The debate over leaders versus managers has been raging for decades — ever since Abraham Zaleznik published a Harvard Business Review article entitled “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” That article drew the line between bosses who fuss over time-management and bosses who stay focused on the big picture.
The words “leader” and “manager” strike very different tones. Leaders bring to mind inspirational qualities, the kind that can take a company public or successfully safeguard a business during tough times. But there’s something about the idea of a “manager” that brings to mind something a little more mundane — more a position than a group of specific character traits.
But in a follow-up article published in 1990, What Leaders Really Do, Harvard Business School professor John Kotter makes that case that, while management and leadership are different, they’re both extremely important. Kotter’s key point is that managers maintain stability while leaders press for change — which is exactly the kind of idea that’s hard to pin down but sounds perfect when you finally hear it articulated.
To get to the heart of the matter, Kotter uses a military analogy:
“A peacetime army can usually survive with good administration and management up and down the hierarchy, coupled with good leadership concentrated at the very top. A wartime army, however, needs competent leadership at all levels. No one yet has figured out how to manage people effectively into battle; they must be led.”
The key differences between leaders and managers
Here are some of the key differences between managers and leaders, according to Kotter:
- Managers focus on planning and budgeting, while leaders focus on setting direction
- Managers focus on organizing and staffing, while leaders focus on “aligning people” (which basically means communicating a new idea and helping them organize in a way that makes sense)
- Managers focus on controlling and problem-solving, while leaders motivate and inspire
Managers take responsibility for more of the fine-grained details, while leaders typically stick to the big picture. It’s the difference between creating a vision and executing it. But as CEO of JotForm, a business with over 140 employees and millions of users, I know how important both of these things are to both getting a company off the ground and keeping it running.
Kotter’s assertions square with what we already know about leaders and leadership. Research indicates that leaders demonstrate high levels of both integrity and emotional intelligence, that they are more entrepreneurial and charismatic — all things that can inspire a team to drive a vision forward.
What we often get wrong about leadership
But there’s a bit of a hitch: We can be terrible at assessing these qualities in potential leaders. As Oliver Burkeman writes in The Guardian,
“We habitually interpret traits such as overconfidence and self-absorption as signs of high ability, though in fact they’re negatively correlated with it.”
In other words, it’s easy to pick the wrong horse when it comes to leadership. And it makes sense that we associate great leadership with big personalities — after all, larger-than-life figures like Richard Branson and Steve Jobs dominate our impressions.
Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, author of “Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders (And How to Fix It)”, says it really comes down to our inability to discern between confidence and competence — something we have learned to conflate over time, clearly to our detriment and the detriment of companies helmed by arrogant but ineffective bosses.
People with a lot of ego understandably gravitate towards positions of authority; they believe they can do things better than anyone else. And this is consistent with other research that has found that people who score high in narcissism tend to take control of leaderless groups.
These kinds of disconnects — between perception and reality — is exactly why it’s so important for real leaders to challenge assumptions and the status quo. Because when we actually take an evidence-based look at successful leadership qualities, the picture changes significantly.
Humility and teamwork make for a powerful duo
Some experts have made the case that top leaders have almost paradoxical qualities: both modest and wilful, both shy and fearless. Jim Collins, who runs a management laboratory in Colorado, describes his conversations with successful leaders like this:
“Throughout our interviews with such executives, we were struck by the way they talked about themselves — or rather, didn’t talk about themselves. They’d go on and on about the company and the contributions of other executives, but they would instinctively deflect discussion about their own role. When pressed to talk about themselves, they’d say things like, ‘I hope I’m not sounding like a big shot,’ or ‘I don’t think I can take much credit for what happened. We were blessed with marvelous people.’”
The acknowledgment of others and the understanding that success requires a motivated team, not just one celebrity CEO, is a key ingredient of strong leadership — as is having the humility to understand that even a truly magnificent vision can only get you so far if you don’t have the right people in place to support you. As Chamarro-Premuzic says, “what it takes to get the job is not just different from, but also the reverse of, what it takes to do the job well.”
It’s that desire to stand out and prove oneself worthy of leadership — essentially, to rise above their peers — that can backfire. Kim Peters and Alex Haslam, who both teach psychology at the University of Queensland, make the case that good leaders actually have to work hard to demonstrate to those around them that their interests are very much aligned.
That’s also why some experts suggest that organizations should carefully seek out and nurture people with high potential, even well below the senior level, noting that, “organizations that opt to extend their development of high-potential talent below senior levels are 4.2 times more likely to outperform those that don’t on a financial composite of revenue growth, operating margin, EBITDA, and return on equity.”
This makes a lot of sense. ‘Us versus them’ in any context isn’t helpful — and certainly not when it creates disconnect within an organization.
“People will be more effective leaders when their behaviors indicate that they are one of us, because they share our values, concerns and experiences, and are doing it for us, by looking to advance the interests of the group rather than own personal interests.”
It’s exactly this kind of attitude that infuses employees with a sense of real purpose and satisfaction — the very things that can ensure high retention and productivity, and also build true camaraderie in the workplace.
The traits essential for great leadership
The Center for Creative Leadership has found that great leaders consistently possess the following traits:
- Ability to delegate
- Sense of humor
- Positive attitude
- Ability to inspire
What does this mean for you? Well, being a great leader is not just understanding the requisite qualities. It’s also about having the self-awareness to acknowledge the parts you excel at naturally and the parts that might require a little boost.