Leaders vs. Managers

January 27, 2020
William V. Anderson

During a conversation a few days ago, the topic of managing people came up. I will state unequivocally that people are not managed. We hear all the time about managing people. Maybe that is why there are so many failures in this regard. It is not possible.   

I was in a meeting with a company nine months ago when the president of “said company” went on and on how we were supposed to manage people. In a moment of good judgement, I kept my mouth shut until after the meeting. I followed him back into his office where I explained to him you cannot manage people. You can lead people, but you cannot manage people.  Let me explain… 

We can bring this down to a level most of us parents completely understand. Try as you might, you cannot manage your children. You can make them clean up their room by denying them something or giving them something, but rarely can you get them to clean their rooms simply by asking. Yes, some of you will say your kids are perfect and will do so. But not many. No, most of the time we have to convince them, somehow, that it would be best if they simply cleaned their room. How many of us have tried to set an example for them? Tried to show them your clean room, or a clean den or kitchen? That is leading them, not managing them. 

So, let’s fast forward a number of years and these kids have grown up and become part of the workforce or maybe even become inventors, business owners, teachers, writers. Yes, the kids have grown up and now they are a result of your efforts. Let’s take a look at them in the workplace.   

These same kids, who you could not get to clean up their rooms, are now working for wages. They are running businesses. Making million-dollar decisions. Hiring and firing people. I sure hope you did a good job of raising them. They are now in positions of authority, passing judgement on things that impact many other people. People just like you and me.   

Are they managing people or are they leading people?  Another way of putting it would be: are they dictators or are they setting good examples?

Let’s look at an old Chinese proverb:  “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and feed him for a lifetime.” Now we spend billions of dollars and countless hours trying to teach business people how to properly conduct business. The Chinese cover it in twenty-three simple words. Yes, admit it. You checked to see if I counted correctly. That’s ok. I will cover that in a moment.  Teaching is a very effective form of leading people.  Think back to your favorite teacher/professor. He or she stood in front of the class and lectured. I doubt your most favorite one was the type that never looked up from the notes, or in today’s world, read from the PowerPoint slides. Your favorite one was most likely the one who allowed the class to take part in the lecture. Chase down rabbit holes every now and then in order to truly discover the true content of the lesson. They did not dictate their lectures. They didn’t try to manage a group of people. Rather they lead you on a path towards discovery.  Leaders shape the world, not managers.

But let’s talk about managers. Yes, we have managers. Many leaders are managers. They have to be in order to get things done. But I said earlier, you cannot manage people. So how are good leaders managers? Good leaders have to manage projects which are run by the very people they are leading. You can and must manage projects. They have a beginning and an end. They have budgets. They have qualification points. Checkpoints. All of these must be managed in order to get the widget out the door on time and on budget. But the people working on these projects cannot be managed? No. They only react to being lead.   

People follow leaders. True leaders.  But good leaders are trusted by the people they lead.  You must first earn their trust before you can truly lead them.  A few paragraphs back, I said the Chinese used twenty-three words and then said you probably ended up counting them to make sure I was not leading you astray. Why? Because you did not trust me. Why? Because I had not yet earned your trust. It is the same with good leaders. No, we are not a bunch of soldiers who are trained to follow their commanders. That is completely and entirely different. But we are people who need to become comfortable with people who are leading us.   

Notice, I have not said blindly following leaders.  Good leaders almost demand that their decisions be tested. Only through the course of testing are their decisions honed to a sharp edge. Good leaders, or I could simply say true leaders, welcome constructive questioning. They do not welcome sabotage or other types of interference rendering their decisions faulty by inactivity. But they do welcome the type of, let’s call it influence, that can come from those being lead on a project and result in an even more efficient or worthwhile endeavor. 

We all have done both. We have tried to manage people, maybe when all else has failed. We have tried to lead people. At times, neither works, but that is short term at best. People, at all levels, want leaders in their lives. Not only in their workplace lives, but in their personal lives. We all want a spouse who can take us by the hand and lead us through a rough time (and then, of course, let us go along our merry way!) and vice versa. We all want bosses who can do the same thing. When times are tough, we want a leader as a boss who is going to guide the company through the rough waters. We want somebody who is not going to panic when meeting payroll becomes next to impossible.  We want a leader who is going to buck the board of directors because he/she knows how to produce a product when most of them are living off of trust fund accounts. We want a leader who is willing to take that chance and who we will then follow as future leaders.   

Leaders lead. Managers count widgets or parts or beans. Both are critical to the success of any company, but a leader will get the most out of a person every day.  

**A blog thought by William V. Anderson (author andCreative Director at Be Known LLC)

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