Leader v manager: Who’s the boss?

18 July 2016 -


The age old question of what defines a manager compared to a leader has always been a source of debate. Here, Jo Owen thinks he has the answer…

Jo Owen

Once everyone has agreed how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, you can ask the really tough question: what is the difference between a leader and a manager?

Fortunately, my publisher has the answer: books with ‘leadership’ in the title sell more. This devalues both leadership and management.

The starting point is to define leadership.

Henry Kissinger said that “the task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been”. By this prosaic definition, there are plenty of people with leadership titles, such as CEOs, who are not leading.

They are administering a legacy they inherited.

Equally, there are plenty of people lower in organisations who are making change and leading people where they have not been. They may not have the title, but they are leading.

This means that leadership is not about your position; it is about what you do.

Unfortunately, we are now in a position where everyone is meant to be leading. In schools, teachers are often called ‘leaders of learning’. At one level this is aspirational – but it devalues the idea of leadership. Once we start calling everyone a leader, we no longer know what real leadership is.

The second problem with the cult of leadership is that it devalues management. But management is essential.

If everyone in the organisation is leading, there will be chaos; everyone would be trying to take everyone else where they have not been.

Leaders may lead the revolution, but before and after the revolution we need managers.

We massively underestimate how hard and how important good management is: the cult of the leader only makes the situation worse.

Managers live in a world where customers, the taxman and regulators want more; experienced staff leave and inexperienced staff start; employees want higher pay and promotion; competitors try to steal your lunch; suppliers let you down; and budgets and deadlines only get tighter.

This is tough, and we should celebrate those people who show that they can manage well.

Everyone can learn to lead, just as everyone can learn to manage. Many of the skills are very similar. The difference is how far leaders and managers take their skills.

Leaders push for radical change, not always ideal; managers ensure steadier improvement. Leaders and managers need to be smart (IQ), to deal with people well (EQ) and to know how to make the organisation work.

That requires political skills, or political quotient (PQ).

The skillset is becoming more demanding as we move from a relatively simple world of command and control to one of influence and commitment. In the old world, managers had to make things happen through other people; now they have to make things happen through people they do not control and may not even like.

That changes everything. Management is harder than ever. It’s time to value it properly.

Jo Owen, co-founder of Teach First, is the author of The Mindset of Success , a finalist in the 2016 CMI Management Book of the Year

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