The Vast Difference Between Managing and Leading

Leading and managing are seen as nearly identical, interchangeable words by most people. Even people who should and must know the huge difference often don’t. That’s why I write about the difference several times each year.

 

The difference between managing and leading is more, way, way, way, way more, than mere semantics. The difference in mindset between someone who attempts to manage people and someone who actually leads people is gigantic. 

 

The people who are managed feel that difference everyday. It feels as if they are a cog in the wheel, a bit player with little or no opportunity to grow into something more. You may be able to force the compliance of a managed human being but you will never earn their commitment. Only a leader can earn the commitment of an emotional being. 

 

Managing is mostly about stuff. We manage budgets, plans, inventories, buildings, etc. All the “stuff” has one thing in common, they are not emotional. 

 

Leadership is about people. It’s about people and only people. All people have something in common too; they are most certainly emotional. 

 

That’s what makes leading much more challenging than managing. 

 

Unless of course you’re trying to manage people. Now that’s a challenge! It’s a challenge because people basically refuse to be managed. They fight being managed every step of the way. Even if they don’t know why “it” doesn’t feel right they instinctively know being managed causes them some level of emotional distress. 

 

To the people who still believe that the difference between managing and leading is mostly semantics I would tell you that the vast majority of “people problems” or “personnel issues” that you experience on an ongoing basis are attributable to that belief.

 

If you think of the people you’re supposed to be leading as nothing more than human capital or an asset much like your printers or computers then you should expect them to fail you when you most need them….just like your printer or computer. 

 

Authentic Leaders understand the difference between what gets managed and who gets led. Authentic Servant Leaders understand better than anyone that people who are led commit to the leader and their vision. They understand that people who are led will outperform people who are managed every single day. 

 

People who are managed may, just may, help you maintain a stable organization. People who are led will commit to helping you grow your organization beyond your wildest dreams. People who are managed cause problems, people who are led solve them. 

 

People who are managed are cared about, people who are led are cared for and if you don’t understand the difference then you are likely having a hard time actually leading your people. 

 

Your computer, or anything else you might manage, will never know what you think of it and that’s okay because it doesn’t need to. The people you lead absolutely must know what you think of them and if you don’t tell them and back it up by showing them they will almost certainly believe you don’t think much of them at all. It’s an emotional response that Authentic Servant Leaders understand very well. 


If you have the audacity to call yourself a leader then you must, absolutely must must must, understand the clear difference between what you manage and who you lead. Without that basic understanding you will be very likely attempt the impossible task of managing people. 

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!

 

Managing People

The first thing to keep in mind when managing people is that if you’re doing it then you’re doing it wrong. You’re doing it wrong because you shouldn’t be doing it at all. People will not and can not be managed. 

You manage stuff, stuff without feelings, stuff without opinions, stuff that does not have the ability to think for itself, stuff that doesn’t have emotions. People ain’t stuff! 

With all due respect to some very smart people who say the difference between managing and leading is just semantics I’m sorry to tell them that they are seriously seriously wrong. It’s not a difference of opinion, it’s not just “how you look at it,” and it’s most certainly not merely semantics. The difference between managing and leading is as great as the difference between night and day.

Some people, very very few but some, have the aptitude to both manage and lead. Many people are placed in positions where both skill sets are required and those people struggle mightily. They struggle because the mindset of a manager is so vastly different than the mindset of a leader. 

Managers have subordinates while leaders have followers. Managers seek to control while leaders seek to influence. Managers work with solid data while leaders revel in the abstract. 

Managers use their tenacity to get the job done while leaders are using their imaginations to determine what the job should be. Managers are required to focus on today while leaders are looking ahead to tomorrow and beyond. 

A manager’s thinking typically focuses on how to get the most out of the workers they have. A leader’s thinking is typically focused on how to help their people grow, both professionally and personally. 

A manager “spends time on employees” to ensure requirements are met. A leader “invests time with people” to ensure that their people have the opportunity to excel. 

I throughly dislike the term “human capital” that is so often used by Human Resource professionals. There is nothing actually wrong with the words, it is the mindset that goes with them. The mindset is one of managing people and managing people is truly impossible. The mindset of managing people is actually the cause of most of an organization’s “people problems.”

Those two words should never be next to one another. We manage capital and we lead people. When they two words are used together the capital word “wins” and the people word is either minimized or forgotten altogether. That’s the genesis of many many personnel issues.

For those of you who still think managing and leading are one and the same I’d like you give a motivational talk to your inventory or budget right now and see how they respond. 

If that sounds crazy to you then you get my point…it really is crazy to talk to stuff but it’s no more crazy than trying to manage human beings. You can’t lead things and you can’t manage people because leading and managing are not interchangeable.

Authentic Leaders understand the difference between managing and leading and never try to substitute one for the other. Do you?

The Low Cost of High Expectations

Successful people expect more from themselves. More discipline, more effort, more planning, more teamwork, more results, more everything. They won’t settle for less. And it costs them very little.

Less successful do hope for more but most often expect to settle for less. When they expect to settle for less then less is exactly what they get. And it will cost them a ton.

As I write this I’m reminded of a story that comes from the great state of Texas. It happened years ago, when Texas was was beginning an extensive school testing program. The goal of the testing program in a nutshell was to determine if the teaching methods, and the teachers, were effective in helping the students learn. 

Towards the end of a particular school year each student was tested to determine their level of advancement from the prior school year. The results were shared with both students and their parents. 

This story involves two individual students, one a classic “A” student and the other, well the other was just kind of hanging on.  When the test results came back for these two students the educators and counselors were astonished. 

According to the test results the “A” student was way over-performing, he really had no business getting anything higher than a C. They told him that what ever he was doing he should keep doing it but they couldn’t hide their surprise at his results. The other student was found to be way under-performing, it was determined that he was capable of much higher grades if only he would make the effort. They encouraged him to try harder.

I’m sure both students and their parents were surprised by the results but in any event, the expectations for the next school year had been set. They were set by educators and counselors, both I’m sure well-meaning, whose job it was to manage students, not lead them.

Neither student disappointed, they both met the expectations set for them. The now former “A” student begin turning in “C” level work and sometimes even worse. The formerly low performing student suddenly begin doing “B” and sometimes even “A” level work. 

Expectations are an amazing motivator. 

Here’s something even more amazing… about half-way though the school year the guidance counselors discovered a mistake had been made with the test results. The test results for the previous year’s “A” student showed that he was in fact an outstanding student with the ability to quickly learn new concepts. His “A’s” should have been expected. The results also showed that the previously under-performing student was, for whatever reason, not able to internalize the curriculum and turn it into useable information. His grades accurately reflected that reality.

The only thing that had really changed for those two students were the expectations that they had for themselves. Other people “helped” them set their expectations but they had to agree to them for any real change to happen. 

The leadership lesson here is pretty straightforward. Managers may expect more from their people but leaders encourage their people expect more from themselves. 

The life lesson here is even clearer. High expectations cost virtually nothing but low expectations can cost you your success. If you want more then you need to expect more. Expect more from yourself and never allow yourself to settle for less than you’re capable of accomplishing. No one, not even you, rises to low expectations. 

Expecting less, and settling for less, results in less, of everything, and that is a fact!

 

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.