’t Lead

    1. We never should have renamed ‘manager’ to something else … never, never, never, never … look up the word ‘manager’ … it just means … ‘getting things done’ … one of the most challenging roles in an organizations. We should have focused on the content instead of renaming this role. In my books I use the words 2D-Manager versus 3D-Manager (just google) … same role but dramatic different competences. The same what we did with ‘Silent Actor’ and ‘Talking Actor’ … or ‘Analog Camera’ and ‘Digital Camera’ … we kept the word but but the way it was done, changed … I thing changing the name ‘manager’ to something else was the biggest mistake in the history of organizational development … my 2 cent …

  1. how ridiculously correct.. leadership equals mentorShip. It requires wearing a totally different mask from that of a manager . While the manager is the driving force behind the achievements. .Unfortunately a manager is constantly feared and seen as the ogre. The leader looks for ways to bring out the best in each individual. Looks at the future possibilities of the employees individually and how they fare as a team. The leader is always approachable and available

  2. Leading and managing are two different skill sets, that has been argued more often in recent years and nothing to hold against that. The more difficult question is how to create leaders and why in any company, the career ladders are almost always focused on learning to manage rather than lead. And why do companies assume that it takes a manager first before becoming a leader…? And which is easier to learn? Management might be easier to master than leadership, so there might be a need for a leadership rather than a mgt ladder that starts from the bottom and reaches al the way to the top? Keeps me wondering….

    1. Well, management can be taught. Leadership must be modeled. Teaching is always easier than showing.
      Modeling leadership must be intentional, directed, and consistent. You are absolutely correct that in most businesses the focus is on learning to manage. “They” say it’s in learning to lead but in too many cases the “they” that say it don’t actually understand what true leadership looks like.

    2. I think this ties into KAI – Adaptive vs Innovative. Some people are just task-oriented and others are always looking out strategically and are innovative. Adapters typically abhor change; innovators embrace it. Leaders are a type of Innovator.

  3. Absolutely, great post! This is something I’ve always been very passionate about and I’m happy to see that others are as well. No disrespect to managers, there are some great ones out there, but great leaders change their teams and organizations by empowering them. Great leaders make a lasting impact. It seems that people remember their worst experiencees with managers and their best experiences with leaders. Great leaders are like great teachers. They can change the world, one person at a time, through those that they lead!

    1. Yes, that can be frustrating but while many a manager may be a poor leader most leaders are at least okay managers….but there are exceptions to every rule 😀

  4. I don’t know… So, what is that “not-manager” but a leader position? Where would it fit into organigram of any given company? And using common sense – anyone believes that a leader of significance may not hold a management position? These “manager vs. leader” cliches are around for about 50 years if not more but they don’t address this problem correctly. The question is: Why there are not enough leaders among managersand what can be done about it?

    1. Step one of what can be done about it is realizing that a managing and leading are two different roles. Ideally one person can be good at both… You just don’t find that ideal very often.
      Until the argument stops and people understand the real difference you will have managers in leadership positions and an organization will struggle because of it.

  5. When managers don’t lead the issue is not a leadership one but a management one. Manager is a job title and leadership is an activity. For some it is semantics and for others there is a prolonged debate about leadership being for a special few and often not a quality of managers. If you are a manager who doesn’t lead when in a position that requires leadership then I think your management is at fault. Leadership, for me, is a sub-set of effective management. I think the focus on leadership stripped away from a broader discussion about management, is potentially dangerous. It can perhaps inadvertently promote qualities that arise from personality and genetics rather than learned and practiced behaviours e.g. persuasiveness, charm and charisma. At worst it suggests that there is some pre-ordained ‘class’ that is naturally bent to rule. In my experience when I see failed companies I often see someone who was hailed as a great leader in their time before hubris or other poor qualities brought about their company’s demise. Perhaps our efforts should be advocating leadership growth in our managers and not seeking out ‘leaders’ in their own right.

    1. Clearly in a perfect world an organization’s mangers would also have great leadership abilities. I absolutely agree that you can find both skill sets in one person…. It’s just the often you don’t. The point here is that for an organization to survive long term they have to understand that there are two separate skill sets in play. Our human nature fights being “managed.” Managed people feel as if they are trapped, leaders set their people free so they can grow.

    2. Great article @SteveKeating. I totally agree with you @BurningManager. Inasmuch as we can see the disparity in their character and we can also see how an individual can exemplify same, can we also say that being a Leader does not make you qualify as a Manager?.

      1. Nope, we can’t say that because some managers are also excellent leaders. The skill sets are very different but some people do have the capacity to use both and use them well.

    3. I believe that managers need to be leaders as well. A manager who does not or cannot lead is probably more appropriately titled “Administrator.”

      1. In a perfect world managers would be leaders but the skill sets are so different that often it’s just not possible. Managing is about “stuff” leading is solely about people. We need both managers and leaders, if one person has both skill sets that’s even better.

