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There are a lot of great books about leadership and management. One is Tribes by Seth Godin, which is a great read for any aspiring leader. Tribes talks a lot about leaders versus managers and, as an Engineering Manager, it got me thinking about my own views on leadership and management. Every organization needs great leaders as well as great managers, but are they the same people? And what role do they play?
Given that entire books can be written on the characteristics that make leaders or managers great, I’m going to focus on a few key principles that are paramount to successful leaders, as well as key attributes of the best managers.
Leaders are the force that propel their organizations and their industries forward. They constantly come up with new ideas to solve problems, to drive change, to make the team more efficient, to improve products and to move into entirely new problem spaces. While leaders are the catalysts of change, they invariably face opposition by the status quo. Change is hard. The larger the magnitude of a change, the greater the support the leader will need to drive its adoption. How great leaders build that support is worthy of its own post, but it typically involves trust, respect and strong influence strategies.
Leaders are willing to make big bets and hard choices. They are willing to be bold to challenge the status quo. Leaders are willing to disrupt their own businesses before someone else does. They are willing to fail fast and move onwards.
Leadership opportunities come in all shapes and sizes. Even change within a small team can have a dramatic impact on productivity and success. As such, leaders can exist in all levels of an organization, from the board of directors to new grads. In fact, it’s possible to have a team entirely composed of leaders. There are so many different aspects of work, that it’s easy to imagine a world where one person takes the lead on making a task more efficient, and someone else leads an interaction with a partner team, and a third person leads the integration of a new technology. It’s quite natural to be leading one initiative while taking the lead from someone else on a different initiative. A team composed of many leaders, that fosters the best ideas that they collectively generate, will almost always outperform a team headed by a single strong leader who has a tribe of obedient followers.
So where do managers fit in? Managers often have a broad view of the team’s past and current endeavors. And with that perspective, managers can find synergies across the initiatives of multiple leaders, which can lead to even bigger wins. But great managers can have even more impact than the gains from a broad perspective.
A great manager knows the skills, expertise and ambitions of people on her team and can fit people with projects that can leverage those strengths. A great manager can amplify the leaders that work for her, inspiring them to achieve greater successes.
The biggest difference, however, is that great managers are thinking about developing their people. Leaders grow ideas; managers grow people. In the past, a manager might have said that her team works for her. In today’s workplace, the relationship is flipped: a great manager works hard for her team. A great manager is there to support, encourage, challenge and find new opportunities for her team in ways that will stretch and grow their capabilities. And the best managers will do it all while advancing the overall goals of their organization.
What are more important — great leaders or great managers? The truth is, both are fundamental to an organization. Leadership is key for driving the changes that are crucial for future successes. Management is key to building a team where each person is empowered, challenged, happy, and developing into a more effective leader.
Are an organization’s managers also leaders? In my experience, usually. But every thriving organization will also have leaders who are not managers, each who brings a unique perspective and set of innovative ideas.
Does your organization have both great leaders and great managers?