When Your “Leader” is Really a Manager

I’ve written from time to time about the differences between leading and managing. Basically you lead people and you manage things. Things include budgets, processes, schedules, inventories, etc. People on the other hand actually resist being managed, they truly need leadership to prosper and thrive. 

So, what do you do when the person above you is a manager who happens to occupy a leadership position? What do you do when your boss doesn’t understand the difference between leading and managing? What do you do when your boss treats you like a thing to be managed?

Well, the first thing you do is NOT add to the problem by behaving like somebody who needs to be managed rather than led. Your role is never to point out the weaknesses of the person above you in the organization. Like it or not your role is to actually try and fill whatever “gaps” your boss may have. 

I am fully aware of how difficult that can be on many levels. It’s very tough on your ego because if you do your job well your boss may receive most of the credit. The fact that they are not a leader virtually guarantees that they won’t be sharing any of the credit with you. You must fight through that and continue to perform at the highest level possible because it’s the right thing to do. If that sounds too simplistic do the right thing anyway. Doing the right thing in difficult circumstances can be one of the hardest things you will ever have do, do the right thing anyway.

Never use the fact that the person above you in your organization is a poor leader as an excuse to be a poor leader yourself. 

I normally recommend that leaders in the middle of an organization “lead up” in their organization and try to be a positive influence on those above them in the organization. In short, be a help, not a hindrance. That can be a tremendous challenge when the person in the leadership position above you is a manager and not a leader. 

Here’s why.

Good leaders either were or still are great followers. They allowed or still allow themselves to be taught, mentored, and developed. If the person in the leadership position above you has somehow gotten there without ever really leading it’s also likely that they were not very good as a follower either. That makes it very challenging for you to be a positive influence on them. They live in a misguided world were they apparently believe they already know everything there is to know. They are not very open to outside influences.

As a leader yourself you need to understand that “challenging” does not mean impossible so “lead up” anyway. Continually try to help the person above you grow as a leader because you just never know and besides, leading up is the right thing to do.

In my first job after college I was managed by someone in a leadership position. I did not respond well. I was most certainly a hindrance and if I must say so myself I was damn good at it. But I was a crummy employee who was almost completely devoid of leadership skills. If only I knew then what I know now…

In the last 30 years of my career I’ve been blessed to never experience being “led” by a manager again. I think I’m unusual in that regard. All too often I see people whose potential is limited by a manager sitting in a position of leadership. But the fact of the matter is, successful people also lead themselves exceptionally well. If your boss isn’t a leader then lead yourself. Find a mentor to help you, but always take it upon yourself to reach your potential. 

It’s YOUR success so ultimately YOU must make it happen!


14 thoughts on “When Your “Leader” is Really a Manager

  1. I get what you’re saying from the perspective of working with managers and leaders. But a few more examples would have served well here. That said, I have gained a new perspective. Thank you👍🏼.

    1. Thanks for your reply. Here a just a couple of examples…

      Leaders understand the vital importance of providing recognition to their people. Managers generally do not. It causes people to struggle with motivation. Even the most hardened of us like to have some positive feedback from time to time, that’s just not what a manager does.

      Managers and leaders will both point out mistakes. Managers say “fix-it” and leaders say “let me show you how to “fix-it.” They make the mistake seem easy to correct.

      The mindset of managing and the mindset of leading are very different. Both are absolutely needed in all organization’s. Some people are gifted with both skill sets, most are not. It’s not really a problem if you not gifted with both, it’s a problem if you don’t understand it.

    2. Mmm. I guess the biggest shift here is understanding that “things” are managed and “people” are led. 👍🏼

      1. That’s a big shift for most new leaders. Think of it like this, if “it” has emotions then “it” must be led. Otherwise feel free to manage 😊 and for all the macho men out there, YES, you have emotions too.

  2. Brilliant as ever steve… very true, and very reflective of so many people’s careers. Great advice and well written..

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