      2. I found this post because I was Google searching the topic due to frustration with a current work situation. Being under a manager who is not leading is frustrating to say the least. This individual is very good with the stuff and all of its details. He is also very nice, but is nevertheless disinclined to provide broader goal setting and expectations, doesn’t seem clear regarding what is needed to make things work well between departments and groups, and avoids addressing things with others at his level of seniority that need to come from him, not from their junior. I’ve generally had very strong bosses in the past, totally capable of leading people and managing stuff, so that is what I’ve come to expect. I suppose having only the administration skills can work if everything you’re doing is standardized and routine. But I was brought in to help the organization expand into a new area, requiring a lot of cooperation and planning across departments and offices, and that definitely requires leadership.

  6. Fully agree. Managers & Leaders both are absolute need of any Organisation- Managers to run the show & Leaders to vision, think beyond the obvious & make the Organization extraordinary.

  7. Completely agree… Strategy, vision and innovation can help a manager transition into a leader. This is great and it caught on with every single person i shared it … Excellent article

  8. There is a misconception between leader and manager: A manager is not necessarily a leader and the opposite is also true! The top of two worlds is a manager who leads. This is what makes the difference in the day by day of a company!

  9. The truth is often in the simplicity. The message that organisations need both good managers and good leaders really resonates — the key is noting there is difference in purpose and style. So often this is lost as good managers assume they are good leaders, and vice versa. Great if someone can navigate both, but a lost opportunity if it’s not true in practice.

    1. I agree, it’s great when an individual has the skills to do both but assuming that because they can do one they can do the other is a huge mistake. It’s one too many organizations make.

  10. Steve, I would positively state that you’ve put a new batch on an old cloth! The manager-leader issue is an old debate but you’ve put new insights into this debate. From experience and empirical observations, I absolutely agree with your arguments here.

  11. Interesting piece! The point is clear: both managers and leaders are essential in any successful organization.

    The challenge is knowing where a manger’s role stops and the leader’s role begins. I believe leaders and managers are everywhere. You could have a leader by disposition who by position is subordinate to a manager and vice versa. When both appreciate their different roles and recognize that they are complementary you have a harmonious relationship that translates to effectiveness and productivity in the workplace with significant impact on the bottom line.

    Unfortunately such are exceptional ocurences in real cases! I have seen promising leaders whose careers have been ruined through performance assessments by their managers who feel threatened by their subordinate’s capabilities, or are outright upset by their zeal and energy. I have also seen potential leaders kill opportunities to excell and provide meaningful contributions to major organizational solutions because of ego and misplaced priorities.

    Common mistake is to dump this into the ‘managing office relationship’ box. I doubt that is where to find the solution to this kind of issue. Maybe this is a home call to our HR gurus to rejig their performance systems.

    1. That’s a great idea to get HR thinking about the difference between managing and leading and teach both, separately at times and together at other times. Too many people still believe managing and leading are one in the same.

  12. An article that sparks a thought, thank you! I think what you describe as manager is more micro-manager, person looking too much on the details. I believe that there are also managers with bigger over view, however, the difference for me is in having a vision and managing to engage people to perform towards it. Because many times we see managers that just care about the KPIs for this month, week, day, but do not create a long-term vision and empower people to strive for that. On the other hand I saw many leaders that can inspire and build castles out of clouds but do not establish day-to-day direction, goals and KPIs. I believe both can be built in the people and naturally we might be better or worse in one but with the right experiences and coaching a balance can be reached.

  13. Yes indeed & the real challenge HR today has to build, inculcate & also instituanalize processes which will develop more & more people into good managers as well as well as good leaders.

  14. i personally thin k that this is a bit theoretical article. in real life scenarios, the leaders and managers are not differentiated by the management. Often the roles of leadership are given to managers and it is expected that they manage the people. Organisations realize only after some time that they created misfits. Eventually we see that many organisations who have a great potential to grow, actually don’t grow but struggle to stay at the same place.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I would say however that business failures are not theoretical when managers are placed in leadership positions, they are very real. While it’s true that the business may never identify the cause of their failure its failure nonetheless.

      Sometimes a good manager can also be a good leader but that seldom happens by accident. The individual is aware of the difference and at times manages intentionally and at other times leads intentionally.

  15. It is now abundantly clear that thinking and acting leadership is the sure way to go. Managers need to wake up from their transitional situation that most had been trapped in and apply themselves to the new realities – Leadership.

    1. Well we will always need managers. They are the backbone of any organization. They hold the organization steady and free the leader(s) to truly lead.

      Just like a business can’t survive without leadership it also cannot survive without excellent management.

  16. Leadership is about behaviour and action, not position or role. Succesful leaders can be found at any level within an organisation and should be developed in order to help shape the future of the business.

    1. I agree! Not only can leadership be found at any level, the VAST MAJORITY of leadership is found in the middle of an organization not at the top. Leadership development should not be an event, it should be a process that never stops.

  17. Well written Steve. A good leader and a manager compliment each other. A leader will fail without a manager to execute a plan and a manager will become an accountant without a master plan from a leader.

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