If you’re like me, every article you’ve ever read about managers vs. leaders bagged on managers while praising leaders. Not surprising, right? People hate being “managed” and nearly everyone fancies themselves as being (or becoming) a leader.
There may come a time when managers are obsolete, but for now, these are both valuable roles — they’re just different.
For a real-life example, look no further than the military. Maybe that’s not where you usually seek examples of future-proof approaches to leadership, but credit where credit is due: they’ve nailed it with the concept of “command intent”.
It’s a surprisingly simple idea. The commander (i.e., leader) describes what success will look like. With the end goal clearly defined, soldiers on down the ranks can make fast decisions in their local environment.
It’s efficient, it’s effective, and it mirrors the needs of fast-moving companies in today’s competitive landscape. Like the military, growing companies have mid-level managers who need to make mid-level decisions quickly as their teams execute against the top brass’ vision.
Is that really so horrible? No. Here’s why.
The difference between managers and leaders
Steven Covey, author of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, has an analogy for the difference between leaders and managers. Imagine you’re part of a group trekking through the jungle. A leader is your scout. They’re up in the treetops, looking to see what’s coming next and relaying that intelligence back down to the group.
Leaders prepare people for change. They leave aside nitty-gritty operational control and instead take in the big picture. How do they find the time? They empower their people to make the day-to-day decisions — that’s where command intent comes in.
Meanwhile, a manager is the person at the back of the group sharpening tools and making sure rations are appropriated correctly. They’re relaying information up to the leader, communicating what the group will need to make it across that next river.
How to be a leader (if you’re not already)
Everyone accepts that delegating tasks is the key to being an effective manager. But if you want to be an effective leader, you need to delegate authority.
Giving others the decision-making power they’d normally expect you to carry helps them stretch themselves and practice adapting to new situations. If you’ve embraced the concept of command intent, you can delegate authority and still sleep well at night, knowing your people are equipped to make the right trade-offs.
And when you have a moment to come down from the treetops and pitch in with the grunt work, do it. Sharpen a few tools. You can’t prepare people for change if you don’t have a strong sense of empathy for them and the work they do. Besides, a demonstrated willingness to get down and dirty builds trust.
If you’re going to manage, don’t just be a cat-herder
Not everybody wants to be an up-in-the-treetops leader, and that’s just as well. Project managers and operational managers can still provide value if they approach their work with the right mindset.
Even today, top talent doesn’t need a task-master telling what to do when they walk in the door each morning. Good individual contributors can understand the commander’s intent and set their course accordingly. In the near future, that kind of self-direction and self-motivation will characterize every job still being done by humans.
This should make any manager who simply acts as a task-master nervous. Very nervous. What’s needed now, and into the near future, are the kind of managers who look after the needs of their teams — be they logistical, physical, or emotional — as they work together making their leaders’ vision a reality.