When we talk about organizational structures, the words “manager” and “leader” tend to be used interchangeably.  However, these two roles are actually quite distinct – and both are necessary for a business to grow.

Take a second to think about Apple during the Steve Jobs era…  There’s no doubt that Jobs’ big ideas played a tremendous role in the company’s success, but he can’t take all the credit for Apple’s industry dominance.  Without managers to take his ideas and translate them into action items, the company might still be operating out of Job’s parent’s garage in Los Altos, CA.

Clearly, you need both a leader and one or more managers to keep employees engaged and work effectively.  Here are a few of the different characteristics you’ll find in these two groups of workers:

Managers direct… leaders inspire

In any small business, it’s the leader’s job to rally the troops and get them excited about the company’s mission.  If you’ve ever worked under a less-than-inspiring leader, you already know how important it is to have someone at the top of the totem pole who can motivate others into action.

But that said, inspiration without direction isn’t effective.  If you don’t have somebody translating the leader’s vision into tasks and directing the necessary resources to each project, all of those great ideas are going to wind up dead in the water.

Managers find value in rationality and control… leaders tend to be non-conforming risk-takers

It might be a gross overgeneralization, but I think there’s some truth to the popular perception of leaders as “wild card” mavericks who think big and take major risks.  You simply don’t get the kinds of great ideas that make companies successful without somebody at the top thinking outside of the box.

Managers, on the other hand, can’t be quite so non-conforming.  At the end of the day, the best managers tend to have work styles more rooted in rationality and control.  It’s not that these traits are less desirable than the leader’s risk-taking style – it’s just that this type of balance is necessary for a company to make any kind of progress.

Managers think about the bottom-line… leaders think about the big picture

While leaders, by necessity, focus on big picture objectives, it’s the managers who must worry about how these sometimes-grandiose visions will affect the company’s bottom line.

I’m not trying to make managers sound like Debbie Downers (even though leaders may sometimes get frustrated with what they perceive as a manager’s negative attitude).  Smart leaders know that not every idea is feasible.  That’s why it’s so important that they match themselves with good managers who know when to put their feet down and when to encourage their leaders to move forward in a financially-savvy way.

Managers focus on projects and tasks… leaders worry about long-range planning and overarching objectives

To a leader, there’s almost nothing worse than getting bogged down in the minutiae of task assignment and project management.  But fortunately, if these leaders have good managers on their teams, they shouldn’t have to worry about this!

At Single Grain, I have a few key managers that have been with me for years that I can trust to carry out the ideas I come up with.  Instead of wasting my time assigning individual tasks to our other employees, I can give them an idea of what I want and leave the details to them – freeing up my time to work on bigger picture projects that’ll have a major impact on our overall revenue.

Managers address goals based on necessity… leaders shape ideas before they become goals

We all know that business goals are supposed to be “SMART” – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.  And if you ask me, all those words sound like they apply more to managers than to leaders!

While leaders might be involved in setting goals on some level, it’s my opinion that more of their time should be spent shaping the direction of the company in order to inform the types of goals that should be created.  Once strategic objectives are determined, managers can then step in to set goals and allocate resources to them based on relative necessity.

“Managers worry about doing things right… leaders think about doing the right things”

This particular quote has been attributed to both Peter Drucker and Warren Bennis.  But regardless of who said it, there’s a lot of truth to the statement…

A leader, by necessity, has to worry about whether the company is moving in the right direction.  If you’re a leader, any time you spend making sure that your “I’s” are dotted and your “T’s” are crossed is time you aren’t spending on revenue-generating ideas.  Good managers, on the other hand, will make sure that things are done correctly, freeing up your energy for other pursuits.

bad boss

Now, based on my descriptions and the examples given above, you might think that I’m arguing that leaders are somehow inherently better than managers.  In actuality, though, the balance needed between the two is much more nuanced…

Every good leader needs effective managers to drive implementation

Obviously, I think that having a strong leader is a vital part of any startup or growing business.  But that said, leaders can’t exist in a vacuum.  If leaders aren’t paired with effective managers, they’ll either wind up wasting time on project implementation steps or see far fewer of their ideas come to fruition than would be possible otherwise.

If you see yourself as a leader, it’s critical that you find managers that you work well with and that can successfully carry out your ideas.  You need someone who understands (and supports) your vision for the company and who has the organizational skills needed to turn your ideas into action.  If you don’t have this type of person onboard yet, make finding a great manager one of your top priorities for 2014!

You can’t have multiple leaders in an organization

Well, that’s not entirely true, but adding more leadership visions into the mix requires careful planning and a steady hand to balance competing viewpoints.

In the most successful companies, there’s one leader offering an overarching vision for the business.  Other employees might be asked to contribute ideas from time to time – and these ideas might actually be implemented company-wide – but their primary focus is still on carrying out the tasks and projects assigned to them by their managers.

The more leaders you bring to the table, the greater the odds are that their visions will conflict.  Navigating these challenges can be tricky for even the best managers, so think long and hard about whether another leader will really add value to your company.

Leaders can’t manage employees that haven’t been properly trained

One final thing to consider is that it doesn’t matter how good of a leader you are or how effective your managers can be if your employees aren’t well-trained!

As a leader, you’re supposed to inspire people – but all the inspiration in the world won’t matter if your employees don’t know how to do their jobs well.  The same goes for managers.  A manager can’t handle your business for you if he or she doesn’t know your company’s products, services or systems.

So while it’s one thing to say that leaders should spend all their time on idea generation and long-range planning, it’s important to note that you can only do so once you’ve invested in appropriate employee training.  Once everybody’s on the same page, your leaders, managers and employees can all function at peak performance – helping you to kill it each and every day.

Now, it’s time to answer the question posed in the title of this article: are you leading or managing?  Think long and hard about whether your answer represents the best match for your skills, as well as what your business needs to grow.  If you aren’t covering both bases effectively, it’s time to change things up in the coming New Year!



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